Research or Runaway Train?

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Book research can be like a runaway train you just can't stop. If you're anything like me, you feel driven to get every detail correct because:

  1. You don't want to break the magical spell you weave by creating another time and place because a
    reader is stuck on one tiny misplaced slang word or fact that doesn't belong.
  2. You don't want to receive a letter that begins "I liked your book in the beginning but then you got X all wrong..."
  3. Honestly, research can be a great way to fill time when you hit a roadblock in your actual writing. After all, there's always another book, documentary or website you can study to make sure you're getting everything just right.
It's that last one that can cause you trouble. So how do you stop yourself from becoming an expert in X (in my case World War II) and actually write a novel? After doing extensive research before beginning my novel, I found myself drifting back into research mode every time the writing got tough. 

So I began treating research questions like grammar questions. I simply began underlining things I had questions about to look into after the first draft was finished. They weren't details that the plot hinged on (I had already done that research) -- it was things like hairdos, the cost of a movie ticket, the decorations people put on their Christmas trees. So I wrote the first draft with plenty of XXXs to fill in later and kept the research train on the tracks.

One type of research I do recommend during the writing process is what I like to call "experience research". Since my novel takes place during World War II one of the main modes of transportation was trains. I'm more of a car gal. So how could I effectively write a train scene? Well, I got a few books featuring dozens of photos of World War II trains, routes and timetables. I was all set, right? Until a World War II era train came to my town. My family went to see it -- a ten minute excursion --and it breathed new life into my train scenes. The steam billowing up, the piercing whistle, the smells. You can't effectively portray those without experiencing them. I also did "experience research" by attending a WWII concert, complete with dancing from the era, an air show that included re-enactors and a coffee chat with a few veterans. Along with making my writing more realistic, they also gave me time when I could escape the draw of my computer, if only for an afternoon, and spend time with my family.

So, do you find yourself having to keep your research from becoming a runaway train?


Anonymous said...

Jodi, like this discussion on the complex nature of research. Your approach to note ongoing questions & small details along the way is a practical one, for sure.
The idea of "experiential research", when possible, would bring an authentic sense the writing based on a certain time.
Will keep in mind as I return to WIP! :)

Margo Dill said...

Jodi: I love your idea. And also the experiential research because that's just plain fun, too. :) I think at the beginning you have to immerse yourself enough to have a good grasp of the world you are writing, so you don't have to stop every day to research or put too many XXXs. But I think giving yourself a time limit is also good, like I will research for 3 months. Then I will write. If I have too many XXXs, I'll research another month. One thing I had trouble with when I wrote my historical fiction middle grade was trying to put all the facts in I learned and forgetting about the story and characters. OOPS! But luckily, someone set me straight early on and I went back to the drawing board.

Elizabeth McBride said...

Oh my, it is helpful to find that others struggle with the research bug too! I find that one question leads to another and that I then find even more to question about things I hadn't questioned before! I've gone with the practice of underlining things I'm coming back to check/correct and that helps for the novel-in-progress, but in smaller/shorter pieces or collections, I'm just really trying to hold myself to a definition of what will be a sufficient amount of information for the piece, rather than full-scale background when it is not necessary. Perfectionism can be dangerous to your writing!

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