Stuck in Research Hell

Here’s a fun post by Abria Mattina at Writerology: Seven Signs You’re Stuck in Research Hell

I used to be the absolute worst at research. It wasn’t the research process I couldn’t handle—just that my research never ended. I didn’t know when I had enough information to reinforce my outline. I never called my research “done” and turned my attention to writing. . . . I was stuck in a cycle of pseudo-productivity, doing research that made me feel like I was progressing while simultaneously doing nothing to advance me toward my goals. It didn’t help that I love to write genre fiction. I’m editing a science fiction at the moment, and gearing up for another stab at my historical fiction manuscript.

This has never happened to me! Partly because I don’t care that much about perfect authenticity and partly because I’m too lazy to go get yet another book off the shelves downstairs and partly because I lack a great internet connection, but mostly because I generally find myself satisfied with the first reputable-seeming website that tells me how many crossbow bolts can be fired per minute or whatever.

Also I can just call my brother and ask how big a typical medieval army is and how far a guy can travel on horseback in a day and stuff like that, and he’ll just know. So that’s handy.

But you do run into people who seem to get lost in the research part of writing. Sometimes I think that’s because their hobby is actually worldbuilding, not writing, which is perfectly fine as long as they’re happy with that. But if they want to go on with the writing, of course it would be better to get out of research hell and start writing. Here are Mattina’s seven signs:

1. Your story sounds like a textbook.

Actually I think this is exactly what the Silmarillion sounds like. A history textbook. I skimmed it rather than actually reading it. Of course worldbuilding certainly was Tolkien’s primary focus, so there you go.

2. Your story sounds like a catalog of facts.

Not sure I can think of any examples . . . not good examples . . . I remember one passage held out as a bad example which really did read like a catalog of facts.

3. You’ve forgotten what your story is actually about.

This is funny: “Maybe when you started it was a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set at the height of the Mongolian empire—and now there’s all kinds of stuff in there about bow mechanics, religious rituals, horses, a side plot about tattooing, and what was the climax supposed to be again?”

Can’t you just see that happening? Of course I might enjoy all those details about tatooing and maybe your book doesn’t have to hew so close to the original, but one can see what Mattina means here.

4. You’ve lost your passion for the book.

Yep, that would be a problem. Though certainly getting lost in research is not necessarily going to cause you to lose passion for your story. All kinds of things can do that, including tightening deadlines and getting stuck in the plot. I think there you might be trying to regain lost passion by doing research. That might even work.

5. You can’t tell the difference between useful information and trivial factoids.

I don’t know. Some of those trivial factoids could probably be worked in gracefully to delight your readers. Look at Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy to see how she works in tons of wonderful details that add depth rather than tedium.

6. Your huge collection of material on some topic starts to look too small.

Probably Mattina is right. Just write the book already.

7. You don’t feel ready to write even though you have 1500 pages of research notes on hand.

Hah. At that point you need an index for your notes just to make them usable. Again, just write the book already. You can look up details as you need them.

I have never, ever taken more than a couple pages of notes about stuff before tackling a book. Of course it helps to be writing mostly secondary world fantasy that is supposed to have the flavor of a particular region, not a historical novel that is supposed to accurately represent a specific period and place.

For a while there I could tell you all about the eight kinds of granite found in Vermont, btw. Somehow it never seemed necessary to insert quite that level of detail into the Black Dog world …

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