Love/Hate: Ramblings About Research & Editing

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?

3 thoughts on “Love/Hate: Ramblings About Research & Editing

  1. Interesting post, Nicole. It sounds like we were both trained in research about the same time – just on the fringe of the Internet days. Sadly, as a book editor, I can tell you that many authors were not trained and do all their research online, and don’t even understand about copyright, but just copy and paste from online sites and then I have to track down their sources and rewrite all that for them. Very trying on my patience sometimes that they don’t know better.

    I was trained to do research with books because we didn’t have any Internet back then. As for writing fiction, I turn to the Internet more and more for basic information like fact checking, or if I just want a broad understanding of something, but then if it’s going to play a key role in my book, I will go to the library or buy books for my topic so I can get a better understanding. I’ll visit the places I write about, and I’ll go to museums and research libraries, and even courthouses and churches looking for records.

    It is true too what you say about editing. Sometimes you can just write the rough draft and go back to check the facts later. It can be frustrating too when you spend hours just trying to pinpoint one little detail that probably only one reader would ever call you on if you get it wrong, but if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

    I especially like your comments about using aerial maps for writing about Mt. Badon. I’ve done the same in trying to understand a town in France that my characters have to visit and trying to figure out how they would get from point A to point B in the town, although I may yet decide to go to France. An aerial map and a couple of photos can’t really give you the feel, the atmosphere, the mood, the lighting, the smells of the place that would make you realize how the place affects your character and creates motivations, or a love/hate relationship with the place. I’m going to Turkey in March precisely because despite all the books I’ve read about the Byzantine empire, I still don’t really understand what it was to be a 15th century Greek or Turk.

    Thanks for the interesting post. I will have to read that article myself.

    • Hi Tyler,

      I’m sorry to hear about the headaches improper research can cause for you in your work!

      I have to say I’m a little envious that you can travel to your locations, because as you say, nothing beats actually being there. I was lucky enough to visit England about a year after I first conceived this series, but I didn’t get to go to a lot of the places in the first book (mostly the ones in the second). There’s an Arthurian tour of Southern England and Wales I’m dying to take, but I don’t think that’s going to be in the cards for a while for me. But that’s what research, the Internet and imagination is for!

      And I completely agree that those little details are worth the sometimes maddening search. I love your line “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” That should be every writer’s motto.

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