You’re in peek writing flow. Steam is flying from your keyboard, words rippling onto the page. An epic film soundtrack provides the inspiration for your writing marathon. The story is forming. The Gods of creativity have struck. There is coffee. All is well with the world.
But then, you hit a wall.
You’re missing a piece of crucial information, something relevant to your plot. Maybe you’re writing a road trip romance and don’t know how many hours it takes to drive from Montana to New York in a 1960s Chevrolet. Maybe you’re writing mythology inspired fantasy and can’t remember the lineage of an important character. Maybe you’re writing historical fiction about Han dynasty China and aren’t sure what kind of saddle they used on their horses, or indeed if they used conventional saddles at all. Either way, you’ve hit a research wall.
But stop, stop, I beg of you. Before you follow the white rabbit and start drinking all sorts of questionably labelled bottles of information, let me share something I’ve learned from wandering drunk around wonderland.
Researching as a fiction writer is different form all other kinds of research because it is not the goal of your work to showcase your research, but rather the goal of the research to showcase your writing.
At this stage in my writing journey, I am by no means an expert, but I have constructed a system which works for me and provides optimal efficiency whist drafting a project. So, if this is as aspect of the process you’re struggling with, here is my system in a five-point nutshell.
1) Make a limited pre-writing research plan and stick to it
Research only what you must in order to write your first draft. For example, if you’re writing a book about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, you’ll of course need to know at least an overview of this historical era and a little about the level of technology, culture and everyday life. With this information you can begin to construct scenes.
It may be tempting at this stage to read fifty books on Tudor England, learn how to play the lute and get a PhD in Tudor politics, but is it necessary? There is no point in learning the lute if, in fact, you don’t end up including a scene with one. It would probably suffice to describe the tone and character of the court’s music. Unless your protagonist is a lute player, calm your loins. The danger of going down this initial research rabbit hole is that it actually prevents you from writing, or overwhelms you with so much information you don’t know where to begin and what to include. The heart of your novel is story, do only what you must to get to the actual plot.
2) Note down research gaps during your first draft to formulate your second draft research plan
Armed with your research foundation you can dive into your first draft. As you build your story, world and characters you will inevitably encounter gaps in your research. How did one make beeswax candles in 16 th century Italy? What medical treatment should one seek for Huntsman spider bites in the Australian Bush? How many years is an anthropology degree at Harvard? These important details require authentication but doing so whilst writing takes you out of flow and often toward the greatest thief of writing time…the internet. Unless the issue takes only a quick google search to answer, take a note of it and keep writing. Details can be fixed in your second draft and the scene you spent hours researching may get cut anyway. Take it from the woman who spent an entire afternoon trying to find out if early twentieth-century Parisian theatre foyers used electric lighting, only to delete the chapter a week later…it was painful…
3) Fact checking and authenticity
When you get to the stage where your plot and scenes are set in stone, it’s time to break out the detective magnifying glass. Now that the risk of major deletions and therefore wasting time has left the building, you can narrow in on the details to make sure your work is as factual and realistic as possible. Your fact checking will be highly individual, depending, of course, on the nature of your WIP. What’s important is that any aspects of your previous research which were grey or vague are ironed out here. The last thing you
want is a reader pointing out a factual flaw in your book which could have been easily fixed with a little extra effort.
4) Seeking the professional stamp of approval
This step requires the least amount of work from you as the writer but is often the hardest to achieve. If you’ve settled your character’s occupations, ask someone IRL who works in (or related to) that occupation to fact check your work. This is easy if, for example, your book is a contemporary thriller about a homicidal nurse who kills her patients. Nurses and patients are easy enough to find in the real world. However, even if you’re writing fantasy, asking a blacksmith to make a blade with you or taking a fencing lesson can lend an air of authenticity to your epic fantasy series. There are obvious limitations to this method. Access to professionals working in intelligence, for example, may be more challenging for the budding spy writers in our community. In such cases, autobiographies, academic texts and existing literature may help you…and a little artistic licence.
5) Letting go of surplus information
One of the most difficult balances to judge when writing is how much information to include from your research. Small details can add rich, colourful flavours to your world building but including an entire chapter on how Mary-Sue churns milk into butter in ninetieth century Poland with no plot development, just because you spent two weeks learning about it whilst living on a farm in rural Strumień, will halt your story and bore your reader.
I try to ask myself two questions:
Is it necessary to the plot?
Is it necessary to the world building?
If the answer is yes, I go with my gut and include it. If not, I file it anyway in my brain as random, useless information for a future pub quiz. And don’t forget, beta readers are there to tell you if that was quite enough rambling about butter churning. Thank you, Mary-Sue.
Good luck with your research and remember: even if you do find yourself falling down the fabled ‘research rabbit-hole’ you’re in good company; “We’re all mad here!”
Meet Rachel Zillikens
Rachel is a a Welsh-German writer of historical and contemporary fiction. She teaches English as an additional language and resides in the south of Germany with her husband, children and a cat named Gretel.
You can connect with Rachel on Instagram @rachel_zillikens_writes.