So I love a well-researched story. If I’m well versed in the topic, I get excited because the author is clearly as big of a nerd as I am, and if I’m not, I’m learning something new. (This is not to say fiction is the best way to learn about a topic, because, as much as I love it, I acknowledge liberties have been taken and things have been embellished.) So, how do you write a well-researched story? Honestly, it’s a lot harder than it looks.
The Research Rabbit Hole
Research can be a great way to avoid your writing. If you’re like me at all, you could decide you’re going to write a story about Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Vlad Dracula), read a lot about him, and then keep reading about him, digging through the history of Wallachia and the rest of his family tree because what’s the harm in knowing more? The problem was that I probably knew enough to write the story three books ago and I still just kept researching.
In truth, sometimes less research can work in your favor. There have been times when I’ll write something, guessing and assuming the things I’d later research to find out I was right about. And because I was not getting caught up on the details, I was able just to write the thing, prioritizing entertainment and pace and double checking the smaller things later. That tends to be a more successful story.
Write what you know.
As someone who likes to write about more fantastical things, “write what you know” always seemed like pretty bland advice, but I want to talk about it. You might surprise yourself with what you know.
There are topics that I’ve learned way too much about and I keep thinking, “why is it that I’ve never written about that?” Like for example, I’m obsessed with local history and wherever I’m at, I’ll learn the local history. I lived in the UK for a year and naturally I learned a lot of the history of my town. As an exercise once, someone asked me to tell them a fictional story set during The Black Death. I told him a story, and he’d stop me at different points and ask, “why would they do that?” and I could tell him why. I never set out to know all these things for the purpose of a story, I just happened to know them.
While this is not so helpful if you already have a story in mind, there will be topics that you happen to know a lot about within the scope of your own interests.
Read it and forget it.
So to avoid the research rabbit hole, there is one method I’ve found some success with. Do the research. Read some books. Know the topic sufficiently, and then put it out of your mind when you sit down to write.
Write the story as though you haven’t just read all these books in preparation. Don’t have the books near you while you write. Shut off your WiFi connection so you can’t search the internet to fact-check. Write it and focus on the story. Try to forget the research as much as you can. Only let things enter the story if they come into it naturally.
Only after your first draft, when editing, do you pull out your books again and double check. Then you turn on your WiFi again and do your necessary fact-finding.