Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Deciding What and When to Research

You may remember a post I did awhile back on the importance of research (or not, in which case click the link to read it). To sum up, I said the main reason research was important for a novelist is because it helps fill in the gaps in your personal knowledge when you're writing your story. And believe me, there will be gaps. I'm not saying authors aren't brilliantly smart people, but no one knows everything about everything.

How though do you decide what you need to research? And when do you take care of this?

The second question is actually the easiest one to answer. When you research depends on the type of novelist you are: a panster or a plotter. Many plotters I know do all their research before they write a single word. Harry Harrison, author of Tunnel Through the Deeps, once said he spent 5 years doing part-time research before he wrote a single word of that story. Now, that might seem extreme to you but Harrison crafted a vibrant alternate universe extrapolating out all sorts of different aspects of the world of his story. By contrast, many pantsers will either make something up to fill the void until they research it, or type notes to themselves in the text that amount to ((Research 17th C. women's clothing)) or something similar.

What you research is a bit more detailed of an answer. Only a bit more though, because I can similarly sum up my point in one sentence -- research only those items necessary to your story. If your tale is set in France during the 1600s, then you might need to research the clothing, the language, and some of the society (in among a bunch of other things as well). This is also assuming you're not a PhD who's spent 20 years teaching the history of 17th Century France. If you do happen to be a PhD who's spent 20 years studying the topic that will make up the lion's share of background research on your novel, then congratulations! I can't help you.

If, however, you're like me and don't have a degree in Mechanical Engineering when you're writing a character who happens to have detailed knowledge of steam engines and the inner workings of mechanical apparatuses, well then you've put yourself in a bit of a pickle. But only a little bit, because I can almost guarantee your reader isn't going to want a detailed treatise on the inner workings of every mechanical marvel that exists in your novel. So while your character might know a 3/4-inch pickney flange from a 35mm socket head screwdriver, you don't need to write that little piece of information into your story unless it's integral to the plot.

That little emphasized phrase right there is what's important. If the piece of information is integral to the plot, then research the heck out of it. If, however, is a detail that you can cut and no one notices? Well then don't bother. Assume your story is set in the American Southwest during the latter decades of the 1800s. Now, you've gone into detail about setting, clothing, style of weapon being worn, etc ... all details that you need.

However, you happen to neglect mentioning any of the music that the people of your fictional world played in taverns, at parties, and so on -- and the reason you neglect this is because it's not germane to your story. This means that there's no reason for you to research an entire aspect of society in the American Southwest because it's not something you're going to need to know for your story.

That's my main point with your decision about what to research. If you knowing it gives your story a deeper subtext, or it's integral to the motion of your plot, or including the detail deepens some aspect of your story then by all means research to your heart's content. If, however, it's something that doesn't really do anything for your story then feel free to ignore it.

That's just my opinion though. What do you think?

NOTE: My Ten-Word Novel Contest ends tonight at midnight U.S. Eastern Time. Get those entries in, folks!


L. T. Host said...

Awesome post! I agree wholeheartedly. There are things I need to research to fill gaps for my own sake that never see the light in a manuscript. But they are there in the background, and I know they hold up what IS in there.

Unknown said...

In researching for my first actual period piece I had trouble knowing what was going to be important to my plot. Some of the research actually stimulated a lot of ideas on where to go with the story and so I wanted to research EVERYTHING so I didn't miss out on any ideas but eventually I have to get started on drafting so that's not really a posibility. So yes. Knowing when to stop researching. (or when to start) Very important.

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

I remember someone saying that 100 pages of research equals 1 page of manuscript or something similar -- I think Laura Martone made that comment on an older post of mine. But yes, if it's not background info or directly related to your story then there's no real reason to research it.

Taryn --

Research paralysis is an entirely different animal. In that case, I try to think through the major things I need to know for my plot. Example: I have an idea for a story set in 1880s Montana. The things I know I'll need to research include clothing, language, scenery (both manmade and natural), and transport.

Now, if I find something relating to those areas that's interesting I'll read over it and see if I need to know it. But say I don't have a scene with music, as in my post example. Well then I don't need to know anything about the music.

I get your point though about not wanting to miss out on any ideas. Research will almost always add new and fascinating things to your story.

dolorah said...

Hmm, that actually helps me for the fantasy novel I'm supposed to be researching. I'm focusing on setting for now - using mideval Ireland as a backdrop, and centering it around a specific legend of the Dannanni (god, its been so long since I opened the novel I don't remember how to spell the terms.)

I've also picked up several fantasy game books with descriptions of characters to give me a feel for the mages and such I need.

It doesn't seem like so much to write it like this, but while I'm in the books or on the sites it feels so daunting. I'm usually a pantster, so maybe that's where the overwhelming feeling comes from. I'm trying to get a clear picture of all the characters and the quest itself (plot) before writing it, but those things usually develop over the course of a writing.

I don't know how you manage it all Matt. I appreciate these posts though, it helps me not feel the task is too great :)