By Rachel Kaufman
Research is an essential part of a writer's toolkit. In this issue you'll
read about how to do it, where to do it, why to do it. In this
article you'll read about when not to do it.
Research is better at sucking your writing time down the drain faster than,
well, something that sucks writing time down the drain really fast. I've
lost count of the number of times I've opened a book or fired up Google to
look up "just one little thing," and, three hours later, have returned to
my writing with plenty of interesting but useless knowledge*,
but no memory of where my plot was going next. This is, obviously, bad.
I've learned from a few of these accidents is this. If it's not crucial,
it can wait. Time to kill off your inner fact-checker, who is the second
cousin to your inner editor. If you haven't banished your personal inner
editor yet, they work in tandem, and if you have managed to slay the
editor, the fact-checker is going solo and wants foul, bloody revenge. "What
if that's not the right word? Are you sure that's a hoe your farmer is using
and not a rake? How can you possibly plan to have your hero ride horseback
to the castle if you've never been on a horse in your life? And that romance
novel you were thinking of writing? Forget about it. You wanted to set it in
San Francisco, and you've only been there once, ten years ago. Stop what
you're doing--right now! Not another word! Look all this up. Make sure you
get everything correct or your angry readers will let you know."
Tell that fact-checker to stop nagging, and reclaim your writing time with
two simple steps.
Ask yourself: Is it crucial? Is it specific to the plot,
characterization, or setting of your story, or is it just a fact that gets a
one-line mention and is never heard from again? Is it something you need to
describe in detail or use more than once? If not, proceed to Step Two.
Repeat these words, as often as it takes: "It's only the first draft." If
it's not crucial, it can be left blank to be fixed in the next draft. Think
about all the plot twists that won't be brought to a standstill because you
didn't have to stop and look up a meaningless fact!
Before you read any further, let me reiterate that I'm not advocating a
writer ignore the importance of research. You have to know your world as
well as you know your characters. Better, maybe. People are unpredictable,
so characters are allowed to act inconsistently. Worlds aren't. If your hero
wields a sword, you'd better know as much as possible about swords. What
metals are they made of? (Iron.) How much do they weigh? (Medieval
one-handed swords weighed typically between two and a half to four pounds.)
How do you hold them? What moves can your character perform with the sword?
You get the idea. If your heroine is a hermit in the woods and you don't
know a porcupine from a pinecone, you'd better do some reading on typical
flora and fauna in the kind of climate in which you've set your story. And
if you do make a crucial mistake, your readers will let you
secret is as long as you let yourself know you might be making a
mistake, you can feel free to make as many of them as you want, with the
promise to fix them later.
you're happily plugging away at a historical romance, when all of a sudden a
minor character, who up until now you've been referring to as "the elderly
servant," jumps in your face and grabs a couple witty lines, a backstory,
and a role as your heroine's mentor and protector. He suddenly needs a name.
Your first instinct would be to hit up your favorite research books or
websites and look up historically accurate servant's names for that time
period, right? But you've got some great lines you still want this guy to
say, and a great idea for a new scene now that this character is more
prominent, and you're worried if you don't get it all down right away,
you'll lose it.
Leave his name blank. Continue to call him "the elderly servant" or make up
a weird punctuation cocktail of brackets, asterisks, italics, whatever you
need to do to convey to yourself the concept [Insert Name Here] until you've
gotten down everything you need to, including your wordcount quota for the
day (if you do things like that). After that you and your inner fact-checker
can research to your hearts' content and finally name the darn guy. A simple
find-and-replace is all it will take to get your story looking good as new
This works for pretty much everything. Your heroine is lost in the woods
with no food, and it's cold? "She was sure she would starve, until she found
an [Insert hardy, edible plant here]." (Leeks or sweet onions are a good
bet, as they can be found very late in the growing season.) Your hero is in
Manhattan and needs to get to Central Park by subway? "He swiped his fare
card and descended down the reeking cement stairs. After [Insert travel time
here--how long does it take to get to Central Park from Chinatown? Will he
need to transfer?], he once again saw sunlight as he climbed up to the
entrance of Central Park."
course, there are many times when preliminary research is much more helpful
than the "oh well, I'll fix it later" method. If a majority of your story
takes place in Manhattan, you'll probably want to research the city first.
If most of your story is set on or around ships, researching ships first and
writing second will save you lots of heartache in the long run. But for
every time you run into this situation, there are twice as many times when
you need to pin down that one, niggling fact, and sometimes it doesn't
matter whether you nail it before or after the rest of the page, scene, or
chapter is written.
Remember as you write, it's only the first draft. You can fix your mistakes
in the second draft. The first draft, as you've been told
many (look this up. How
many "Don't panic, it's only the first draft" articles has the average
writer read in his or her lifetime?)** times, is for your
words. They don't have to be perfect. They don't even have to be correct.
They just have to be there.
*Example Tidbit: Ingesting too much of the Foxglove plant
can cause you to see everything in a shade of blue, unless it stops your
heart and kills you. Cool, but mostly useless, unless you need to poison a
character or make him colorblind.
**See how easy and painless that was? You can do it, too!