Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Back Away From The Research!

This next project I’m working on is set in Medieval France and requires tons of research. I mean, tons! It needs way more than even the Theodosia books, which were extremely research heavy. Research is also one of the means through which I enter my story world. By immersing myself in research, the world of Edwardian England or Medieval France becomes real enough to me that when I close my eyes (which I do a lot. It’s called napping and is highly valuable exercise!) I am there.

One of the reasons this project requires so damn much research is that the worldview of someone who lived in Medieval France is radically different from our contemporary mindset, or even the mindset of a hundred years ago, and its that radically different worldview that attracts me to that age. But in order to evoke it on the page, I really have to know more than what sorts of clothes they wore, houses they lived in, and food they ate. I need to know how they thought of themselves in relation to the world.

The other thing I find is that there are wildly different interpretations of medieval life, with some authors claiming love was never a part of any marriage or betrothal and others claiming that theory is ludicrous and that while noble marriages were political beasts, there is evidence that some love matches occurred. At first this can be wildly frustrating, but after enough of these contradictions, it ends up being very freeing to me as a writer because if the experts can’t decide, then it means we don’t know with absolute certainty, so I can pick which theory works best for my story.

Of course, there will be some reader whose read the theory I didn’t choose, and will take me to task for getting research incorrect, but one of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t please every reader. It is impossible. For every story decision you make, for every character attribute you select, for every piece of research you incorporate, you risk alienating some reader somewhere. The thing I think we have to come to grips with is that it is okay, expected even, to not be every readers’ cup of tea. Ultimately we have to make the choices that resonate the most with us and trust that there is a sufficient body of readers out there for whom our choices will also resonate.

Okay, that was a tangent, Now where was I? Oh yeah, some people claim that research can be an avoidance technique, but even with the piles of it I do, I have never found this to be true for me. The thing is, my process has had over a dozen years now to mature and take shape and the one thing I know to be true is that writing is my favorite thing ever, and I don’t lack discipline for writing. I don’t need to force it because I will always come back to it. I can hardly force myself to take week’s vacation. So if I don’t feel I’ve done enough research, it is not because I’m avoiding writing, but because I truly haven’t done enough research or I still need time for the story or voice to jell.

If I try to cut the research short, the voice doesn’t fully ripen and it sounds off and clunky or anachronistic. In fact, I sometimes wonder if all the advice to write every day, and that warns against too much research doesn’t contribute to stories being written before their time? I’m a firm believer in the role of the subconscious (read: the girls and boys in the basement) in sending up some of the best stuff for our stories—but they need stewing and fermenting time.

The other reason I’m inclined to keep on with my research is that much of the time I will find the perfect plot element or the answer to a thorny story problem in the research—I consider that the writing gods reward for keeping at the tough slog through the genealogy charts of long dead French land barons (and isn’t google the most amazing thing ever!) and staring at maps until my eyes cross (because in medieval power and political struggles—land IS power and military strategy—it is absolutely integral to the story).

When I do need to back away from the research is when my poor brain becomes over saturated, like a lawn that’s been watered too long so that all the water just runs off onto the sidewalk. When my brain starts dribbling out my ears into puddles on the table, I know I need to stop. For now, at least. But the research process continues throughout the writing of the entire book.


Dave Johnson said...

This is a timely post for me - I'm trying to write in 1466 Renaissance Florence and I've absolutely hit a wall. I can't write anything else until I do a ton more research. I've tried to plow on through with the story, but when I read what I've written the day before, it's horribly two dimensional (even worse than normal first draft two dimensional!). This is probably the root of some of the voice problems you talked about last week - not knowing the mindset of the times enough to have an authentic character voice.

I feel the guilt of not writing every day while I'm burning up Google but without that background, the characters are going to suck! I'm considering a class on Renaissance philosophy offered at the local U.

Three cheers for research!

Robin L said...

The university class sounds like a great idea, Dave! I always joke that once I get the boys through college, I'm going to go back and get a medieval history degree.

As for research--here's my quick and dirty research tip: I always start with children's books on research subjects because they are so short and concise and give a great overview, then I branch out into the more specific areas I need.