This week’s question is from Rae, who asks:
When you have to do a lot of research for a novel, do you do it beforehand or after you finish the first draft?
So far, I haven’t written anything that required a ton of research from the get-go, but whenever I come across anything in a particular scene or whatnot that requires research, I generally do the research before writing the scene. For me, it’s just much easier that way. An essential part of the scene might hinge on something being so-and-so way, and all that would have to be scrapped later on if the something wasn’t so-and-so way after all.
This seems, to me, even more critical when the research is relevant for the novel as a whole. I mean, you wouldn’t want to write a Victorian novel that centers around poor girl who decides to make a living off being a photographer, only to find out that photography was extremely expensive in the Victorian era and not really a job for the penniless. Of course, adjustments can always be made, but it just seems like added trouble.
Plus, when I do research beforehand, I often stumble across facts and tidbits that inspire me more for the scene/book!
For SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, I did a solid month of research before I wrote the book. I learned about etiquette, technology, clothing, etc. I gathered maps and studied the people and wound up researching much more than I actually used…and yet I still had to research things as I wrote! What kind of carriage goes here? How strongly does that chemical smell? If a corpse has been dead four years, how much has it decomposed (nice stuff, eh?)? Worst of all, months after I sold the book, I finally got to visit Philadelphia (where the story is set), only to find that I had totally mis-imagined the layouts or feel of certain settings! (Fortunately, I could still make changes during my editorial revisions!)
With the sequel to SS&D, I did minimal research before I began writing–a few maps and some books with descriptions. As such, there are a lot of sections that say <insert description of gardens here>,or <insert description of waltz here>. These are things that I’ll research when I visit Paris (tomorrow, actually!). Admittedly, I already know all about the clothes, the etiquette, and the technology, but by not boning up on 1876 Paris (and saving that work for later), I’ve saved myself many, MANY hours of work while writing the first draft.
For me, it depends on what I’m writing. I’ll do some preliminary research beforehand just to make sure I’m not completely wrong. During the actual writing, I’ve been known to get lost in references and Wikipedia for hours at a time. …Some call it procrastination ;).
While actually writing, I find research inspires me and helps me develop a plot with solid connections. One of my favourite things is when events in history are so perfectly intertwined with events in your story that suddenly your plot seems like it’s genius. You may never mention those events in your writing, but knowing they fit gives you a much better context and feel for the setting.
It’s also great to come across side things. Doing research exposes me not only to what I’m researching, but to things I wouldn’t have even thought of looking up. If it’s interesting, my mind starts racing and all the possibilities of how I could incorporate it zip through my head. There have been a few times where chapters have turned out very different than how I imagined because of all this new information. I truly believe that it not only makes my plot stronger because the aspects are accurate, but because of the depth that the small and interesting details add. And like I said, even if you don’t use it, you still know it exists, and it gives you a better understanding of the story. Or at least that’s what I’ve noticed with myself.
In terms of research afterwards, like Susan said, there are a few things that I’ll skip over if I know they won’t do anything for the plot. To use Susan’s example, waiting until later to research the waltz won’t change the fact that they’ll still be dancing the waltz. The only time this kind of thing can screw you over is if you do something like talk about waltzing in the 1700’s.
I find it easiest and most effective to research before and during writing. Before I star writing, whether it’s the whole project or a certain scene I like having all the background information I might need. For instance, travel times by different modes of transportation. You can’t have someone ride a hundred miles in a day on one horse and if you don’t know the correct timing it can throw off not only your facts but your pacing as well. For more modern projects knowing the layout of a they city you’re using as a setting or local slang can be important. If you don’t do the research beforehand you might have to change big portions of the MS later.
I also do research while I’m writing. If there’s something I’m not sure about I’ll get to a stopping point and look it up. Not only does this make sure I get my facts write, I often come across new information that answers questions I hadn’t even thought to ask yet. It all depends on how you write and what’s easiest.
When do YOU do your research?