When I was a kid, I thought being a writer was the greatest job in the world. You got to wear your pajamas all day (if you wanted), read a lot of good books, and used your imagination.
I still think being a writer is the greatest job, but now I know how much more goes into it. Case in point: research.
I’ve always loved knowing things, fun facts and strange trivia that widen my view of the world (and makes me really good at Trivial Pursuit). It’s part of the reason why I read.
And the mark of a really great book is that it’s seamless. It doesn’t feel like reading a textbook because the story is so enthralling, but you’re still learning, still widening those horizons. With great books, you don’t realize you’re learning about something until it’s too late (*cue maniacal laughter*).
So, naturally (at least for me), when a story idea pops up in my brain, it’s closely followed by some thought bubbles of random information. Kind of like lottery ping pong balls, all rushing up the chute to be picked. Some of the ideas you have might be abstract, bits and pieces picked up here and there. But the great thing is, they work. They’re perfect for what you want to write.
The problem is, they’re just abstract ideas. They’re not strong enough to support the story, not yet.
That’s where the research comes in.
In my opinion, every project starts with research, with a minimum baseline of knowledge. Before I even put the pen to the page (or cursor to the Scrivener document, as the case may be), I need to know what the hell I’m talking about. For me, this begins with research. Lots and lots of research. Andthis time of year especially, in the weeks leading up to November and NaNoWriMo, involve a lot of prep and making sure my ducks are in a row (which is very difficult, because ducks don’t like lining up all orderly-like) before I start the actual writing.
It usually begins with a Google search. Maybe you peruse some articles, some research papers, some academic journals. And then you click over to Wikipedia. Suddenly, what was a simple search for a background in Norse mythology has fallen down a rabbit hole of traditional Bavarian pastries and unsolved cases of the occult in New Mexico. You’re reading up on things that probably (let’s face it, most likely) will have nothing to do with the story you’re planning, but you’re learning about them just in case.
Eventually, exhausted and dried out, you step back from the Wikipedia. And get a snack. And get back on track.
When you settle on a story idea and set out to do the research necessary for a solid plot, it’s kind of like an iceberg. You think you know what you’ll need for your manuscript. Yeah…that’s just the tiny tip above the water. Tackling research quickly becomes out of control and far more in-depth than you ever imagined.
So why is research such quicksand?
It’s the start of your story, the primordial ooze. Anything can happen. So, like a good boy scout/girl scout/doomsday prepper, you prepare for Anything. You don’t know what information you’ll use, and what’ll be tossed aside in drafting or edits. You’re just trying to create a solid foundation of knowledge on which to build your story.
In this way, all writers must become experts in what they’re working on, regardless of the age group or genre. Making crap up can only take you so far, and having a solid base of info to dip into will help you weave your story.
Recently, I was talking to some friends of mine who are currently getting their PhDs. They’re going into their fifth year, and were commiserating how long and unpredictable their research was. And, granted, the research I do for writing is nowhere near that level, but I understand the sentiment.
It’s long, it’s seemingly never-ending, and can be frustrating at times. And, hopefully, pays off in the end.
At the very least, writers should get an honorary degree from all that research.
Or an ice cream sundae.
What about you, fellow writers? How do you prepare for a new project/NaNoWriMo? Sound off in the comments.