Creativity cannot be killed but it can be starved it into stagnation by ignorance. When we know what we want to say, we just say it. The key to that knowing is investigation, also known as research. Most writer’s block is down to under-investigation. The writer has skipped or under-sketched this third stage of the process and begun drafting (stage four) too soon.
But investigation is not something that happens only before we begin drafting. It is embedded in every stage of the creative process. As research seeds are captured and sown and reaped, story and character grow. As the story grows, new questions are asked giving rise to more exploration. Thus, origination and investigation travel together, back and forth, hand in hand, pushing and pulling each other into shape all the way to the end.
You know, however, that you are moving into the stage that is primarily about investigation when incubation (stage two) of your intention (stage one) is beginning to settle into some non-negotiables.
You have come to realize, for example, just how your hero will be punished to teach her the error of her ways. Or how there simply has to be a battle scene three-quarters way through. Or that the book will be short, no more than 70 pages.
Whatever limitation is setting in, it forms a nucleus around which this third stage of the process can revolve.
INVESTIGATION. THE CHALLENGE: To get to know your story world in germane detail.
Limitation is vital to creation. A well-told book, fiction or non-fiction, always creates its own world. This world must be contained and knowable, small and detailed enough to be held in the mind of first the writer, then the reader.
No matter how broad or expansive a fictional world seems to be, a closer look will reveal that it’s remarkably small. Even the 19th century social blockbusters like War and Peace and Middlemarch focus on a handful of interrelated families. The same is true of even the most far-reaching topic in non-fiction.
Salient details, telling details, details in what Brenda Ueland calls ‘microscopic truthfulness’, are key to knowing the world of your book, to igniting and enlivening your writing and to ensuring that you avert cliché. Details are absorbed and amassed through research carried out in a spirit of investigation.
Such research will take three forms, roughly corresponding to the three dimensions of your mind:
Research of other writing (Surface Mind).
Research of your memory (Deep Mind)
Research of your imagination (Beyond Mind)
All three come into play in different combinations, depending on how factual or imaginative your book’s topic and treatment.
Investigating Other Writing.
A. Investigating Other Writing for Facts & Details.
Let’s get the most obvious kind of research out of the way first. The best key to this kind of research is the classic book, Research For Writers, by Ann Hoffman. Writers these days are lucky to have a vast world of research at the tip of their favourite search engine. How much or how little of this kind of research is needed is best resolved by asking the question: Does this feed my story world?
Research must never become an end in itself.
Try This: Deepen your search by getting away from the Internet to the library. Using their catalogue, make a list of ten book titles that you think might offer details to feed your writing project. Read the bibliography of all ten and note any possible titles there. Follow them up.
B. Investigating Other Writing As a Model.
It always astonishes me when someone who supposedly wants to write tells me that they don’t have time to read enough, or to read well. Or when they consume books like a compulsive eater eating chocolate, taking in one after another without any attention to texture or flavor.
Try This: Read Twice.
Take a book you have been wanting to read and determine to read it not once but twice. The first time, read rapidly and uncritically, like a reader. When you are finished, taking a notebook and answer three questions about the book: 1. In one sentence, what is it about? 2. Did you like it, yes or no? Or yes and no? 3. In detail, explain why and/or why not?
Now read the book again, this time as a writer, more slowly and thoroughly, looking out for how this writer managed to achieve the effects that you liked and didn’t like.
Try This: Take It Apart.
Read with critical attention, with every faculty alert. Who is the person who wrote this book? How does structure and form help to communicate intention? How would you describe the language? How does it support the theme? How long are the chapters? The sentences? The paragraphs? Notice the rhythm of the book. Is acceleration or deceleration used for emphasis? Any mannerisms or favourite words? How does the author convey the passing of time? Get the characters from one scene to another? What is the point of view? Is there a chapter list? An index? A bibliography? What did the author not tell us?
After the first few books – which you must read twice if you are to learn how to read as a writer – you will find you can read for criticism and enjoyment simultaneously, choosing to reread only those passages where the book shines or fails.
Investigation of memory.
The contribution any writer makes is to offer to the common pool of experience our particular vision of the world.
Nobody else was born of your parents, at just that particular time in your country’s history. Nobody else has undergone your experiences, with your mind and body, flavouring your thoughts, ideas and conclusions. So investigating your own self, your memory – after flesh and bone, memory is what we’re made of – is essential work for the writer.
In the process of researching your memory, and accurately writing the ‘microscopic truth’ about what happened, as best you know it in any moment in time, you will in time come to be on such friendly terms with yourself that you will have found that elusive quality editors are always chasing: an original voice.
Your investigation of yourself – a lifelong project as you a being forever in flux – must be deep and detailed enough for you to be able to say precisely what you think about any given question that might arise for you, or for any character, in the book you’re working on.
Your writing will have the vigor and the strength of flavor of all work that comes straight from a person’s core, without compromise, deviation or distortion. And in having that, it will speak directly to the core of the reader.
Try this: In your free writing notebook, write for one hour, jotting freely any detail of any aspect of your own memory experience that is, or might be, relevant to your characters lives. Until you write it, what you know remains in some way unknown, even to you.
Try this: Go into one memory in detail. e.g a journey in a bus. What color was it outside? What colors inside, the walls, the floor, the seats, the advertising posters? Use the most vivid, descriptive language you can muster: not just green or red, for example, but sage or scarlet. Where was the entrance? Had it a conductor? How did the seats face? Who was sitting opposite? How were they dressed, how did they stand or sit, what were they reading?
When you’ve covered the bus journey in visual terms, start again accumulating as much detail as possible about the sound. Then the smells, the tastes and the touches. How did the strap feel under your hand, or the stuff of the coat that brushes past? Put what you notice into definite words.
Investigation of Imagination.
Here’s Robert McKee, one of Hollywood’s favorite screenwriting gurus on this aspect of investigation: “Lean back and ask: ‘What would it be like to live my character’s life hour by hour, day by day? Include details of how your character shops, makes love, prays — scenes that may or may not find their way to your story, but draw you into their imagined world until it feels like déjà vu. While memory views whole chunks of life, imagination takes fragments, slivers of dream, and chips of experience that seem unrelated, then finds hidden connections and merges them into a whole.”
Research shows that the more creative a person is deemed to be, the better their ‘capturing’ techniques. Whether you use your phone, or notebooks all over the house and in your pocket, have a place to capture those ideas and details when they arise in your mind.
And most especially beside your bed. Coming in and out of sleep is our most imaginative time of the day.
Try this: Before you go to sleep at night, write down three questions that are bothering you about your book. Determine to dream the answers. As soon as you waken, take up your notebook and begin to write. Write steadily until you have filled at least three pages with details of the answers.
Try This: Pychoanalyse your character. Put him or her on the couch and ask them questions about their life and motivations, writing the answers in your FREE writing notebook.
Try this: Paint or sketch a picture of your setting.
Try this: If your book were a song, what would it be? If it were a colour, what would it be? If a taste, a sound, a touch? (Repeat with characters, situations, and emotions).
Detailed research from the memory, imagination and facts will eventually bring about a situation that authors often describe a bit in mystical terms. Characters spring to life, making choices and undertaking actions of their own free will, until the writer can hardly type fast enough to keep up. The impression that the story is writing itself marks the moment that the writer’s knowledge of the subject reached the saturation point. The world of the book became known in sufficient detail for any question about that world to be answerable.
It feels amazing, even magical, but there is nothing mysterious about it. It is simply our reward for the hard and detailed work of investigation.