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May Writing Tip – Research: A Writer’s Best Friend and A Writer’s Worst Enemy

05/15/2009

The text of my May Writing Tips newsletter — if you’d like to subscribe, you can sign up here.

My name is Joe, and I’m a research-aholic.

This should surprise no one who reads my books. In fact, I’ve taken some teasing about the length of the “acknowledgments” sections of my books, because so many people have been so generous about sharing their expertise with me.

I have always considered “Write what you know” one of the most useless pieces of advice a beginning author gets. Write what I know? If I’d started out writing what I knew, I’d have come up with 10 or 12 pages about a kid in upstate New York who wanted to be a cartoonist (I did, actually; see my monthly newsletter for more about this). Granted, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, among others, did very well in turning their life experiences into literature – but I wanted to write thrillers, and my life was not thrilling.

No, for me, writing was all about having my characters do things I could only dream of, whether that was taking the Concorde to Paris, escaping assassins on the streets of Moscow, or wining and dining beautiful women in Boston’s finest restaurants (which I am now able to do, thanks to my wife and daughter, but you know what I mean).

And let’s face it: research is the fun part. Who wouldn’t want to ride along with cops, learn to shoot guns (lots of guns!), and talk to interesting people about the cool things they do? It’s much more fun than sitting alone in front of a blank computer screen, trying to figure out what happens next.

Research has also given me some of my best plot points and material. A weapons expert once showed me how to smuggle a gun through airport security and on to a plane. Believe me, I could not have thought that one up by myself.

But every hour you spend doing the fun stuff of research is time you’re not writing. And I’m here to tell you that research, while fun and often necessary, is addictive and dangerous.

It’s also a great crutch. All novelists feel like impostors at times; it’s only natural to feel unqualified and insecure in what you’re writing about. You don’t really know it – what do we know, we’re writers, right? — so you want to find out as much as you can. But in the age of the Internet, you’re always one hyperlink away from the next website or article, and it can go on ad infinitum. The easiest thing in the world is to put off writing while you find out exactly how many gallons the New York City reservoirs hold, or how long it takes to fly from Washington to Timbuktu, or whether Brazilians drive on the right or the left-hand side of the road.

So stop. Put the story first. Write your story first, and fact-check later. It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate; it just has to be plausible.

John Grisham was 100 pages into his latest book, The Associate, which was set at the Princeton Law School – when he found out that Princeton doesn’t have a law school. It didn’t derail him; he just moved the story to Yale, which does have a law school. The key is that the setting wasn’t the important part, the story was – and he’d already written 100 pages, so he was able to go back and make the necessary changes.

In Hollywood they call this “fixing it in post.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces need to come together just so in order to get a scene right on film. If 99 things are right and one thing is wrong, it’s not worth shooting an entire scene again; they can fix it in post-production, by overdubbing sound or correcting color or editing something out. The key is to keep going, so the production can “make its day,” and stay on schedule.

That’s what John Grisham knows: the key is to keep going. “When I write fiction, it takes a lot to get me out of the seat to check anything,” he said in a recent interview. “I hate to stop writing to go check a fact, to go find a city, to go to a hotel – I’ll just make stuff up.”

And you know what? Readers hate it, too. Nothing is worse than stopping a story to give your readers all the great research you did about how and when some government agency happened to be based in West Virginia instead of in Washington, DC, or why that particular vintage of Burgundy is considered the best, or who manufactures a particular kind of pistol in the United States. Research should be like an iceberg – only a fraction should be visible. (Ten percent of the iceberg, to be exact. I just Googled it.) Or to continue the show-business metaphor, it should be the lights that illuminate the stage, not a spotlight pointed at the audience’s faces.

Oh, but the research demon says: you want facts. Your male readers, particularly, want facts. If you get it wrong, you’ll get emails, and you’ll have to apologize and ask your publishers to correct things in future editions, and you – and they – HATE that.

This is true, actually, especially when it comes to weapons. If I make even a small error about something gun-related, I’ll get at least a dozen emails from aficionados who are sometimes downright outraged about my carelessness. (Which is why I take gun classes … or at least, that’s my excuse.)

It may even be one reason men read fewer novels than women, as Gore Vidal once noted in an essay: “It has been observed that American men do not read novels because they feel guilty when they read books which do not have facts in them. Made-up stories are for women and children; facts are for men. There is something in this…” As a man, this doesn’t make me proud … but Vidal probably has a point here.

But then I defer to that king of all research, James Michener, whose Herculean efforts filled whole bookshelves (Hawaii, Caravans, The Source, Centennial, etc., etc…). Even he admitted that research can only get you so far: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than that writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth … To praise a writer for having done research is like praising a bus driver for knowing how to shift gears; if he can’t perform that function, he has no right to climb into the bus.” Because the story, like the bus, has to go somewhere.

I wrestle with this constantly. I’ve had to set time limits on my research. If questions come up while I’m writing, I might make a call or fire off an email, but I don’t stop writing while I wait for an answer; I keep writing, and fill in details later.

Take the word of a research-aholic: don’t let this happen to you. Don’t overdo the research, because the story is what’s important. Without a story, your pile of facts is worthless.

We can always fix it in post.