Burying Writing Beneath the Research

Research and Writing, Part 2

I spent a long time researching where to look for that headstone The cemetery name I was given didn’t exist. Eventually, as mentioned in my previous post, I found it, but only after I went out and physically looked for it.

With a story in mind, we hunt for books and websites with relevant information and we begin reading. Before we know it, the library is closing (or our families are hovering at our shoulder, begging for dinner) and we reluctantly set aside our research to resume later.

And resume it we do. There’s something about research that is addictive. There is always just one more reference to check; one more page to read; one more website to discover and devour. Anyone will tell you that you can never have too much knowledge. We know learning begins the day we’re born and doesn’t stop until the day we die. (And, who knows, there may be more to learn after death. Gabrielle hasn’t shared that tidbit yet.)

Persistence is a good trait for writers.

I draw your attention to that bold word. Here it is again: writers. As writers we need to be persistent. While getting all the facts accumulated is important, if all we do is study facts and never get around to writing the story they are meant to support, we’re not writers, we’re perpetual students.

  • Make a list of the specific information you need, and stop searching when you reach that point. One value of research is getting you in the mood… putting yourself in the authentic environment of your characters. You’ll collect far more details than you’re likely to use. Keep notes, or make a list, datebase or spreadsheet of your source material so you can return to it for specific data later if it’s needed.
  • At what point do you put aside the reference material and begin to write? Long before you think you’re ready! For some stories I’d say before you even begin the research. (I know, I know, you think that’s heresy.) Too much information can squelch creativity and bog down the story. There is a story quite apart from the details of its setting, Write it and leave sticky markers like inuksuit to help you find your way back to add researched details later during revisions. Some writers insert a”jkjk” as a marker, easily located with the wordprocessor’s search function.

If you have the luxury of making research trips to the countries of your stories, by all means go for it. (Mmm… Tuscany. Alaska. Ireland. Sigh.) Take a holiday and immerse yourself in the culture and locale. Unearth the details you need. When your holiday is over you will return to begin writing the story.

That’s essentially what the rest of us must do. Our holiday will be between the covers of travel books and language dictionaries, watching geographic videos, studying history books and innumerable websites. But like a holiday, that part of the trip must come to an end so the real work can begin.

If we aspire to be authors we must beware of becoming perpetual researchers.


How do you create a balance between your researching and writing?



Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

12 thoughts on “Burying Writing Beneath the Research

  1. I wrote first to get the story down. Later I returned to research wherever necessary. Sometimes I had to change things, integral things, after research, but still, I think I did it the best way. Changing details or even rewriting portions is better than interrupting the flow of words to research.

  2. That’s a good one! I do a LOT of research, unfortunatly having to go talk to someone (because only the police, for my story, can answer my questions and I find that difficult)…but you can’t make it up because if you get it wrong, reality can change the whole story or turn off a reader. I’ve also got an idea–yep another one 😦 and need to travel around the state to visit “ghost” towns ( not the ghosts hopefully) .
    I visited an old graveyard in Missouri, and discovered a fence between it and another area with many very old tombstones, found out it was for slaves, many with single names and just the year of death.

  3. It’s so hard, not only to stop researching but to avoid the urge to dump historical information into my fiction. I always say, historical research is like an iceberg. Only about 10% of it should show.

  4. Your pointers are excellent, and so true. Yes, begin writing before you’re finished research. Writing will create a train reaction. You’ll understand how important the backstory was to your story and you’ll get a sense of direction. Plus — writing is rejuvenating. It makes all that research worth it. Wonderful post, Carol.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m researching for a new book. I usually start writing, then come up with the research as I go, but this time I knew nothing about the topic really so I had to do some research to flesh out the idea.

  6. Like every other aspect of writing, Carol Ann, how our research is handled seems to be an individual thing. How much research I do ahead of time depends on the story. Where purebred dogs and a show or kennel environment is significant, I’m on familiar ground. But for a recent story, I needed to know police procedures before the third page.
    Earlene – Your travels sound a little spooky… ghost towns and graveyards! We have a number of mining ghost towns in BC but if you don’t count places like Barkerville and Fort Steele, the only one I’ve visited is Sandon in the Kootenays.
    Erica – You’re very wise! After all the time spent doing research it would be easy to want to use all the information. I like your iceberg principle. 🙂
    Joylene – I love your “train reaction”! I can picture the forward and backward shunting as it gets started. LOL. But I agree, research can provide the important backstory as well as details needed for forward momentum.
    Stephanie – I think you work a lot like I do. Thanks for commenting here.

  7. For my novel, the research has the added bonus of revealing details regarding my family heritage as the setting is in the area my parents grew up. I tend to put the extra research into the category of “developing a hobby” since it fits with my genealogy interests.

    My big problem is knowing when to quit researching for blog posts! I spend way too much time trying to get the best sources and information to share with readers, and sorting through what I’ve found takes more time than writing the posts. That’s one reason I’ve cut down on the number of posts I do each week. I need to find a better balance in this area.

  8. So that sent me off to research inuksuit

    I remember seeing some of those in Hawaii.

    Which makes me fantasize about walking on those beaches again.

    Which makes me want to get on the treadmill now because I don’t fit well into the dress I bought while I was in Hawaii.

    Which reminds me that I have to hurry to find a dress for my son’s wedding.

    Which reminds me that I have to go to the grocery store today.

    And while I’m out I need to get some more index cards for my research . . .

  9. I read some good advice from Tricia Goyer. She suggested getting your story outlined first, and then research only where you need to. That way you won’t get too bogged down with the research. I’m trying to do that with my current work Sofi’s Bridge, but I have to admit that with Shadowed in Silk, the research took about a year or more.

  10. Carol, you said it well. Persistence does have its pros and cons. Research can be addictive. Very. One thing that I have learned to do is save it for later. When I come across something interesting I bookmark it, save it in my Google Books library, or cut and paste the content in a Word Doc to read later or stick the link in their with a little note to self. That way it frees me from the distraction of getting lost in my research and can focus on what I really need to find out that is relevant to my current project.

  11. “How do you create a balance between your researching and writing?”

    Good question – of course I work hard at finding balance – period. Not easy.

    Now I’m no expert & keep changing things in the fly to see what works best, but I always have a storyline in mind before starting the research. The research itself can lead to abandoning an idea. What started out as a ‘hot topic’ might turn lukewarm. I create a WORD Doc file & copy & paste pictures & articles related to my topic – then highlight (on screen) the “good stuff” with different colors based on my perception of importance or enterainment value. When the real work gets moving, it’s easier to sort through it, even though much of the research might be ignored, at least if the “facts” don’t help the story. I also like to do as much ‘in person’ discovery as possible. Since I mix history with my YA fiction, & granted, I take liberties, it’s important to get the important parts right. And then there’s deciding what’s important to the story (I’m being redundant). In my latest fling, a seaplane is used, & I spent quite a bit of time learning “how to fly” a seaplane. (I have connections.) In the end, decided the description of the how to would be dull & cumbersome to describe, especially for kids, so … well, the seaplane is still in, but there’s a twist to the whole enchilada. You’ll just hafta trust me on that.

    Right now I’m into Aztecs, caving, & base jumping. Tame stuff.

  12. Carol B – Genealogy is its own form of research, and it’s great if your novel’s needs have a spinoff effect in that area. Researching for blog posts isn’t something I do. I don’t feel I have a lot of writing expertise to share yet and there’s reams of information already available online, so I focus my posts on topics I can address without too much extra work.

    Hey, Sandra, is there some ADHD in your background? LOL!

    Christine – That sounds like good advice. It would eliminate the temptation to get hung up on endless research. A whole year of research is longer than some would spend writing a book.

    Carla and Dave – I love hearing about your methods. They’re very individualized and it’s nice to see how Dave’s works for his genre.

    Thanks for all the great input, everyone!

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