Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Process of Writing, Part 2: Research and Development

You've got your concept now. The idea that will let you play in the gardens of your own mind. That's just great, isn't it? A wonderful feeling. But an idea isn't enough; it's a nice beginning, but it's not going to suffice to make a book out of. Because an idea isn't enough to hang all those thousands of words on. "What if a white boy and a black slave escaped from their home and went on a journey" works just fine as an idea, but it needs context. Who are they? Where did they live, and when? Where do they go? This is where research and development come in, the first hard part of writing a book.

Ideas, you see, are easy. You can come up with a dozen in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. But you'll go through a lot of grounds and filters and cream and sugar getting those ideas sketched out.

Who are your characters? Clever or foolish, young or old, male or female, friendless or social, there are so many details to be considered that it can seem overwhelming. And where are your characters? In Chicago, or Australia, or on a plane, or in a magical kingdom? And when? Right now, or 1840, or "a long time ago", or the future? Is is winter with the snow falling, or the start of fall when the nights are just getting crisp but the days are still warm and lazy? Wow, that's a lot to think about, isn't it?

But as writers, we're all very fortunate. We don't need to know all of that. A writer can figure out much of this stuff as they go along, after doing just a little work to begin with. Your main character might be a 12 year old girl, generally good natured and a little put upon by her family, who lived in a little hamlet out in the country. It might be winter, and the exact time period might be vague: it could be the late 19th century, maybe? And then I can get started, as long as I know enough about those things that I've chosen to proceed. I don't need anything more.

Note that word, though: need. We may want to know more. In the example above, it would be good if I, as the writer, knew that it's not really the late 19th century, but instead the present day of an alternate version of our own world. It would be good for the girl to have a name, and a background, and I should know a thing or two about her family. But a lot of the detail work I can make up on the fly.

That's not to say it works that way for every writer, or for every book, even. Historical fiction will need much more research. So will a novel about sailing, or a pilot, or set in a city you've never visited. And this is where we get to research.

There are a number of ways to approach research. Some people (including me) are minimalists. It's possible to establish a veneer of accuracy and let the reader fill in the blanks. Get the basics down, and the rest will be good enough. It doesn't really matter if I know who the mayor of Savannah was in 1872, though if I'm setting the book there and then, I'd better have a decent reason if I don't use the fellow history tells us was in that office. However, if I do use him, I probably don't have to be too concerned with who he was meeting on the day of June 5th, if that's the day I want my main character to run into him. There are only so many details you need to care about. So I should find out who he was, a little about his personality and positions if I can, and that's fine. Or, as I'm really very much given to minimal research, I can just make up stuff as I need to.

But if you like a little more authenticity, you can follow a great number of options. The internet is full of material, of greater or lesser reliability, ranging from lowly Wikipedia (great if you like to play and loose with your details, bad if you want certainty) to Project Gutenberg's library of scanned documents and books, to scholarly articles and city websites and a great many other things. But I think most of us writers being book people, in the end we fall back on books. Library books, reference books, other novels, travel guides, any number of things. A tall stack of such things really establish that you are Quite Serious about this research thing, as do note cards, flow charts and the like. I am not, in fact Quite Serious, so I can't tell you much more than this: figure out what story you want to tell, and extract about 10% more information that you could ever think of using in the story. Then actually use (as opposed to thinking of using) only about half of the total. The fact that you, as the author, are aware of more than the reader means the world/setting/scenario/what have you, that you're constructing will feel more real. Every story is better when you know there's more to it than you're being shown.

There are other resources that can be brought to bear. Maps, of real or imagined places, of house and work spaces and trips taken by your characters, can be of use to you for descriptive purposes (it's good to keep the kitchen always in the same relation to the living room and the hallway). Some can even make a visit into the book, common for fantasy novels and historical fiction, but occasionally popping up just about anywhere. Family trees can be handy for multi-generational sagas, and again, for historical fiction and fantasy. Drawings of your characters and settings, if you're artistically minded (lucky duck, you!) or have a friend who's the same, can be a great tool.

So now you've got your research notes, your books to reference later, your maps, index cards, genealogies, and flow charts. You've pretty much almost got a book already. Isn't that exciting?

Except for, you know, the writing part. We haven't done that yet. But at least now, we're pretty much ready to do so. And in the next post, I'll talk about getting started on the novel: where to begin, how to begin, and perhaps more importantly, how not to.

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