So I was going to write another educational post this week, when the new issue of Writer’s Digest showed up in my mailbox. It contains an article on research by Charles J. Shields, and, like research itself, I’m finding I have a love/hate relationship with it.
Didn’t You Learn That in School?
When I first saw the headline “Research Like a Pro: New Techniques,” I thought, “It’s pretty sad that we have to explain to writers how to research.” I don’t know if I was just lucky that as an English major, and again to get my master’s in public relations, I had to write lengthy, well-researched thesis papers. That’s when I learned about research databases (although this article introduced me to several I hadn’t heard about), interlibrary loans (a godsend!) and the importance of getting to know subject matter experts. I’m not a historian – yet (getting my Ph.D. is in my 10-15 year plan) – but these experiences have given me a solid understanding of research.
But then again, I went to school primarily before the Internet took over. For my undergraduate thesis, we weren’t allowed to use online resources at all. Maybe that’s why I’m still more fond and trusting of information I find in books, as opposed to on the Internet. The article in question focuses mainly on online research, which is nice, but I’m old-fashioned. In general, books have to pass quality standards to be published; anything can be put on the Web. I’m not saying I don’t use online research, but I mainly keep it for minor fact checking or on the spot information. It was a lifesaver when I was writing the battle of Mount Badon. I can’t tell you how many times I used Google Maps to look at Little Solisbury Hill or how many sites I visited to learn about Anglo Saxon warfare in the late 5th century (which my books were oddly silent about). I do like Google Books, but that’s really just a searchable database of books, so I’m not really going too far out on a limb with that site.
Oh Wait, Maybe I Was Wrong
The more I thought about it, I realized it’s actually wonderful that we’re teaching people how to research. In an age when the Web runs our lives, Shields’ article has some great tips on how to contact experts and how to use virtual tours to get to know places you can’t actually visit. He also made some great points about “folding in your research,” so that your readers can’t tell what you had to look up or what your sources were.
I can say from personal experience that there’s nothing more annoying to a reader than to be enjoying a book and what the author writes about starts looking really familiar and then all of a sudden, you know what book they used. The whole point of research is to make it look effortless, like you knew that information all along. In my opinion, that happens when you really internalize your subject and begin to live it. If you can get lost in it, your characters, and hence your readers, will too.
Editing: Blessing or Bane?
The other aspect of writing I have a love/hate relationship with is editing. I’m working my way through what I hope is my second to last round of edits before I query again. Sometimes, I’d rather poke my eye out than make a suggested change and other times I change one tiny thing and the whole story is suddenly a million times better.
The other day it hit me: editing is a beautiful process. It’s like getting multiple second chances. It’s very freeing to realize you don’t have to get everything right the first time around. Stories evolve as we write them, so it’s nearly impossible to get everything in the right order or shown the right way in your first few drafts. Editing allows you to not only change things that aren’t working, but foreshadow things you didn’t even know were going to happen when you originally wrote the lead up to them. If you’ll forgive the comparison, it gives you an almost god-like power, because you can go back and redo things until they turn out to where the plot appears seemless. If only reality worked that way. Wouldn’t it be great if we could edit our own lives? Oh wait, that lack of control is one reason we write – to be able to control the lives of our characters.
So, talk to me. How do you do your research? Are you an online junkie or a bookworm or a little of both? Does editing make you rejoice or just cringe?