‘Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you are doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.’
This great quote by the author E.L Doctorow makes me smile, because it highlights the difficulty that writers often have in finding the right balance between the need to research their subject and the time to start writing. Those of us who love the research will often find it’s a wonderful way of putting off the inevitable, the day you sit down and start out on your journey with your characters. Of course this is being simplistic because it doesn’t really happen one day. Ideas take time to mature and blossom and the research and writing usually go hand in hand, each nudging the other on a little. Let’s be honest the whole process of writing a book usually takes years as well as considerable amount of sweat and tears. But anyone who writes will also find it a process that gives enormous pleasure and a deep sense of satisfaction.
Clearly the research-writing balance does depend on the type of book that you are writing. If it is pure fantasy then little may be required but if it’s historical fiction or based on some real life events it is absolutely essential to get under the skin of your subject first. Every writer will approach their books differently and it’s a matter of working out the best approach for you.
How does it work for me? Well in my children’s book series The Cryptid Files, my character Vanessa Day hunts Cryptids (monsters like the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra etc.). These mysteries are set all over the world, so when I decide on a cryptid for my next book, I tend to identify five or six that strike me as interesting. Then I do a first round of research – is it interesting, is it well documented, are their newspaper articles, books written, where is it, can I visit the country soon if I haven’t already? This last one is really important for me as authenticity is vital whether it’s adult’s or children’s books.
We are fortunate to be able to sit at home and research a subject on the internet, or find a database in a library, but this can only serve as the very first line of research for any subject. Visiting a place, talking to people and getting under the skin of your subject are what provide the richness and depth in a book. It’s the detail; the unexpected that help shape your story. I would never set a book in a country or place without visiting it first.
My research will always go much deeper than I need and I’ll only use a fraction of the information I’ve gathered. It’s important to work out what should go in and stay out and this is often a process of evolution, it changes as you write it, as the story changes. You must not be tempted to squeeze in as many facts as you can about a subject, no matter how fascinating or how hard you’ve had to work to unearth them. In children’s books you must remember that the information also has to be appropriate to the reader’s age and their interests.
So what next? Well, once I identify my cryptid, the place, and begin to get a loose idea of the story, I visit the country and start the process of writing. By putting my character Vanessa in the right place with the correct detail, it’s easier to let her take over from there and let my story develop. For example when I was in Mexico researching my second book Mexican Devil I came across an amazing Mummy museum in a town of Guanajuato. It was such a funny little place that I knew I had to include it.
However when I wrote the chapter Vanessa reacted in a different way than I had originally intended. On the back of that chapter, I ended up developing up a new plot line. That’s the lovely freedom in writing. If you know your characters well enough and let them react in a situation, something new can come out of it. A character taking you by surprise is such a delight. No matter how well researched, plotted and planned, your book must be character led. Without believable, interesting characters that people can identify with, be they good or bad, a bit of both, you lose the reader. Developing those characters through your writing is a key to the success of your book.
And so after all that I arrive full circle back to E.L Doctorow’s wise words. And while I agree that research isn’t writing, I do still think it is essential. It’s all in the balance.