When Research Gets in the Way of Writing

As I mentioned on Monday, I’ve spent this month barreling through National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). This was my third time going through this exercise, and it’s a fun challenge for the writer: write the first draft of a new novel containing at least 50,000 words within 30 days.

Background on my experience with NaNoWriMo

Mind you, I’m a nonfiction writer by trade, and while I enjoy the creative adrenaline rush that comes with kicking out that first draft, I am somewhat less enthusiastic about editing and rewriting (which is part of why I’m an amateur fiction writer and a professional technical writer).

Still, to get 50,000 words written, I generally require at least some research on the front end. Even when I write science fiction, I usually have some specific inspirations or sources to help get my facts or descriptions correct. Ditto historical fiction. For a book set in 1969, I needed to dig through books on Apollo 10 and 11 as well as the Hippies and Woodstock, and I played a lot of the music from the era in the background as I wrote. Another NaNoWriMo entry was inspired by a bunch of reading I had done recently on the structures and systems needed to keep human beings alive on other worlds, so I put all those books cluttering up my dining room table to use writing science fiction.

Too much to read

This past year I decided to write a science fiction political thriller that included a courtroom trial and small-unit counterinsurgency combat tactics as aspects of the story. Quite frankly it was more ambitious than anything I’d written before. I knew it would require a lot of research to do properly. (I once wrote a Star Wars novel with the only “research” being consulting my memory after watching the films hundreds of times, so some projects are definitely easier than others.)

Last January (2015) I made a list of specific books I wanted to consult for my background, or “flavor” and then started reading. The problem? A lot of this source material was necessary but boring, and the books themselves rather lengthy. I kept digging. November came and went, and I decided to skip NaNoWriMo because I was “not ready.”

This year, I still had some books from that list lingering on my to-read pile, and the idea of finishing them filled me with dismay. At the rate I was going, I would never get the story started because there was always going to be “one more book” to read. Still, I had a good writer friend prodding me to live up to my potential and actually do something creative, so I said to heck with it and dove into writing despite not completing my research. As it turns out, I was able to get my first 50,003 words written without the aid of all the books in the queue.

Hey, wait! Didn’t you say you needed to research before you write?

Okay, yes, if you’re writing about a topic you’re generally unfamiliar with, it usually helps to get smart on your topic first. However, doing background reading can help you start to frame your overall “story,” whether it’s fictional or nonfictional. Getting down the basics can help you understand what’s possible and what the key points of contention are. Where are the controversies? Where are the potential trouble spots? Where can you find the “juice” to make a good story?

As it turns out, this was the best way to approach my NaNoWriMo entry this year. I had a general outline for the first 12 chapters of my story, following a format where I summarized the action in each chapter in a paragraph; then I included a one-sentence goal for my main character, added a single sentence for his motivations, described the chapter’s primary conflict, and ended the chapter with some sort of “disaster” that would impact the character’s expectations and propel the story forward to the next chapter.

In this way, my initial research drove my story, and I set up my general plot. My follow-up reading will now go into filling the blanks. As it turned out, I also ended up prodding a lawyer friend for the courtroom content and an Army buddy for information on how army (or marine) units operated in the field. Because I was on a timeline, I texted my questions to one, called another, and their inputs managed to get me across the finish line without any serious holes. I try not to do that to my subject-matter experts any more than necessary, but it happens.

Research as the backbone of good writing

The point to all this is that credible research about basic facts provides the flavor of reality that any good story needs, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. “But, but, but!” I can hear some of my English major friends (or my younger self) arguing, “I’m writing fiction here! It’s all made up!” Maybe that’s true if you’re writing fantasy, where the creatures, languages, or even the laws of physics/magic are solely the products of the author’s imagination. In that case, your “research” time could be spent setting up the “rules” of your universe and sticking to them for consistency’s sake.

If anything is possible in your universe, you can stretch the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. A reader with enough knowledge of how the world works  can be taken out of their reading experience by reading something so unbelievable that they say, “Oh come on! That could never happen!” That’s been my reaction with some of novels written by Charles Dickens, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown, for example.

You might not be writing fantasy or science fiction, but simple melodrama or comedy about real people in the real world. Fine. It still doesn’t hurt to get some facts right. For instance, in a story I wrote in high school, I had the moon and the sun on the same side of the sky with the face of the moon still visible in the sky. A basic checking of how astronomy works would have told me that if the Moon is on the same side of the Earth as the sun, then it would be in a “new moon” phase and therefore not visible unless there was an eclipse (in my particular scene, there wasn’t).

Or you might need to include a car crash or a something about trains or conveyor belts. Just because something sounds cool in a story doesn’t mean it’s physically possible. You might learn, after looking up some facts, that the cool idea you’re imagining is not, in fact, plausible. The constraints you encounter can change your idea and your scene. Nothing wrong with that. Working within constraints is part of the writer’s art.

Historical fiction writers have the biggest challenge in my opinion because they run the risk of including too much information and weighing down the story with too much research in an effort to sound believable (James Michener managed to make space exploration boring for me!). Yet, again, they have to get their facts right so that they don’t engage in obvious anachronisms, such as having a 17th century character say “like” every third word. If they are writing about actual historical events, they also have to keep in mind that people often know how those events turned out and the author can’t change the outcome.

Regardless of what you’re writing, if you’re in doubt about your facts, it’s worth taking the time to look up those so that things read correctly on the page. I once found myself playing around with trigonometry to get a bullet trajectory right. The reader won’t see the equation in the book, but I’ll know that the work was accurate within the limits of the author because I did the math. Reality forms the background for the story you’re trying to tell.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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