When to Research and Why?

People hear “research” and their eyes glass over.  No doubt, the problem lies in how the word was used in our high school classrooms.  Flashes of lame topics and MLA formatting still wake me some nights.  Fortunately, the Internet has made information much more accessible and focused. There is a need to be wary regarding the quality of sources online, but that will be covered in a different post.

This post isn’t about how to research.  It is about when and why.

WHY RESEARCH?

People need to trust that the story they’re reading makes sense.   This doesn’t mean that the story needs to be a narrative thesis paper.  Stories do have to be internally consistent and meet logical expectations.  Historical fantasies need to be at least modestly historically accurate and science fiction has to follow and expand upon modern cutting edge theory. These expectations have to be met and readers will disconnect if you do not make the effort.

WHEN TO RESEARCH?

The simple answer to this question is: Research when you don’t know something.   Writers who don’t research are often torn to pieces by critical readers who do.

Even when writing fiction, it is impossible to ignore basic facts that surround a situation.  How many guns does a brig have?  What is the bilge of a three-masted ship?  What year did Blackbeard raid Charles Town?  These questions haunted me when I wrote my first book and their answers were required knowledge for the plot I crafted.

The times in which you don’t have to research are when they deal with locations, character types, and events that are completely self-generated.  If your books are composed of made-up histories and laws of existence, then the burden is on you to make sure that the world makes sense.  This is part of the need to remain internally consistent.   Even though you don’t have to look up any information, the rules you set for your world are a promise to the reader that you won’t cheat your way out of a problem.  

Stronger Story Openings in Under Thirty Seconds

Your opening is an introduction to who you are as a writer. The first 100 words are precious real estate that set the tone for the rest of the story. Reader engagement is critical and here is the quickest pathway to achieve that goal.

RIGHT FROM THE START

Story beginnings have to accomplish several goals. When in doubt, remember that information is far more important to the audience than action. Readers need to know a character’s sex, age, occupation, handicaps, and reason for being this story’s protagonist. Setting is needed for the sake of orienting a reader to the surroundings and time period. There also should be a suggestion of what the overall problem is in the story. All of these things don’t need to be explained fully, but there should be a sense of understanding.

SENSORY IMAGERY

Readers want to feel swept away into a story and this is one of the simplest ways to do it. I am a visual person and force myself to use auditory, tactile, and olfactory details. Use as many of the senses as are fitting to the scene.

BE DIRECT

Strong nouns and verbs are better than a dozen adjectives and adverbs. This is a standing piece of advice, but it is even more important when working within the first 100 words. A “construction worker” brings more of an image to mind than a “man” does. When that worker steps into a kitchen, a far clearer picture is made than when a man walks into a room.

Readers don’t always judge a book by its cover, but most will judge a story by its first 100 words.

When to dump your draft and when to fix it.

Revision is a key step in writing and one that I have come to enjoy.  It wasn’t always that way.  I viewed any time I spend revising as time I wasn’t creating.  That is obviously not the case and it took me some time to get over that, but there is one part of revision that will always sting.  When you find a section that isn’t your best work, how do you know when to dump it and when to fix it?

DON’T DOUBLE DOWN

Once you realize that what you have in front of you isn’t any good, stop and assess whether it is worth continuing.  Many writers try to save a dying draft because of the time and energy they put into a piece.  Just because you are emotionally invested in your written words doesn’t mean they are readable. Know when to cut and run.

SOFTEN THE BLOW

Instead of highlighting 30,000 words and hitting the “delete” key, create a “dump” folder.  It is entirely possible for you to go back into this folder later and retrieve key pieces of information or plot, but the odds are that you won’t.  In my heap, I label and sort paragraphs, scenes, and whole chapters.  Some sections are totally useless and idle nonsense.  Other sections are about characters and settings that I find fascinating but would bore anyone else.  The book should be the story, not the history.

In the end, revision is critical when creating a story.  Not everyone has the strength to let go of weeks or months of work, but it is necessary at times. When you’re famous and long dead, your children can publish your Silmarillion.  Until then, please keep it to yourself.

How Important is Theme?

Is theme important or are we just looking to be entertained?

There are two philosophies about reading and writing when it comes to theme.  Some feel that the point of reading is to be entertained.  Others believe the purpose of writing is to move the reader and, if there is no theme to a story, then it is a waste of time.  

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

There is something to be said for the writer whose only wish is to entertain.   A good time can be found anywhere.  Movies, television, and Internet memes are all over our devices.  People will buy any type of crime, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, thriller, horror, and romance series you can come up with, so why not cash in?  It isn’t noise, it’s a living.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THEME

Theme is the controlling idea behind a story.  It is more than simply the main idea or the lesson to be learned, theme is the part of a story that makes you feel or moves you emotionally.  The consideration of theme is what separates fiction from literature.  

A QUESTION OF AUDIENCE

The main point I would like to raise in this discussion is about who the reader is for a particular work.  Deciding that is the first step any writer needs to make before putting a single word on paper (or processor). Since the weight of theme is based on preference, an educated reader should know the type of book they pick up before they read it and a savvy writer should figure out if their reader is interested in Mario Puzo or Michael Bay.  

Two Quick Points about Setting

Writing allows you to be in two places at the same time. While I’m sitting in a library in New Jersey, I’m also on the quarter deck of a brig in the Caribbean Sea. With that said, reading allows for the same thing, as long as the writer does his or her job.  The hard part is getting the reader to join you where you want them.  These are two quick points about setting.

PIECING IT TOGETHER

The settings we create come from fragments of what we know.  The gnarled and knotted trees from the woods behind the house in which you grew up now find themselves bordering a clearing in a dark forest of a far away land.  These trees give your characters the same foreboding that you felt when you were seven.  At the same time, the lush and well lit path from your walk in the mountains of Vermont last week seems like your characters’ best chance to escape this forest with their lives. These two pieces of your woodland experience didn’t share a field of view except in the world that you created.

PEOPLE HAVE NO PATIENCE

The days when a writer could go on for pages about the majesty of a mountain are long gone.  People simply do not have the patience for it.  The difference in modern fiction is that the details now need to be artfully dropped into the action.  Even the most beautiful field sits idly until acted upon by characters.

My philosophy on setting is an adaptation of the question: If a tree falls in woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  It may make a sound, but no one cares.

For more on setting, check out my previous posts on World Building and Setting vs. Setting the Scene.