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:
- 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!”
- 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.
- 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?