Lots of folks love books swimming in research soup, full of rich details, specifics, and trivia. Some hate it, wanting it all to be about character or another angle on story. I’ve been thinking about this as I spend time researching for my next book. In the past six I’ve written, I’ve thankfully already been well versed in much of the subject matter, or the joy was invention for a fantasy world. But since the next novel is both a historical period and a kind of character that I’m unfamiliar, I must do more research than normal. Thankfully, I dig research. Fifteen years in the academy towers did not drive away my love for fax arcana and trivial pursuits.
Research usually inspires as well as fills in blanks, so it can start to grow the story. And that can be great. It will help make your work resonate with the material, but also more “you” because what sticks out to you will not be the same as what sticks out to others. But when do you say, “enough is enough” and avoid the seductive tendency of buying/borrowing one more damn research book?
In an interview I did with Jeffrey Ford, he had this to say about research:
Research is invention for me. The two are so intertwined. I might find a little tidbit about some historical time period I’m working in and that will take my imagination in some new direction or add something to the story and characters I’m envisioning in my mind. Research is part of pretty much everything I write to a greater or lesser degree. Research can get out of hand when I’m working on a novel — then sometimes I feel like there is always still one more little bit of information out there that I don’t know about yet but that I’m sure will make all the difference. When I get to that point, I know it’s time to put the books away and start writing. So a little research goes such a long way, especially when doing an historical piece. The stuff I dig up and never actually use all becomes part of the background knowledge in a way.
In re-reading this, I remember getting a different point thrown at me from Neil Gaiman. In an interview for the book WRITERS ON COMIC SCRIPTWRITING, Gaiman was asked if he was incredibly well read and how important was research to his work on Sandman. His answer?
There are areas where you know your shit and there are areas where you fake it. The art of writing is the same as the art of convincing a teacher that you really did do your homework or you studied something that you didn’t. It’s the art of lying convincingly and it’s amazing how much you can learn from a little. Having said that, it’s also huge quantities of stuff one knows. If you are a writer, you tend to have a sort of magpie head. You store away all sorts of weird and wonderful trivia, which pops out when you need it. (from Writers on Comic Scriptwriting, 100)
He ends his thought with this consideration
I also think that if you’re writing magic, anything that sounds right is right, or it may as well be. In fact, I figure that on the whole you’re better making up convincingly than going out and researching it, because I always find the real magic that you research is always so unconvincing. (from Writers on Comic Scriptwriting, 100)
I’m having a blast with my current research, and it is leading to more research. My rough goal is to do a Ford-Gaiman Spinning Moonsault Combo: Cram my magpie head with as much of the material as I can, making notes of cool shit to use later, and when I get to the point where doubt shakes its figure at reading another book about crime slang in California during the gold rush, I’ll get back to pounding the keys. ETA: 1 Month. So, get ready for dollops of trivia before I start firing two barrels of more daily writing junk!