Thursday, September 23, 2010

Questions For Writers #1

A while back a student emailed me a bunch of questions about writing. I answered them. My answers weren't great or anything, but I did take a bit of time to put my thoughts into words. I emailed back... and I don't recall if I ever heard back from the student.

Perhaps my answers weren't what he was looking for. (I have to admit, a lot of them do have an "I dunno, you just have to figure it out" sort of vibe.) Having put time into them, though, I'd like to offer them up again! One at a time. Occasionally. That sort of thing.

Okay, first, a question:

How much research do you need to do for a project (short story vs. novel, say)? Do you absorb a lot upfront and dive into more as needed along the way, or do you only search out the bits you need as they arise? Or something else? How do you know where to start in terms of finding sources/information?

And my answer:

Since I’m mostly writing novels I always want to know enough about my subject matter to know that there’s a novel in it - and that the time period/setting is an integral part of what’s going to make it interesting. But I don’t try to know everything. I do the bulk of the research as I write, as I discover blank spots in my knowledge and have to find the details to fill them in.

I certainly do search out the bits I need as they arrive, but I also try to have a variety of other indirect research sources: nonfiction books on related issues/time period/cultures/science/history, novels written about (or during) the time of my story, novels that may be about entirely different subject matter… Reading a great Vietnam War novel may be very informative to how I write about ancient warfare, etc. I’d also suggest that when reading secondary historical works you check the footnotes. If the book gives you an interesting bit of information find out where they got it; go there for more; follow leads.

Bottom line is that research is trial and error. I don’t think there’s one magical way to do it.

My current thoughts on this answer?

Well, yeah, that's pretty much what I think about that. Writing is blundering with intent. Just do that. Blunder like you mean it. Good things may come of it.

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Anonymous Shawn Crawford said...

Sounds like great advice to me, David.

When it comes to research, I feel as if I'm working on it all the time--every novel I read, non fiction history book or website I peruse, every documentary or movie I watch--might very well contain some small element or idea I use later in my writing.

For example--I was working on a section in my novel involving the rowing of a longship, and later realized that I really didn't understand the physical mechanics involved. Reading about how oarsmen actually work and getting a good visual picture of the act are two different things. Later, I came across a YouTube video of a Gokstad replica being rowed at sea and was able to rectify my previous misconceptions.

That's not to say I only do research when I run into a problem--I actually spent years developing the setting of my current novel--researching everything from ancient Roman aqueducts to East African sailing ships and everything in between--with sources as disparate as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Osprey publishings Men-at-Arms series of illustrated history books.

A question regarding your own research tendencies--do you keep copious notes, or is most of the setting information stored in your head? For example--do you have a written timeline of the history of Acacia? Or a family tree of the Akarans?


1:42 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...


Sounds like you're doing the right things. You're getting it done, finding the information where you can, using and revising as you do. That's how it happens.

I'm not a copious note taker. I don't have big family trees. I tend to know as much as is in the books, and bit more, sure, but not tons more. When I need to reference a name or historical event, I most likely find the answer in one of the earlier books. And my Akaran family tree is limited to active characters and to historical figures that get mentioned. I certainly don't know every aunt and uncle.

Somehow, I'm alright with that...

9:21 AM  

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