Sunday, September 27, 2009

Writing IS Research

Take heed, children, because this may well be the most important post on my blog so far!  (I'm not trying to patronize, I just liked the way that phrase sounded.)  But in all seriousness, I'm kicking myself at this moment for how short-sighted I was during my initial research process.  I am truly baffled by the fact that, aside from doing a quick internet search here and there when I needed more information on a topic, I did not see the need to get an in-depth overview of the period in which my novel is set.  

I find my decision particularly baffling because I love to research.  And I certainly know how to do it - I read upwards of twelve books before attempting to write a 20-page article published in a legal journal.  So why did I shortchange myself when writing a 400-page novel?  The only logical explanation I can come up with is that I naively viewed novel writing (period novel writing, no less) as a largely creative endeavor, not a fact-based one.  But what I dumbly failed to realize is that the era in which my characters exist would and should color their lives on an almost daily basis.  And this cannot be successfully accomplished by throwing in an occasional piece of trivia via the front page of a newspaper or a cocktail party conversation.  

Looking back over my Brilliant Editors' critiques, I see now how my lack of adequate research fatally affected my writing.  A couple BEs thought I lost the "feel" of the 1920s in places throughout the book; one asked, "How is your novel relevant to today?" and another said, honestly, "I was expecting more from the story."  Aside from the characterization issues I plan to work on, I think a lot of these problems could have been (and of course, still can be) solved by proper research.  

At the moment, I am reading Only Yesterday, An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen.  As the Amazon reviews indicated, it is proving to be an incredibly well-written, entertaining, and informative book.  But what really peaked my interest when I was shopping for research material is the fact that this book was first published in 1931!  So the author, a reputable journalist, is writing about an era which he and the world had only just lived through.  Finding such a fresh synthesis of the decade, unclouded by modern-day analysis, was a true gold mine, and had I stumbled across this book sooner, my novel may have taken very different turns.  But of course, all is not lost ... that's what re-writes are for!

POTENTIAL NOVICE WRITER SIN:  (That's right, I brought the Draconian terminology back for this one ...) Unless you are writing complete fantasy or an autobiographical novel, do not pick up a pen or tap a key on your computer until you have read several books about, talked to a number of relevant people about, or gone and experienced first hand the events/place/time period, etc. in your book.  There is no substitute for adequate research.  (As you can tell, I feel quite strongly about this.)  If you cut corners during your initial writing phase, you're just going to have to go back and deal with the holes in your manuscript later, so you might as well tackle the research in the beginning.  Besides, the extra work will be well worth it, as it may answer questions you're grappling with re character motivation and plotlines, saving you a lot of revision time down the line.


  1. My novel has some period peices as well, and while I did do some research prior, I am also finding it inadequate. I will have holes but plan on filling them in later. Plus, mine has a fantasy element to it, so I guess I have a little room to bend the facts.

  2. Yeah, I think it all depends on the knowledge base you start with. Had I been better versed in the time period in which my novel is set when I started writing, I might not be pulling my hair out so much now!