I was having brunch with an agent friend this morning, and somehow we got on the topic of writing before you research. I feel like so many writers struggle with this because they want every detail of their story figured out before they start writing. They get hung up trying to figure out the difference between a crinoline and a petticoat, and pretty soon they’ve given up on their manuscript entirely because research is the biggest momentum killer ever. My lovely agent friend told me I should write a post about this particularly nasty problem, so here I am! Hoping that this is helpful to some other writer out there struggling under the weight of encyclopedias and hundreds of pads full of notes. (Or just a really huge file in their internet bookmarks labeled ‘EXTENSIVE RESEARCH FOR SUCH-AND-SUCH-A-PROJECT.’)
For the record, I do not believe in researching before you write. It is a terrible, awful, very bad, no good idea.
Every book you write, no matter where it’s set or in what time period, is going to require research. Unless you’re God, you don’t know everything about everything. How could you? You aren’t 200 years old, so you don’t know what it feels like to spend days traveling across the country in a stage coach. If you’ve only ever lived in Minnesota, you don’t know standard NYC subway etiquette. If you’ve never been homeless, how would you know what it’s like? There is always going to be something you need to research if you want your book to be accurate. And well it should be! But don’t kill your momentum before you even start.
I once decided I wanted to write a book set in the early 1900’s. In London. Now, I’m not 120 years old, and I’ve never been to England. I had to do research. I spent weeks taking notes on everything from period dress to mannerisms to what kind of inventions were available at the time. I researched which paths my characters would take to work, which parks they would play in, and the theaters they would most likely visit. I had an entire notebook full of minute details and pictures I’d found online.
Then I sat down to actually start writing and you know what happened? Nothing. I wrote about five pages and gave up. I had done so much research that I got sick of digging through my scribbles for a particular fact. But I didn’t want to keep writing until I found it because, god forbid, my manuscript be inaccurate.
Therein lies the problem.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot of manuscripts, most of which will never see the light of day. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s the secret behind a good first draft:
Don’t get caught up trying to make it perfect. That’s not what a first draft is for. That first draft, the one you write while doped up on nyquil, during NaNoWriMo, in between classes, or on the train, is there for you to get the basic plot down on paper. To explore your characters and give them motivations. To create an engaging voice. Those are the things that are most important to a story, not where McDonald’s is located. You can google map that shit later.
In my opinion, every book boils down to these three essentials: plot, character and voice. If you don’t have these things, your manuscript is dead. Setting is important, but you can take that storyline and put it in any time period — someone is still falling in love with someone else. Grandma still dies, whether it’s from influenza or being hit by a semi (Sorry, Grandma!). There’s a war. These details are all secondary. As my agent friend pointed out, if your book takes place during the Civil War and your leading man is leading the cavalry, it isn’t necessary to know every detail about that battle. You can writing a pretty generic fight scene without referencing specific historic details found only in a book that describes the first eight and a half minutes of that particular battle. You can look those things up later.
My most recent manuscript takes place in New York City. However, it’s about a girl who is homeless and falls in love with a boy attending Juilliard. I’ve never been homeless, and I have no idea what it’s like to be a student there. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. I see homeless people every day. I see what they’re wearing, where they hang out, hear them begging for change. I played the violin for eight years. I spent five years at four different colleges. These are experiences I can use in my writing to make the story feel authentic. Going to college is a generic experience. The finer points, the ones relating specifically to Juilliard, are not important for the first draft. And while I’m not going to spend a night sleeping on a park bench beneath a garbage bag, I can use my imagination.
So many ideas I’ve had for stories have died because I tried so hard to nail down the finer points before I’d even gotten to know the characters. Research has always been my biggest downfall, which is why I decided to start doing things a different way. Ever since I let go of my fear of an inaccurate first draft, I’ve managed to complete quite a few manuscripts. I’m not saying any of those drafts would win an award, or that they’re even very good. But they’re complete, and took a lot less time because I wasn’t worrying about google mapping the location of a particular building, or hunting down images of a theater from 1872.
Basically what I’m hoping you’ll take away from this is:
Trust me, your manuscript (and your sanity) will thank you for it.