If I make everything up, I won’t have to do any research, so thought my teenaged writer self. Equal parts lazy and equal parts fearful of being inaccurate (i.e., stupid), I wanted to avoid doing research for my writing as much as possible. Creativity and imagination should be enough for spec-fic, right?
Of course I’ve learned over the years that even imaginary people, places, and things have some basis in reality, and those very real foundations require research. Sometimes the imaginative requires more research than the real in order to be grounded and believable. My teenaged self would be groaning from all the homework my writing gives me.
What I haven’t learned or figured out yet, though, is when to do that research. The first draft seems like a good time in general because the story is malleable. In the first draft I am discovering what the story is, how it’s getting to its conclusion, and who is taking it there. All its parts are moving and experimental; the story is easy to change if my research reveals it necessary to do so.
The question with the first draft is…
Before, During, or After?
Do I research most everything I need before writing? Use the planning and outlining stage to pinpoint what I need to know and then resolve it all before I write? The catch with this approach is that I need a solid and detailed outline for my story to begin with—and that rarely happens. Also, conducting copious amounts of research before I start writing will likely kill my desire to write. It will be homework.
Do I instead research as I go because I don’t know what I need to know until I’m writing? I had been following this method, and I have to say that it’s very dangerous. Every time I come against some detail or fact I don’t know, I stop writing to go hunting on the internet. Which is a huge mistake for two reasons: one, I interrupt my own flow and lose the momentum I had writing; and two, I can easily get lost in the internet and end up distracted by irrelevant tangents.
Or do I research after my first draft, putting in placeholders for things while I’m writing to then look into later? This method is probably the friendliest to my writing, insofar that I can write Insert spontaneous toaster combustion science here and then carry on with the story with no time lost. This approach, however, could have the same problem as the first one: a pile of research to do, only in this case between the first and second drafts.
A larger issue with timing and planning research is, well, researching larger issues—things that are central to the story or that will appear numerous times throughout. If one of my characters is a wheat farmer, for example, I need to have a good understanding of wheat farming before I write this character. Otherwise, a majority of scenes with and about this character will be fill in the blank.
Some research beforehand is inevitable, then, but the question again is, how much? How much of wheat farming do I need to understand before I work on my first draft? How much do I want to research first? How do I know what I need to know about wheat farming before I begin writing?
Fill in the Blanks
For the novel I’m working on now, I’m taking a fill-in-the-blank approach because I got blocked at the planning stage. I could not outline where the story is going, so to push through my frustrations, I started writing. Now as I’m writing, I’m discovering things that I need to research. However, because my writing momentum has been rather precarious with this story and I don’t want to interrupt and lose my flow, I’ve been putting in fill-in-the-blank notes as I go.
So far, it’s been working. I haven’t encountered crucial points that I need to research, so my story can carry on unharmed without the details of wheat farming. I’ve even used the Insert [thing] here method when I get stuck on story details, such as a made-up name for something or a character’s witty reply.
Keep writing! has been my mantra for this story, and I won’t let details like facts or believability get in the way of my first draft. I can clean it up later.
What is your approach to writing research? Do you research before, during, or after your first draft, or do you follow a combination of the three approaches? What works best for you?