Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Most Important Thing About Research

At nearly every talk I give, I get a question about how I do my research. I always explain that I usually spend some time Googling my questions about a topic. (Sometimes I just type in a few disjointed words. Sometimes I type in an actual question.) The results that pop up range from fascinating to dead ends. At each step, I think of other questions. I end up clicking through a wide range of links, and usually I get so interested in the topic or related topics that I learn much more than I need for a particular part in a book.

Sometimes, after I've learned the basics, I'll call an expert. The reason is that while you can read enough about some subjects to become quite knowledgeable, you may find that your writing about it, while technically correct, doesn't have the right flavor. Talking to an actual person can make a huge difference.
This is one of the most fun things about writing. I track down an expert, call them up, tell them I'm working on a new book that has a story thread about (insert subject here: forest fires, avalanche control, autism, long-lost Mark Twain manuscripts, weapons, art forgery, gold mining, search and rescue, genetic engineering). You get the idea.
I've never been turned down. I assume that's because people like to be helpful, and they probably also welcome a break from their routine. Going out to have coffee with a writer who wants to pick their brain is more fun than a typical meeting at the office.
Another kind of research is exploring the arena in which you are writing. For me, this can range from hiking and skiing and biking and sailing around Tahoe to traveling to other cities and visiting places that might turn up in my books. I may even explore museums that house the kind of stuff I'm writing about. Sometimes, I poke around libraries or businesses that intersect with my subject matter.
In sum, research is fun and enormously interesting.
Which brings me to the most important part of research.
You have to know when to quit.
When you've learned enough for your purposes, it's time to stop researching and write your book.
Thorough research is critical to getting most stories to work well. But research has caused more writers more procrastination than anything other than email and other internet distractions.
Learn what you need, then turn it off. It's time to write.
The Thinking Center

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