On Book Research

When I finished the first draft of my book in early April, I set it aside and moved on to the research phase. How relieved I was that I had reached the research phase! It meant I wouldn’t have to do the writing anymore. I’d spent the last 2.5 months cranking out some shamefully immature sentences, just so that I could play-act my character through her journey  – as a child would bounce a stiff-limbed figurine through her shoebox town. It was an ugly first draft. Necessary, but ugly, and I was happy to look away.

Now I’m starting to miss writing again. Human nature.

I have 191 pages of book research notes which cover 6 subjects, and I have 18 more subjects to cover. It sounds worse than it is. I started with the most labor-intensive subjects and I suspect that the remaining ones will average about five pages each.

I’ve learned plenty of fun facts about wide-ranging topics, some more exciting than others. But boredom is creeping in. Creeping in, and slowing my pace. I wonder if I’ll really be able to finish the research phase by the end of August.

I feel lonely, because research isn’t communication the way writing is. I can’t even go to writing groups (neither in person nor online) with just research. So I feel bored. I feel bored and lonely and often dumb.

I feel overwhelmed, because even after this research is finished, writing my second draft will only yield more questions. Even after I’ve completed a topic, most of the time I don’t feel confident that I’ve really understood it. I’m going to need interviews, personal experience, field work of a sort.

After all, my first book was written really flying by the seat of my pants. I had a good old raucous time with it, but did virtually no research and made up the science myself. As I have mixed feelings about that book’s existence, I also feel quite self-conscious about getting the science wrong here. Look, there’s always a little bit of creative license, but completely ignoring enormously important facts just feels lazy. It’s like one of the opening scenes in Lucy, when Morgan Freeman’s character repeated that tired old trope about the brain only using 10% of its power. This “fact” captured the public imagination for some years, oft repeated in conversations about telepathy and levitating monks. But the “power” this factoid refers to is the amount of electrical pulses firing in your brain at any given moment, and if more than 10% fired at once, you wouldn’t levitate or turn into a liquid information-god, you’d just have an epileptic fit. Lapses like this really bother me in fiction, included my own past lapses. I think we can do better.

Technology has become a big area of research. Not just super-advanced fantasy future technology, but simple, ‘low’ technology, the sort that was in use prior to the industrial revolution. It’s this latter bit that is actually the most difficult. Far-flung high technology is speculative enough to allow magic and guesswork into its inner machinations. The how of it all wouldn’t come up in casual conversation. But these people, that is, the main occupants of my story’s loosely organised society, live off the grid. They need to know things like how to make clothes, how to make paper, how to work metal and make guns, how to shelter, clothe and feed themselves all without electricity. They have some of the knowledge but none of the infrastructure of their forebears. So even if it’s not talked about between them, I need to know it. I need to know how they do it. In that way, weirdly, it feels like I’m writing a period piece. I didn’t sign up for a period piece! But I did sign up for a book, which is bound to drag your soul into all sorts of weird alleys.

The upshot: This research has frequently given me sparks of inspiration or on-the-spot insight, which is a really marvellous feeling. I allow myself to run off down the golden thread and rattle out a few paragraphs or an outline point that – unlike my first draft, feel really real, like a true thought passed between friends and not so uncomfortable and writer-y. And that’s nice.

I don’t know what the prevailing dogma is about research among writers and people who teach writers. I suspect many of them would say that 6 months for research is too long. It’s true that if I were just a little better at my job and less prone to listlessness I could have gotten this done in half the time. But as it is I am waiting, panting for the glorious day when I’ll have a fat binder full of sick knowledge and nothing but a blank word document in front of me.




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