Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Research: If, When, How? July 18, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:07 AM
Tags: , , ,

Yesterday I was watching the news when a brief clip about urban vehicle auctions came up. It turns out that the government doesn’t really want unclaimed, stolen, abandoned, or seized cars. Instead, they auction them off, sometimes at extremely low prices. Many independent buyers and dealership owners frequent these auctions looking for a good deal. The car you get could come from anywhere, be owned by anyone.

It’s probably a testament to my writer’s (and slightly crazy) mind that my thought process immediately flowed this way:

Someone could get a car that was used in something illegal. Or owned by someone illegal. What if they were some spy hunted by a gang? Or someone on a mobster’s hit list? What if the people going after them recognized the car and came after the new owner?

Whoops. Plot idea.

Most stories – whether fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, romance, or whatever – need some element of research. It might be simply understanding how urban vehicle auctions work. Or it might be working out the subtleties of an entire counterpart culture. No matter what, I usually need to pull up Wikipedia (don’t tell my teachers) at least once while writing a rough draft. That brings me to the point of this post. When is the best time to do research?

Chris Baty’s guide to NaNo – No Plot? No Problem! – suggests leaving a space to come back and fill in later. That’s all very well if you’re rushing to the end of the month and 50,000 words. Otherwise, you’ll probably not want to leave important facts hanging. The answers to simple questions like “What do Frenchmen eat for breakfast?” might become vital plot points.

When not NaNoing, there are three major schools of thought on research. The first write until they reach a point where they need to know something. Then they stop and look it up before continuing on their merry way.

The second group researches intensely beforehand, finding out everything they can. Then they plug the information in as they need it.

The third group mixes these two ideas together. They research broad ideas and important facts beforehand, but discover new areas that need study later. I tend to operate this way. If I’m working on a counterpart culture for a fantasy novel – building the customs and geography of an entire country – I’ll do heavy research beforehand. I spend most of my research time working on world-building. Other minor details – how many stories in the average skyscraper, how vaccines are made, etc – come up and are resolved while I’m writing.

How many stories? Let’s get counting.

What about you? Which type of research works the best? Are there ways you think are more or less efficient?


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