The Pitfalls of
By 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.
skirted them, parallel to the road until she was up against the back of the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.