Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Research

It was a short column in a Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal that made me stop saying “Someday” and changed that to “Now.” As in, now I will begin to write. What was this life-altering article? Answer: A Word Craft column by Frederick Forsyth on doing research. I can hear you now, Reader, saying, “Wow! What a sexy topic! No wonder she was swept away.”

Ah, but obviously I was.

Mr. Forsyth’s column had the effect of someone handing me the keys to the kingdom. For years I had so many ideas for novels whirling around in my mind, but one in particular always floated to the top. It was a novel set in the Civil War. But how to write it? I had no idea where to start, or where to take it. But Forsyth’s keys unlocked the door that blocked my way.

I’ll return to that column in a moment.

I write Young Adult paranormal and historical novels, and Adult paranormal and historical romances. I have always loved history so it was a no-brainer that at least some of my writing would be historical. Even my paranormals include a generous dollop of history. So naturally, research is essential to make the stories ring true. Since reading that column I have discovered that each writer has her or his own way of approaching necessary research:

  1. What I call the Forsyth model. In this model the writer does all of the research up front, before a word of the novel is written. PROS: The story can grow organically from the research, going in directions the writer never imagined prior to the research. My little Civil War novel (sadly, sitting forlornly unfinished on this computer—but that’s another story) developed storylines from the research I did. The more I learned about the place and time the richer my storylines became. CONS: Doing research first is a great way to procrastinate and procrastinate, putting off the actual writing. “But I need to know more about the [fill in the blank] before I start writing!”

  1. The Wing-It and Research Later model. Here the writer just starts writing the novel and goes back later to research the information needed to make it authentic. PROS: The book gets started, there is no procrastinating. The writer isn’t bogged down by worrying about how facts might interfere with the storytelling. The writing flows, and the book gets written. CONS: Facts discovered late in the game could come back to undo the story, requiring massive rewrites. Missing some of the minutia of a place or time could mean a less layered, rich novel, assuming it wasn’t something the writer was specifically looking for during the research stage.

  1. The Hybrid model: Do enough front end research to guide the storytelling, but not enough to delay the writing. Then go back after the first draft is complete and fill in the parts that require further research. PROS: The best of models one and two. The writer has a feel for the time and place, adding an authentic voice throughout the writing. Early research can act as a map for the story. During the course of rewrites missing facts and information can be researched and added. If an unexpected storyline appeared during the first draft, the needed research can be done to fill in the blanks. CONS: I’m sorry, I can’t think of any. I’m sure there are some, but as this is the model I’ve come to follow and it works well for me I can’t be objective.

When I first read the Forsyth column I had never thought of research as guiding the story. Never having written a novel, I assumed a writer knew what he/she was going to write before a word was written, did the specific research that would allow that book to be written—no more, no less, and wrote the book. Immersing oneself in the research and feeling the time and place as a part of the writing process never occurred to me. So obvious now, but it wasn’t then.

Final Disclaimer: I’m currently working on a YA novel that takes place in four different historical time periods, all in a European country. I got stuck in Model 1, researching to procrastinate. I was so afraid to start writing the book, I found one thing after another that I “needed” to research before I could begin. I started thinking I had to know EVERYTHING before I could begin. But after hitting myself upside the head I remembered the Hybrid model, and I’ve been happily writing ever since.

How do you handle research?

Happy Writing!


  1. Hi Monica, Loved your post. I find myself following the same Hybrid model you do. I research a bit first, then if I find I'm in the middle of writing and I need more info that I need to look up, I'll put in a placeholder so I'll know to go back. This seems to work the best for me, too. If I try the full research one first, I do exactly what you described - procrastinate! ~ Viola

    1. Hi Miss Viola,

      I use placeholders too! I find that they allow me to keep writing without getting sidetracked. Whenever I do give into the temptation to 'quickly' research something while writing I'll look up and suddenly an hour or more has slipped by. Placeholders give me the peace of mind that a time will come when I'll be able to give my full attention to whatever questions have come up in the course of writing.

      Thank you for the comments!

  2. Hi Monica,

    I pretty much write what I know so I don't do much research. In my first novel, the heroine is in an accident and her injuries were similar to ones I'd incurred. I've checked with my physical therapy folks to make sure I've the healing timeline accurate and with my law enforcement folks to make sure the injuries are realistic for the accident. So, I guess I'm more # 2 - I write and then talk to the experts to verify the details.

    Since there are seven stories in this series, I'm sure I'll need to do some research on future stories but the three completed ms. have required very little research.

    1. Hi Judith,

      Writing what you know does avoid the whole research issue, but I'll be interested to hear how you decide to approach research when you get to those stories that will require it. I think you'll enjoy the research piece.

      Continued good luck with the series Judith!

  3. Interesting analysis of three methods. Of course, I don't neatly fit into any one of them. I start with a big idea, and then go in search of a character to carry it out. I do some research i the beginning, but only around the big idea. Then I start to write. As I write, a development may need additional research. I usually stop then and do it--but only enough to get me moving again. I know there are those who say "don't stop, just get it done." I am incapable of that method, however. In the end, I've done most of the research along the way. However, when I go back to edit, I always find a way to do more. By then, however, it is small things--a dress, a cultural myth, a way of speaking.

    I write YA Fantasy under Maggie Faire, then Romantic Suspense and Contemporary Romance/WOmen's Fiction under Maggie Jaimeson. Surprisingly, they all require research.

  4. Hi Maggie,

    Yes! I missed your model entirely! Actually, I sometimes use your method, so I'm very sorry I didn't mention it. Of my three models you are much more the Hybrid though. I'm not at all surprised that all your genres require research. I've toyed with an idea for a fairy story and have already spent hours researching Celtic myths and legends. I think just about anything we write requires some amount of research.

    Thank you for the comments Maggie, and for adding that important fourth model.

  5. I do research the way you described in #3. If I do to much in advance, I find I get to tied up in the research. One fact leads to another, leads to another and so forth. Great post!