Last time we talked about the dangers or doing too much research as a (possibly subconscious) way to avoid doing the hard work of actually writing your story.
So how do you know when you've gone too far? When the research is causing more harm than good? You’ve got to constantly interrogate your motives. Do you really need to do more research? On this topic? Is the research you’re doing actually productive? Would it be more beneficial to shift the focus of your energy? Do you feel like you can’t even write out a little test passage without doing more research?
One way I try to navigate these waters is to leave a fair amount of research until I’m writing the text. Writing the story will always expose more questions than you could ever anticipate. For some folks excessive research is about setting the table just right before you begin the meal but this is an effort doomed to failure. The story will always surprise you, so no matter what you do or how exhaustive your research is, you’ll have to do more as you write it anyway.
This is actually the main reason for that 16th century China story I’m working on. Writing the story necessarily asks for all sorts of information about day-to-day life in that era that wouldn’t necessarily come up while reading ordinary history texts. Writing the story illuminates ignorances I didn’t even know about and that forces me to dig deep for specific answers to specific questions which (uh, in theory) narrows the focus of my research so there’s less of a threat of just researching my brains out instead of writing. Plus, since I’m in the middle of writing the text, I want to get back to writing the text as soon as possible.
What if I can’t find the answer? Or the answer I’ve got is unsatisfying or useless or contrary to my needs? Depending on which is better for the story, I’ll ignore the correct answer and forge ahead or change the context of the scene so this malevolent information is no longer a problem.
One example I often give is from writing the first issue of ATOMIC ROBO PRESENTS: REAL SCIENCE ADVENTURES: THE BILLION DOLLAR PLOT. In the original outline there was a scene with Tesla and Westinghouse at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Part of the fair was this model city of the future that was erected to show off how new technologies by Tesla, Westinghouse, and others could improve the cities of tomorrow. Anyway, I’m writing this thing, and our heroes are supposed to notice some thieves a using a fire escape to make their getaway from a rooftop heist.
Well, it occurred to me: hang on, as a Northern Florida Swamp Creature I’ve never been on a fire escape and can’t recall encountering them in person. But you see them all the time on TV and the movies. And one thing that seems pretty obvious is that most (a lot? all?) of these things were bolted on well after the building was built because if you designed those buildings with fire escapes in mind you’d never make them so awkward and cramped up right next to one another. Hmm, come to think of it, I wonder when fire escapes were invented?
Enter: some research! Turns out fire escapes were designed at the end of the 19th century and the first ones were debuted...at the model city of the future at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Well, that was a freebie!
I often tell this story when I’m talking about research because (A) it's the writer’s version of a hole in one and (B) if I didn’t tell the story then no one would know it was such a lucky shot because who the hell is thinking about the history of fucking fire escapes while they’re reading a story?!
What I mean by that is: what if the story took place in 1875, well before fire escapes are being discussed or designed? How does the scene work?
Like I said above, ignore it or change the context.
IGNORE IT: I could’ve written a fire escape into the 1875 version of the story. Honestly, would anyone have noticed? Pretty much everyone expects to see fire escapes on 19th century looking multi-story buildings anyway, so I could’ve slapped one on there without raising a single eyebrow.
CHANGE THE CONTEXT: I could accept that there are no fire escapes for the baddies to use in 1875, so our heroes instead notice them slipping into a top floor window or an access door on the roof or something. It’s the same basic scene, I just rearranged the details so fire escapes aren’t a problem.
This is a bit of a tangent, as it’s not research per se, but I’ve had folks tell me they can’t write their fantasy epic until they know the history of every family of every major character going back who-knows-how-many generations, and the names of every village in every nation, and the wars that shaped them, and then something about where they get their potatoes.
I would gently suggest that those folks aren’t interested in writing their fantasy epics, they’re interested in writing a sprawling network of Wikipedia articles. There’s nothing wrong with that. Frankly it sounds fun! But spending months or years working out and cross-referencing all that information is not writing the fantasy epic and it never will be.
Research is important. But you cannot mistake it for writing your story.