Research tip #2: Know your limits

For more on researching for fiction, go to the main research page

Sing it with me now: “To everything there is a season . . . A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to research, and a time to stop researching and get back to the writing . . .”

Every good academic knows there comes a point in the research process at which you have to quit looking at other people’s ideas and start working with your own. Failing to do so, you risk letting other people’s ideas take over, and what you wind up writing is not original argument but regurgitative reporting. Fiction writers, though, seem to know less about this magical balancing act and aren’t always aware when that moment comes.

The first thing you need to bear in mind as a researcher is what your skill set is, what things you know about researching and what things you’ll need help with. (If you read yesterday’s post, you know at least one thing: Ask a librarian!) Many fiction writers come from academic backgrounds and know a great deal about researching, but many fiction writers don’t. And it’s not a problem, not in terms of researching for fiction. The point is not to become expert researchers but to become excellent writers, which means we must always stay focused on the writing and not worry so much about the research. You’re not out to learn new processes (though it’s always helpful if you do learn some things along the way — see yesterday’s post), so what you want to do is work within the skills you have, find what you can as fast as you can, and then — say it with me — get back to the writing.

Maybe the only thing you know to do is jump onto Google or Wikipedia and look stuff up. That’s fine, though the Internet is notoriously time-consuming and conducive to procrastination (or, as my friend Tanya’s son Aaron brilliantly calls it, “procrasturbation”). If that’s what works for you, use it: follow a few links in, see what you can see. But if you linger too long or start clicking on too many links, shut it down and get back to the writing.

Maybe you have a small collection of standard references in your home, and you like to dive into those now and then, hit the encyclopedias or the indexes or The Dangerous Book for Boys, and read till you find what you’re after. That’s excellent. I can’t tell you how many trivia books and instruction manuals and dictionaries I’ve read over the years, and boring as it might sound, I’ve enjoyed them all. There’s some fascinating stuff out there in the world, and I love to learn. But there’s a difference between reading to write and just plain reading. Put the book down. You have a book of your own to write.

Maybe you’re well versed in complicated research methods, you know your library’s article databases inside and out, and you have personal access to the archives or the rare books room, and you head down to the library to put in some good hard research. Great. But take your writing with you — your laptop, your yellow legal pad, your lovingly worn, floppy old journal and fancy pen — and be prepared at any moment (the right moment) to drop everything and get back to the writing.

So what is the right moment? How do you know when you’ve done enough research and are ready to write again? Well, that’s a tricky question, and the simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate truth is that only you can know. It reminds me of the very short chapter on knowing when a story is finished, from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “This is a question my students always ask. I don’t quite know how to answer it. You just do.” But I call it fortunate because you get to determine this — the “right” moment depends on you.

In his book on screenwriting, Story Sense, Paul Lucey suggests that “the amount of time spent on research depends on the topic, how quickly you work, and how much background you need to feel comfortable” with writing the story. “Some writers spend months research and mulling the story, which is also an aspect of writing. The research and story pondering continues until the writer feels charged with energy and begins working out the plot.” But I think Lucey’s description is a bit disingenuous, or else he drinks better coffee than I do — I’ve never felt “charged with energy” after a long research session. I feel swollen, full of new information and unsure what to do with it all.  But sometimes I also feel driven, sometimes frantically, to get down an idea or a scene, in much the same way I’d feel driven by any flash of inspiration or sudden insight I knew belonged in fiction. It is a gratifying moment, to flash on the one piece of information you were looking for (or better yet, a piece of information you didn’t know you were looking for) and suddenly know you need to get it into writing. But I worry that Lucey’s initial image of writers sitting around poring through tomes of research and pondering and mulling ad libitum gives us exactly the excuse we need to avoid writing. Fan as I am of Hemingway’s pinching orange peels and staring at the fire routine, we don’t really need any more excuses to avoid writing, and sometimes you have to recognize that, right information or not, you’ve put off the writing long enough and it’s time to go back and just write the thing. There will be time enough for follow-up research later. Right now you need to write.

When I was working on the Civil War novel that spawned these posts, I was under the daily pressure of NaNoWriMo to pound out a few pages every day, so even though I wound up doing a little research every day, I also had to force myself to get back to the writing. In some cases this was easy: One time, I needed to find out how to defeat the Cajun folklore creature known as a rougarou (a bit like a werewolf), so I looked up the answer, found it, and moved on. Other times, I risked letting the research run away with me, like the day I looked up Civil war battles in southwestern Louisiana. I wanted to reference a particular battle in dialogue in order to set a character’s background and establish some of the real history behind my story, so I started looking up historical accounts of battles. At first I was just looking for date and place, but once I’d found several, I needed to pick one, and to pick one — I told myself — I needed to know a little about each battle.  So I started reading. After a while I’d narrowed my battles down to two or three I could use, but then I decided that the only way for my character to talk about the battle effectively was if I knew that battle from the inside, so I tore off searching for first-hand accounts, letters and diaries from Civil War veterans, and newspaper reports contemporary to the battles. Before I knew it, I’d spent hours and hours reading, and I was started to feel overwhelmed. Worse, I hadn’t written more than a few dozen words for the day. There was no magic trigger, no a ha flash of inspiration. There was only the weary realization that enough was enough, and it was time to get back to the writing. So I dropped everything, picked a battle at random, and dropped a single reference to it in a line of dialogue, and I moved on. I’m glad I did the research I did because it’ll be easier to find again when I go back and fill in the details.  But the point that day was to write, and my mind told me when I’d finished with the research.

Determining the moment you’re ready to get back to the writing will take a certain degree of self-awareness, which means that you’re going to have to practice this a lot. Research and write, write and research, back and forth, until you can figure out that delicate balance. It’s a lot like meditation, what Buddhists and psychologists call “mindfulness” training: you need to learn what your mind is doing, learn to notice when you’re getting distracted from your goal, which in this case is always the writing.

In one version of mindfulness meditation, the meditator is supposed to focus on his breath. He notices when he breathes in; he notices when he breathes out. That’s it. Sometimes, he counts the breaths in order to remain focused on the breathing, but this becomes tricky, because it’s very easy to use that as a crutch, to stop focusing on the breathing and start focusing on the counting. And the counting is not the goal — the goal is breathing, and the counting is just a tool to facilitate the breathing.

The same is true with writing and research. We must begin with writing and we must end with writing. Sometimes we need the tool of research to help facilitate the writing, but the research is not our goal, not our purpose — we are doing the research only so we can continue writing.

This is easier said than done, of course, because for some people, research is a fantastic crutch. In a blog post on WordPlay, author K.M. Weiland explains one reason she quit writing exercises is because they became a good excuse to not write: “It’s much easier to scribble away on exercises that don’t matter, rather than buckle down and work on that tough scene opener.” I’m a fan of exercises myself, just as I’m a fan of research, but Weiland has a point — we can sometimes allow what started out as work to become a distraction from work, and research is especially nasty about this. Paul Lucey himself admits this, following up his idyllic image of pondering, intense writers hunched over their research with the warning that “in some cases the research can go on for so long that it becomes an excuse for avoiding writing.” Try reading anything interesting on Wikipedia and you’ll quickly see what I mean. You reading something interesting and it points you to something else, some other related tidbit, so you go read about that, which links you to a different article, and soon your “research” has snowballed into “not writing” and you’re spending all day browsing useless information that won’t wind up helping anything. So you have to force yourself back to the writing.

Jack Kornfield, Buddhist and psychologist, in his chapter “Training the Puppy” from A Path with Heart, puts it like this:

In this way, meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say, “Stay.” Does the puppy listen? It gets up and it runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. “Stay.” And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes the puppy jumps up, runs over, and pees in the corner or makes some other mess. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they create even bigger messes. In training the mind, or the puppy, we have to start over and over again.

This is true for everyone’s mind, not just meditators. Your mind is a puppy, and it’s squirmy and restless and playful as hell.  That’s fine.  Let it play — we are creative writers, after all. But don’t let it make a mess.  In researching for fiction, we have to learn what our own limitations are, we have to discover — through practice — that in the end we can only research so much, and we have to remind ourselves to return to the fiction over and over again, because that is what we’re really doing: We are writers, and we need to write. Listen to your mind, and when it says “A ha!” or “Enough,” let go of the research, and get back to the writing.

Of course, one way to cut down on your research time is to skip the books and go straight to the sources — to cultivate connections with experts and to learn from people on the street—but that’s for tomorrow’s post. . . .

[EDIT: I’ve postponed the entry on sources to focus on the dire need in Haiti — please read tomorrow’s post for more information.]

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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