This evening I had the weekly write-club session with my writing buddy Peter M. Ball (the man who committed the novella Horn). I went back over the novel, which Iâ€™ve not touched for about a month for a multitude of reasons (PhD, proofing short story collections and stories for various anthologies, fear, laziness, etcetera). I re-read the last chapter Iâ€™d written just to get a feel for it, to put myself back into the story (so I can distinguish the pseudo-fairytale German-like setting from the pseudo-Arabian Nights Damascus-like setting, and get my tone straight).
Everything was flowing rather well; I was happy with the state of the writing as Iâ€™d left it. It needs work, of course, itâ€™s a bit skeletal in parts and needs a good hamburger of plot, but on the whole I was happy with the first draft. And then I came across one of those gems that a writer finds her/himself heir to … the things you insert into the text when youâ€™ve not yet done enough research about a particular topic, so you put in square brackets, type in CAPS a note-to-self and highlight it in yellow. Or thatâ€™s my normal habit, at least. On this occasion I seem to have been a little laissez-faire and so what I actually found in the middle of a paragraph was this little beauty:
“She thought she recognized the workmanship and the design of the holey thingy in the whatsit”.
Shocker, ainâ€™t it?
After we stopped laughing, I started to ponder the requirement of research. Fiction, even speculative fiction â€“ in fact, especially speculative fiction â€“ works best, convinces best, when itâ€™s inflected by authorial authority. Your reader needs to believe you know what youâ€™re writing about. A little bit of research told me that the holey thingy in a lute is actually called a â€œroseâ€ â€“ a reader is going to be more accepting of my authority if I refer to it as such (amusement value of holey thingy notwithstanding).
I absolutely donâ€™t need to write into my novel everything I learn about lute making â€“ for that would be boring. It would also be a treatise on lute making, not a novel called Well of Souls. But I need to know enough and transmit enough to be able to sound as though I know what Iâ€™m talking about. Itâ€™s that assurance of voice that will carry a reader along with me.
A writer should always know to do some research, but sometimes we only come to realize itâ€™s time when we find crackers like the above in the middle of our paragraphs.
Broad reading is often your friend, and so: the magpie mind. We pick things up, we writers, bits and pieces of interesting, but otherwise useless knowledge â€“ oh, sure, itâ€™s stuff that could be deployed by the water cooler to combat those who insist upon discussing why the Good Wife is crying â€“ but itâ€™s not necessarily useful in other areas of life. But in writing, it can be the gold in the river of brown. I need to be able to pick the useful pieces, the relevant things, the shiny bits out of my research and use that to round out my story, to make it seem real and convincing for a reader.
I write in a genre in which people are happy to believe that there are flying donkeys. This is a willing audience, but my part of the bargain as the writer is to convince readers that I know all about flying donkeys â€“ that I have researched them until I know all about the required wind speed for launching a flying donkey, best fuel for donkey-flight, whether a high ethanol fuel will increase the donkeyâ€™s carbon footprint and, should the donkey stall in mid-air, what its are chances of resuming flight before a nasty crash ensues.
Of course, there is also the point where you need to know to when to stop. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Research can be addictive: I know far too much about the life of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem because I was not writing about her; I got side-tracked by her because she appealed to my interests. I was supposed to be doing broad reading to soak in color and atmosphere … yet I got caught up for weeks going down the rabbit hole of research, becoming a specialist on a tiny subject, instead of a generalist over a wide spectrum of â€˜stuffâ€™. For instance, Melisendeâ€™s husband, Fulk, was killed while out hunting when a rabbit scared his horse â€“ see? Useless, except to warn us about the inherent dangers of rabbits.
I found myself up to my eyeballs in journal articles and obscure books, printouts of translations of William of Tyreâ€™s Histoire d‘Outremer (and eventually, I must admit, originals of the same, trying out my atrophied Old French and bad Latin), shouting at anyone who enquired after my mental health that I could â€œStop at any time!â€
Eventually, I had to stop because I wasnâ€™t writing. And some tiny watchdog part of my mind said â€œAh, yeah, youâ€™re supposed to be writing. You know enough now. Step away from the research.â€ And, reluctantly as a chocoholic turning away from the Lindt Factory, I turned away from the research and started with the writing.
Sometimes research is also an excuse not to write. You tell yourself you canâ€™t possibly put pen to paper until you know absolutely everything. Itâ€™s a perfect excuse not to write; not to start writing, not to keep writing, not to finish.
It is late at night. I have worked all day and been writing for five hours. I am tired. I might be wrong about all this (although I am certain this will be my last guest blog here, for Jeff wants his memory cathedral back and I need to clean up a little before he and Ann get home). My logic might be as firm as a bowl of jelly. But I still think there is a fine line between researching too little and researching too much. Everyoneâ€™s different, but basically it comes down to this: donâ€™t let either be the cause of you not writing. Or Evil Monkey will mock you (just as soon as he finishes reading William of Tyreâ€™s Histoire d‘Outremer).
Â Thanks for reading, y’all. Slatter out.