Growing up I read a lot of Greek mythology. One story stood out and that was the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to roll a rock up a hill only to watch the rock roll back down to the bottom after he reached the top.
Sometimes fiction research feels the same way.
For example, several months ago I rewrote chapters for one of my manuscripts. My focus was on creating a reality television setting. I had plenty of information but in the re-telling the setting came across as generic and dull.
In two days, I flipped back and forth between the internet and my word processor fourteen times in order to write a single paragraph. It was brutal, and felt like waste of precious time. I was discouraged.
Maybe I should cut the entire reality television angle from my plot, I thought.
On the third day, I compared the remaining chapters and my research notes. What I noticed is that my research had been drawn from the internet. Not one book. Not one interview.
As a writer with two historical fiction manuscripts sitting on her shelf (translate: lots of practice collecting oodles of interviews and books) this was an astounding revelation.
Why did I think a contemporary story didn’t deserve as much research as a historical? This setback made me doubt myself.
Building Story on Rock, Pebbles, and Sand
Have you ever experienced a moment like that? Thankfully, I’ve discovered it isn’t that unusual. Many writers confess they’ve wasted valuable time backtracking because of weak research.
Reviewing earlier projects, I saw stories were strongest when three kinds were used, like a mayonnaise jar filled with a mixture of rocks, pebbles, and sand.
- I find the truly important facts – the rocks – come from books. Memoirs, biographies, how-to guides, and technical books are worth borrowing or buying.
- Interviews, like pebbles, fill gaps that only personal experience can bring. Whether you do an interview through skype, email, or in-person, speaking to experts adds depth and nuance to a story.
- Internet research is fun, weird, surprising information that gives a story texture. Like sand, it fills the nooks and crannies.
In the early days of a manuscript, exploring the internet is the fastest way for me to know what I don’t know. Once I learn a little, I start borrowing books. (I buy books only after I know they will be essential.) The last thing I do is interview.
Three Truths That Makes Research Worthwhile
- I have seen research transform ho-hum stories into must-reads. Sure, we all want to entertain our readers with great plots and characters, but adding a layer of details will transport them into another world (Hogwarts, anyone?) and make them feel as if they’ve actually visited it too. Those layers of details come from solid research.
- Wrong details yank readers out of the story. Historical fiction writers know if they dress a woman in a v-neck when she should be wearing a wide, scooped neckline, then some reader, somewhere is going to raise a ruckus.
- Research can enhance a story’s plot and theme. When I discovered that reality shows insiders judge a show’s budget by its location, I decided to highlight a small story thread about the reality show producers being broke which forced the cast to work out of a state park instead of a costly tall ship.
The best thing about research is that nothing is every wasted. Details that don’t make it into this story can turn up later in a short story or book, or at the least, a dinner conversation.
So if rewriting your manuscript feels more like pushing a boulder up a hill, then pull back and check your research. Like me, you may have filled your research jar with sand.
What about you? Ever felt like you were doing a lot of work, but not getting any closer to meeting your deadline? Let me know what you learned in the comment section below!
And if you know a child who would likes short stories, then introduce him or her to Catherine Mason, a girl who hates reading and is plotting to get out of her book club. The Literature Club Project, an ebook short story. Only 99 cents!