Research or write?


Sean McMullen|15 February 2015

What have nuclear weapons got to do with your writing? What’s that? You say you’re not into post-apocalyptic stories? Actually this is about how to do research, but the development of the first Soviet atomic bomb has a very important lesson for you.

In 1947 the German scientist Gunter Wirths was a rather unwilling guest of the Soviets, and they had just learned that their uranium was purer than what the Americans produced. A minister told this to Wirths, and said he was very proud of it. Wirths said “Is no use to be proud of it, because Americans make it just as pure as is necessary, and you do by far more, and that makes it very expensive.” The minister replied “You damn Germans.”

Stop and think about that. How many times have you done way, way more research than you could have possibly needed to write your story, just because it’s interesting – then tossed most of it away. You almost certainly have a full time job if you are on this site, but have aspirations to be a writer. That means your free time has around eight hours chomped out of it by your job. Remove another eight hours for sleep, and four more for eating, shopping, Facebook and taking out the garbage. You are now down to four hours for writing.

That is one reason why it’s important to keep your research focused. There are others, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The first question you should ask when you think about doing some research is should you be doing it at all? If you already know the subject, don’t do the research. Does your story really need the research? No? Then don’t do it. If your answer was yes to that last question, then ask yourself if you know an expert in the area. The cost of lunch for two could save you months of wasted research time. Technical experts love to talk about their fields, and will do so for free. I should know, I’m one of them.

That’s about not doing research. If you really, really need to know about , say, Argentinian fur seals for your story, you are stuck with doing some research. How should you do it? I just typed ‘Argentinean fur seals’ into Google and got 316,000 results in 0.56 seconds. It took a couple of minutes to scan the first few dozen results, but I already know what the seals look like, how big they are, what they eat, where they live, that they are not endangered, and that their Latin name is Arctocephalus australis.

If I am writing about a shapeshifting secret agent who needs to swim out to an Argentinian warship without getting shot at, I’m done. Fur seals are common in Argentinian waters and juvenile seals are human sized, so my secret agent could become a fur seal and swim out to the warship without arousing suspicion. I can write that bit of the story, then go on to what he does when he gets back to the beach and sees that someone has stolen his clothes.

What about if you have decided that fur seals are wonderful, and you want to know more? No problem, but while I have spent a couple of minutes doing my research and gone on to write two thousand first-draft words for the evening, you might easily blow your daily quota of writing time by reading about those admittedly cute fur seals.

Most of what I learned about the seals was from a thirty second scan of the Wikipedia entry. Is it dangerous to rely on Wikipedia? Generally speaking, no. Admittedly, people are free to post ludicrously silly entries there, but experts in the field do take delight in spotting mistakes and making corrections. Wikipedia is a good starting point for researching things you know nothing about, and a quick scan of half a dozen alternative sites will soon tell you if other experts are saying the same thing.

Doing background reading, in fact doing background activities of any sort is not research. A while back I decided that I wanted to know how the average medieval yoick would cope with a forced march to a battle, so instead of driving to a martial arts training camp, I walked there in medieval clothing with a sixty-five pound backpack. I did thirty miles in nine hours, and I learned things that you will never find with Google. I now have personal insights into how the riff-raff got about in the Middle Ages, and I can use that to add richness to any future story or novel, but it is background, not research.

What if the material you accidentally unearth is just so great that you simply must read more about it, just in case you can use it later? Great, do so. I do it too. Every morning I scan the BBC science and technology website, but this is not research. This is part of being alive and taking an interest in the world. So is having holidays at interesting places, putting in your eight hours a day at work, and going to parties – hint, stay sober at parties, it helps you remember people, conversations and behaviour that you may want to write about later.

I know what lots of you are thinking now, because I have had had conversations about research at loads of parties, conventions and lunchtime catchups. The unpublished author who has taken five years to write and research an epic will say ‘Research should not be restricted, just follow your star wherever it leads’ – and similar words straight out of heartwarming animated movies for very small children. Wrong.

Just suppose that you, the unpublished author, manages to sell your two hundred thousand word epic, written over five years. Perhaps the readers and reviewers like it. You now have your agent, editor, publisher and publicist banging on the counter for another book by next year, because they want to keep your name hot. Staying hot is very important. In this age of the Internet, you often read comments like ‘He’s so last year’, or even ‘He’s so last week.’ I don’t think an expression even exists for an author who has not been heard of for five years.

Can you deliver a two hundred thousand word sequel in one year, writing after work, and with time out to spend with your family, catch up with friends, watch the news, keep up with Facebook and do all the other things involved with being even halfway human? Quite probably, if you are really focused and disciplined. Did I mention book launches, signings and interviews? They take time too, but they are additional if you are doing your second book.

Now add the time needed to do unfocussed, undisciplined research. Suddenly you have a choice between quitting your job and living off your savings (or partner, which may not be a good idea) or taking five years to do your next book – by which time your name is no longer hot, and your agent, editor, publisher, publicist and (most importantly) readers are having trouble remembering you. You could also do no research at all, and write a crap second novel. Some authors do, but it’s a bad option.

Doing effective research as an after-hours author is an art that you really must learn, and learn before you start getting published. If you don’t, then you just might have confined your career to one well written and researched book, and a couple of rather spotty sequels.


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