Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


The Pitfalls of Researching Unawares

By Stacey Moye
Stacey Moye


Imagine you're writing a science fiction thriller about a nuclear weapon that gets a mind of it's own. Your main character is a bald man in his late thirties who is divorced and spends his days plumbing and his nights soldering together old circuit boards. But since this is a tale of fiction, there is no need to spend writing time in research, so you type merrily on. You create whole worlds and intricate characters on the concept of this devastating weapon that threatens nations with destruction if they do not cooperate. You've set the whole thing in motion with layers of conflict and witty dialogue. You've even managed to throw in some foreshadowing and overtones of current socioeconomic dilemmas. Now, at that critical moment where the weapon has reached 0:01 on the counter and your balding thirty-something protagonist has to act, you've penned in 'And then he unplugged it.'

Think anybody would read the next book? I know I wouldn't. It's fine to say that the weapon didn't detonate. It's nearly expected. But most readers know that nuclear weapons don't plug in, and so they don't unplug. So why research? For credibility as an author, for reader loyalty and for description that keeps your reader's attention in the story where it belongs.

And it's not just the threat of nuclear holocaust or the loss of a world that will hurt your reputation. Everything matters. It can be any little bit of misinformation that will lead readers to dismiss a book, and possibly it's author as well. A piano with 89 keys, an automatic transmission in a semi, a woman who gets feline aids from her cat: all can be fatal to a fiction writer's career.

Thus, the research is essential. Even in a fantasy world construct, it must be done. The truth of research is the framework around which one can weave great fiction. However, there are pitfalls for the writer that are hidden in reference books that make researching difficult. Often we find that distractions are the number one enemy of the writer, and this includes researching.

Writer's block keeps many writers from finishing their stories. It is often the result of fear that if he continues, he will destroy the story or that if he finishes, he'll have to market it. Both are symptoms of a fear of failure. If nothing is done, then nothing is failed.

The flip side of this--and most often ignored-- is that if nothing is done, nothing is accomplished either. The same holds true for researcher's block. Researcher's block is when you don't finish researching, or worse yet don't continue to research because you're afraid to start writing.

To combat this fear I've noted seven traps to be aware of when executing a research project: 

1. Don't be intimidated.  A good way to avoid researcher's block is by clearly identifying what you need to know beforehand, and by creating a well formed outline, which can act as a guide for research as well as for writing.  Also, it is essential that you know "how much" you need to know. A good way to do this in a fantasy or science fiction world is to write the rough draft first, demarcating the areas where you need to do more research. An example of this from my own writings is shown below.

She skirted them, parallel to the road until she was up against the back of the {town's square}.

During rewrites, it is very easy to pick out the container tags and research that item until you find the information to complete the writing. You can use these tags to stand in for anything from a word or name to entire paragraphs about something you can't describe because you haven't researched it yet.

2. Don't lose sight of the goal. The reason you are researching is to gather information by which you can write an informed and therefore believable story. When asked what the difference was between fiction and reality, Tom Clancy replied "Fiction has to make sense." Often in research we run across information links that lead us to more great information. Some finds give us new story ideas, or help us flesh out existing ideas. Some add another layer of depth to a fictitious landscape. While this information might be a gold mine for the writer, it is important to stay on task. If it is not what you need for your current project, make a note of what you found and where, and go back to it when a story isn't waiting to be written.

3. Don't get distracted. If researching at home, do your best to clear your workspace of anything that might distract you. As with writer's block, researcher's block will have you conquering the CoffeeMug Castle with the Paper Clip Brigade if you don't remain focused. Try to set a schedule. Estimate how much time you will need to research a certain topic and set a timer for yourself.

Another thing that will help this is your location. The library is a fantastic place to get some serious researching done. It has all the reference resources you could want and little else to distract you. Although most writers could spend days at their local library happily perusing, the researching writer will be more apt to stay on task there-- where all of the creature comforts of home are removed.

4. Don't relive your past. Many times in fantasy writings I have researched how far a human could go over rough terrain, how fast a horse can travel on a dirt road or how long a ship can stay out at sea under favorable conditions. Now, any time I need this information again, I look in my personal vertical file. The vertical file at the library has newspaper clippings arranged by subject which can be very useful for research. You can also make one of your own. Any time you come across information that might be useful in the future, make a copy of it and a copy of the title page of the book you found it in and place them both in a file under the subject. If the idea of an alphabetical file system scares you, or you're concerned you will look under 'Horses' for a horse's travel pace instead of 'Travel', then consider using a system already in place. The Dewey decimal system covers every subject and can expand to include new subjects as well. I keep my own vertical file right by the desk where I write and refer to it often.

5. Don't forget friends at the library. Most librarians are not in it for the money, and certainly not for the fame. They are in it for the books. The library gets books from book sellers who get books from publishers. Publishers get books from writers like you. So don't forget to recruit a librarians help when researching something. Most of the time all it takes is for you to say "I'm a writer and I'm looking for information on--" and they will usually bend over backwards to help you. In a sense, helping you keeps them in business.

6. Don't become a researcher dot-com. The Internet is a vast sea of information. The problem with that is that on the Internet there isn't a filter. Anybody can publish anything. Because of this, there is a wealth of misinformation on the information highway. Do your research on the web with caution. There are many trusted sites that contain plenty of easy access, current and accurate information. Keep these in folders in your favorites file. Use caution whenever using something off the web and always, always double check with other sources. Have at least three sources when you get something off the web. 

7. Don't be a window shopper on the web's storefront. In traditional research there is enough danger of over-researching, but on the web this danger triples. It is just too easy to get caught up in a tidbit of juicy info on an off site, decide to check your email or the weather in Vancouver, or to play just one game of Spy Hunter on that online emulator. Staying on task can become a real hassle on the web. An easy way to correct this is to go to the library to get online. Most of the time there will be nothing at the desk to distract you and you are there for one reason and one reason only: research. Besides, you would have a hard time talking yourself into playing Joust in full view of the public eye. 

So finally you sit down at the library computer, do a few searches on nuclear weapons, check out a few books on weapons and develop your machine. You research the town that will be your setting and get the basics on circuit boards and how they work. You spend an afternoon looking up roto rooters and talking to plumbers so that you will have a convincing protagonist, and then the writing can begin!

Avoiding the pitfalls of poor research habits can get you from mind to manuscript much sooner and simpler. Getting your facts straight will make everything flow smoother and have your reader glued to your current book...and maybe looking for your next book too.