Most novels need at least some research. For my first book, What is Left Over, After I had to research photography because my main character was a photographer. In my second book, I had to research organ donation and heart transplantation. Obviously, given my next two books are historical novels, I’ve had to research all kinds of things. But what is the best way to go about researching a novel? Do you research first and write later? Or vice versa? Or something in between? Here’s what I do, and why.
Write the First Draft First
Research is all about facts. First drafts, on the other hand, are all about imagination, about letting your characters loose on the page and seeing what they will do. Research and first drafts don’t really go together – they require different sets of skills and a different mindset. So I try to keep them apart as much as possible.
I do as little research as I can get away with when I’m writing my first draft. For me, a first draft is all about discovering the story I’m telling. If I do too much research, I tend to write to the research, to be limited by what the research tells me is possible, to constrain my story to the known facts. In a first draft, I need the wide openness of creativity, not a voice in my head saying, yes but according to the research that could not have happened.
The other danger with doing too much research too early is that you can become so caught up in the research that you forget to write anything at all. Before you have a first draft, you don’t know what you need to research so you research everything. But if you have a first draft, you have a research blueprint. You now know what you don’t know and what you need to find out. Then you can direct your research to filling the gaps in the draft.
What Kind Of Research Do I Do When Writing a First Draft?
I do the very basic kind of research when I’m wriiting a first draft. A quick Google search to find out if washing machines were in use in 1922, for instance. Or a quick Google search to find out which New York universities were accepting women to their medical schools in 1922.
I also read novels that were written during the time my book is set. My next book begins in New York in 1922 so I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise while I was writing my first draft, and Edna St Vincent Millay’s poetry. And I read non-fiction books about topics pertinent to the research information I need, for instance, books about childbirth practices in early twentieth century America and several books about American life in the 1920s.
But the reading always comes second to the writing. Only when I’ve done my word count for the day will I sit down and read.
What Happens After the First Draft?
Once I have a complete first draft, I know what my story is and who my characters are. I also know where the holes are that I need to fill with research. So I make a list of everything I need to know and I try to strike a balance in this list between being too broad and too specific. So, rather than say: I need to find out more about New York in the 1920s, I would say, I need to know which subway lines and which El lines were running in the 1920s so I can understand how my character got to college, to work etc.
Then I hit the archives, visit the location, and interview people. There is nothing better than first hand, source material. Books are great for research but they are at a remove from the info you need to bring your book to life.
So, for my next book, I arranged a trip to New York and scheduled in all of the places I needed to visit to answer all of my research questions. This included spending time in the archives of the Columbia Medical School, spending time in the map division of the New York Public Library to track down subway maps, watching old film footage at the Theatre On Film and Tape archive of the NYPL, walking the streets, going to the Met museum costiume division to look at clothes from the 1920s, flicking through hundreds of photographs from the time etc.
Never be afraid to ask people for help. I find that archivists and librarians and museum curators love to assist because they are passionate about their topic. They will go out of their way to help you find what you’re looking for, and also things you didn’t know you were looking for.
Time For A Second Draft
Once I’ve gathered all of the information I need, then I sit down to redraft. This redraft is usually all about incorporating the research material and not so much about reworking plot and character. That will come in the next draft.
This is also where I have to make everything work. For instance, I often find that I will come up against something in my plot or something that my character does that the research will tell me isn’t possible. But it’s important for my story, so I have to make it happen. I have to find a way to make it possible. And this is where the writer’s ability to problem solve is so important. What can you do to the plot or the character to make this work?
And the solution is usually one of those wonderful moments where you find a whole new direction for the plot. This is why it’s so crucial not to do too much research too early. If you do, then you write to that research. You will never have a problem that needs solving. And you will never have the opportunity to solve it in a creative and wonderful way that brings your story fully to life.
I hope you found that useful. Tell me, how have you gone about researching in the past? Do you do a lot up front or do you wait until you have a draft? Which tips do you plan to use?