Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Research - Do It Before or During the Writing?

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I've proven to be a rebel in many areas of writing. At least, according to those who hold to all the "rules" and outright myths that permeate the publishing industry. One area that has become apparent is with regards to the research I do for stories. According to many, I do things backwards. I do very little to no research before I start writing a book and almost all of it while I'm writing.

Since I don't outline (*cringe*) my stories before writing, I have no idea what information I'll need until I need it about 99% of the time. I've tried it "their" way, and the mess was astronomical and the time wasted and lost highly discouraging. I forced myself to dig into research before I ever started writing. I ended up needing to research as I went and didn't use anything I had spent WEEKS researching beforehand. I won't make that mistake again. Consider that lesson well-learned.
A few months ago, I needed to flesh out the idea for Alpha: 1945 First Love. World War II Germany. It was suggested that I "read everything you can get your hands on about World War II." My eyes glazed over just thinking about trudging through all that dull material, and that's aside from one stark reality - do you have ANY idea how long it would take to read ALL the material I could get my hands on about WWII? Ugh, ugh, ugh. Also, do you have any idea how little of that material would actually end up being useful? A LOT of time wasted on research when I could've been writing.

That advice was based on the philosophy of starting "general" research first, then working your way to the specifics. I pretty much see that as taking a 12-gauge shotgun with bird shot to a fly that's 10-feet away for which you just need a well-aimed hit close-up with a fly-swat.

No. Just. No. Unequivocally no!

That's like suggesting someone read everything they can find on:
  1. DOGS, when what they really want is information specifically about German shepherds used for herding in modern-day Germany.
  2. The US, when what they really want is information specific to a particular three block area of Tucson, AZ in summer.
Think about it. Those examples are NOT an exaggeration when you consider the tremendous scope of WWII versus the information I actually needed for a short story set in Germany with specific circumstances.

Part of the reason I can research so quickly, on the fly while writing, and lose very little time (rather than spending weeks, months, or even YEARS like some writers) is that I go in reverse with my research. I start with the very specific and work my way outward, thereby only researching information that is relevant to MY STORY. I don't spend countless hours researching things I'll never use.

For my WWII research, how that looked was:
  1. Information about US spies and saboteurs operating in Germany. (Not Japan or other places US troops were during that war, and not British or German spies and saboteurs.)
  2. Instances of major German cities bombed by Allied forces toward the end of the war. (That ruled out 1941-1944 and narrowed it down to 1945.)
I ended up finding both very quickly with well-placed keywords in a search engine. Using those, I found my dates and setting. Then, I expanded research outward to include specific landmarks in Dresden, Germany and activities surrounding the bombing in February 1945. As I wrote the story, I looked at rationing in Germany during that time (rationing looked very different in 1945 than it did earlier in the war, so information about how rationing was in 1941-42 was NOT useful for 1945) and other such things pertinent to the daily life of those living in Dresden during that specific time frame. I found some great reference material, including photographs and first-person eyewitness accounts (WOOHOO!).

I got exactly what I needed for my short story without spending a LOT more time and energy researching information I'd never use.

I repeated that process to research for setting and such for the other historical short stories in the Alpha series. I'll take the same approach when I start work on the Enforcer series. I've long taken that approach when researching topics for my contemporary novels.

What this experience has taught me over the years is that, once again, the "experts" are only experts on what works for them. Just like outlining and doing character questionnaires and interviews, research before writing is a matter of individual style and creative process. Don't let anyone tell you the "right" way to do such things. Try different approaches. Keep what works. Discard what doesn't.

If you want to research as you write, do so!

If you'd rather just write your story than spend weeks or months outlining beforehand, do it!

If you find character questionnaires as mind-numbing and worthless as I do, blow them off!

Give yourself permission to let the story flow unimpeded by all those logic-based procedures.

If you're one of those who research topics to death before you ever pick up the pen or touch the keyboard, and outline every single scene and chapter of your book in the minutest detail before you write, and fill out one character questionnaire after another, knock yourself out. If that works for you, go for it. If any or all of that is NOT working for you, discard it, no matter what some "expert" says.

Enjoy the process. Don't let "experts" bog you down. They aren't you. They don't know you. They don't know how your creative process works, how your creative mind works. If you hang around writers long enough, you'll find that God has created us so incredibly unique and diverse. No technique or method works for all of us. Rather than shoving each other into one tight little box, embrace those differences.

Set yourself free to JUST WRITE! Have fun! In the process, give others permission to love their way, too.