The Joys (and Dangers) of Research

I’m doing research at the moment for a new book, and since it’s been a while since I’ve started something completely new, I’m revelling in the possibilities. I have a stack of non-fiction hardbacks with pretty covers and thousands of pages – in this case, some of my favourites that I’ve been accumulating for years, and whose subject matters are finally connecting and coming front and centre. I have a new notebook – A4, with a pale blue cover with gold and pink birds and patterns on, £1 off in Smiths yesterday. I have a stack of biros, post it notes and highlighters. And now, I also have more ideas than I know what to do with.

This is where the danger part of the title comes in.

Within the first hundred pages of my research, I have more books germinating than I could ever hope to write. Stories ranging from the present day all the way back to the Stone Age.

The problem is, I’m genuinely interested in my subject, and when I’m interested in something, I can’t help but make up stories about it.

Today, for instance, I’m reading about English villages – how they evolved, how they got their names, how they developed, how they were affected or created by the Roman, Anglo Saxon, Viking and Norman invasions. And right there, that’s about ten books worth of stories. The stuff I’m learning today is mere background for the contemporary romance (with a hint of magic) I hope to write later this year. Important background, given the story, but most of the information will never make it into the finished book – at least, not if I don’t want to bore my reader to death. I know not everybody cares about this stuff the way I do.

But what it is doing is sparking ideas for characters, scenes, motivations and conflict. It’s giving me glimpses of thoughts that will make up the details of the novel – the ones that (if I do it right) make my world somewhere real to the reader. Somewhere they’d like to visit, even live.

As long as I don’t get sidetracked by that story seed of the young bronze age girl in her roundhouse and the visiting traveller who brings copper to the village. Or go curl up and read Anya Seton’s ‘Avalon’ again.

So, tell me. How do you set about your research? And how do you stop yourself from getting carried away?

8 thoughts on “The Joys (and Dangers) of Research

  1. Margaret Fieland says:

    For my first book, I researched what happened to victims of a fire, and what happened in the fire itself. Blech. I had to do it, but I really wasn’t tempted to keep on reading. Then I cut the first couple of chapters, so the fire itself didn’t even make it into the novel, except as a short flashback. Then the next one (the one I still have to rewrite), I picked the brains of a friend who teaches music to middle schoolers. I did a fair amount of reading about middle school orchestras, too. That was more interesting. My current work in progress is a YA sci fi. In the name of research [grin] I’ve been reading lots of sci fi, fantasy, etc, etc. Now THAT has been hard to put down — I’m a ‘way back sci fi and fantasy fan. God bless my local library, because I’d never be able to afford to buy all these books.

  2. Eleyne Presley says:

    I’m still collecting ‘research’ books, even though my WIP is in revision. I’m not allowing myself to do any more content-type research. No notebooks allowed when I read one of these books, otherwise I’ll surely find some nifty idea I ‘should’ incorporate into my WIP.

    If some interesting fact strikes me as important, I write it in my ‘idea catcher’ notebook and let it germinate. Right now, I’m hoping some of those ideas begin to germinate and generate some more ideas for the next historical that I’d like to work on.

    And yes, I read fiction for research, too. I just don’t call it research.

    • Sophie Pembroke says:

      But if you don’t call it research, then you don’t get that smug satisfaction of reading and working at the same time!

      I like the idea of the idea catcher notebook. My ideas mostly end up scrawled across my diary, or my whiteboard, or the back of one of my daughter’s letters home from nursery…

  3. Cid says:

    I don’t know if I’ve figured out how to keep myself from getting carried away – yet. My coping method right now is my OneNote Ideas repository Notebook. OneNote is an amazing program and it really helps keep me organized! I’ve been doing a lot of research for two projects; one is an alternative history using ancient Babylon. Oh-my-lanta, the sheer amount of research and things I have to answer just to do my world building! It’s fantastic and enlightening and – NO ONE ELSE CARES! I did a blogging series about it to get some of the information out of my head, but mostly this research is for fun, and giving me the tools to better write my story. The other project is what I hope will be a horror series. I’ve been reading and watching lots of paranormal investigator type things and besides my OneNote Ideas project, I have a notebook to jot the ideas down.

    If I have an idea though during research for something else, I’ll stick it in my ideas in their own tab. Usually I’ll go ahead and jot down everything that comes to mind, and if I have a scene in my head I’ll write it out. First, it helps keep all the information in one place and secondly, it gets it out of my head. If later on that idea is still nagging me – chances are it’s not just a cool thought, it’s a story and I’ll look into taking it further.

    • Sophie Pembroke says:

      Ooh! Ooh! I care – that sounds fascinating! And I absolutely do not have time to research it myself. (But I might have time to read your posts before Glee starts…)

      I like OneNote a lot – I just wish I were better at using it. I forget about it for months at a time – sometimes until I’ve killed one laptop and had to buy another. (What can I say? I’m hard on hardware.)

      And notebooks… they’re just all sparkly and great. And my current one has a pretty pink ribbon, and some notes about the old lord of the manor who sold his soul to the devil, and one of the standing stones the devil threw, and a witch’s cursed teaset.

      Also, while I remember, I read ‘Talk Me Down’ by Victoria Dahl and you’re right – I did laugh. I also need to buy all her other books immediately. I’ve got one of her historicals from the library right now…

      • Cid says:

        OMG, Molly in Talk Me Down is so freaking funny! Victoria’s books are a riot – if you’re on twitter she tweets about her writing and it’s just as funny. I haven’t read her historicals – yet. I keep meaning to! I’m a bad fan-girl, I know, I know!

        My friend Suzan just did a whole blog about how to use one note (suzanisik.com) and I’ve been doing blogs about how I organize stuff using OneNote – because I’m freakish and LIKE organizing everything. I know, I’m crazy hm?

      • Sophie Pembroke says:

        Oh, I understand about the need to organise everything – it used to be my profession! Even now, my family joke that I have to have a spreadsheet, or a notebook, for everything. Which is true – I just like trying out new organisation methods, too, and sometimes I get sidetracked…

        I did love Talk Me Down. That’s the kind of books I want to write. Although, possibly with magic.

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