Dear Dr Darwin,
I’m writing a novel set in medieval Mallorca, and I’m a draft-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer, not a planner. My business partner says it’s inefficient to do the research until I’ve written my first draft and know what I need. My critiquing partner says it’s asking for trouble to do the writing first and leave the research till later, because the writing might turn out to be wrong. My civil partner doesn’t see why I can’t just go to the library and do both at the same time. I’m so confused, I’m beginning to wish my novel was set in Salford in 2015.
Baffled of Salford
Would it help if I said that there’s no certain right time to research a book, relative to writing it? Because, of course, that also means there’s no certain wrong time either.
Researching before you write the first draft gives you lots of material and gets your imagination going. It may be essential for basic facts for the plot and structure of the story, but it has risks too: it can swamp you with material, and trap you into merely reproducing your research, for fear of ‘getting it wrong’. And if you suffer from that kind of fear, or the general terror of the blank page, it’s very easy to use research as procrastination and never start writing at all.
Researching during the first draft means you can get on with the writing, while pinpointing exactly what material you need. It’s extremely efficient, and you can fine-tune your ideas and plans for the rest of the novel as you go. But the risk is even bigger that the pages fill with what Rose Tremain calls ‘inert data’: information and ideas straight from the history book, which haven’t gone through the ‘anarchic, gift-conjuring’ part of your own creative brain. What’s more, because research-as-you-go will mean the drafting goes much more slowly, you risk losing touch with the larger pace and structure of the story, and you may simply lose hope that you’ll ever finish. And of course research-as-you-go is crack cocaine for procrastinators, because it feels so virtuous: just another few websites, and then you’ll start, honest!
Researching after writing the first draft has the advantage that the story has told you what it needs, and you’re less likely to feel swamped: you can put in placeholders for now, then when you know what you want, you can go straight to it. On the other hand, re-structuring because a guess turns out to have been seriously wrong is a nightmare, and you may stumble on wonderful material too late for it to have an organic part in your story’s development. It’s also tempting, when you look at your generic, standard-issue placeholders, to decide that they will do, really, won’t they? Which of course they won’t.
Realistically, it’s often a matter of researching when you can: when you can get to the library or the castle, when you can park the children or the day job, or find the expert and buy her a drink. So don’t despair if life means you can’t research at stages which are optimum for you: just do your best to exploit the advantages of the different approaches, and overcome the drawbacks.
It can help to remember that different material has different roles in your work: discovering whether a message would be on a parchment roll or a clay tablet can wait if only the words matter, but not if the action of the scene centres on the object being destroyed. What’s more, it’s no sign of failure to go back to places and books: the first visit was to get the basics, the second to discover the textures and particulars that make the story come alive.
And finally, do shop at your independent bookshop when you can, at least for the most essential books: then as soon as you’ve time for the book, it’s at hand. You can pencil in the margins and read it in the bath, and save on the library fines too.
Emma Darwin has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. She has been commissioned to write a handbook on writing historical fiction and is also the author of The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.