Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Licensed to Obsess

My current work in progress is what I call a "research heavy" book. That means, basically, that it's about shit I don't know enough about to just jump in and wing it. It means I get to study a bit, and if I do it right, have some fun learning new and previously unknown things.

 One of the pitfalls of research heavy book; however, is the temptation to insert everything you learn about a topic straight into your manuscript. Most will advise against the unrelated information injection. It makes a book clunky, and it can bore the blue bejeezus out of your readers. Particularly if they aren't studying for a doctorate in herbalism, the history of writing devices in western civilization, monkey genetics, or whatever it is that you have discovered and become suddenly, inexplicably obsessed with during your research.

 As an author, when the time comes to put words on paper, most of that wicked shit you've discovered has to stay where you found it. Rather, it has to stay out of the story...and out of the story's way.

 That being said, I'd like to point out that during the pre-writing phase, all bets are off. In fact, so long as you promise to restrain yourself mightily once you actually start writing, I suggest going absolutely fantastically crazy with the depths of your research.

I have a theory that the more obsessed you get over a topic, the more you really dig in and try to absorb it, the easier it is NOT to cram it down your readers' throats.

 Because if you know it well enough, you won't have to. When you first learn something, it's new and shiny. It's also on the surface of your little pool of knowledge, floating there where you can accidentally step in it. Once you have integrated the information, though, it goes deeper. It becomes fused with the big ocean labeled "all the shit I know." After that happens, it's a lot less conscious. It's not an effort to retrieve it, and so, it flows way more naturally.

 That's my theory anyway. More significantly, I enjoy going a little crazy over a topic. I like the research stage and I've been known to get a little obsessive from time to time. If I'm writing about the 1950's (and I am) it seems logical to spend a few weeks listening to the music, watching the newsreels, wearing the clothes. I'm not suggesting we take up method acting for every book, but it seems like actually wearing a girdle would make an author more likely to write about how and where they tend to pinch than about how they're constructed.

 And as far as story goes, I think the the pinching wins.

 I'm also interested in how other folks research. I'm even more curious about any crazy, possibly over done, things other authors have tried when channeling their inner method actor. Because I know I can't be the only one who tried on the girdle.


  1. Yeeesssss. OMG I've a series in progress that is, basically, entirely out of my comfort zone 99% of the time (the other 1% is when the heroine's being snarky...I can do snark). I have spent more money on books for research--exotic locales, mythological artifacts, caving, wreck diving, mountaineering, plus government intelligence operations--on something I haven't yet sold than I have on any other project.

    The first draft of the first book was all "LET ME TELL YOU EVERYTHING ABOUT CAVING". And then I went back to it and realized no, the reader doesn't need to know precisely how to set up ropes and bolts, etc. Just enough jargon for the character and that was it. And you are totally right, the more I know about a topic, the more easily it slips in appropriately to the work without it being Lesson Time with Professor Skyla. I do let myself go wild adding all kinds of detailed crap initially, if only because I know it'll help me visualize it later, and then I trim in subsequent drafts.

    While I don't actually cave/climb/dive, I do physically block out scenes sometimes in my living room which confuses the cats greatly.

  2. In my favorite writer research project ever, I was writing a blind character and my writer friend was wondering what it would be like to be mute. We teamed up to go shopping for a friend's baby shower. I had eye patches and sun glasses, she was stricken dumb. Communication was challenging, the reaction of store clerks fascinating. (People always spoke to the sighted person, not the blind one, even after she repeatedly didn't answer).

  3. I think the "scene blocking dance" has become so blase at my house that I could do just about any kind of gyration and they'd assume I was writing. We even do write ins here often enough that the courtesy extends to my friends. Some day, they'll wise up and install video cameras for blackmail purposes.

  4. Great post. I read a book recently that made me want to throw it across the room because the author's research was too obvious. Like, OKAY, I understand, you know everything about JAPAN! Can we get back to the characters now?


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