How much research should a novelist undertake before setting out on the creative journey? How much should be done before editing to produce the final work? These are questions that probably occur to most of us at some time during the writing process.
I was inspired to visit these questions this week when I finally ended (I hope!) the research for a science fiction novel set on Mars. Research for this genre suffers from the problem that new information comes to hand almost daily. Some of this knowledge might impact on the story under construction. That decision rests with the author and depends on the nature of the story.
I’d already written 60,000 words of a first draft and done what I always do when undertaking a long project: left it to mature for a while, so I could approach it with fresh eyes. I’d done a good deal of research prior to the start, as I work as a pantster: no plot, and only the barest minimum of structural framework. I work using themes and character sketches, which I use to construct a story that will reach the destination I envisage at the outset of the journey. Sometimes my characters rebel and send me on an entirely different route; occasionally, they riot and insist on a different outcome. It’s all part of the excitement of creation for me.
This time, I became aware of additional research material during the period between initial construction and the date I’d pencilled in for editing. One item was the recent film, The Martian, which had been described as having excellent science as well as a good story. Having missed it at the cinema, I bought a copy and watched it. Yes, it was good. But some of the science struck me as a little unreliable. Nevertheless, the visuals of the landscape were pretty good and I absorbed these for future use.
Then I came across a reference to a book, ‘How We’ll live on Mars’, by Stephen Petranek. It turned out to be an essential research tool. I read it and reviewed the book here.
The text referred to another book, ‘The Case for Mars’, by Robert Zubrin. Once again, I bought a copy, read and reviewed it. This one turned out to be a seminal work on the subject, complete with some pretty scathing comments regarding NASA and the USA leadership’s attitude to space exploration. I took from it what I could and extended my research notes from 24,000 to 30,000 words. These are just notes, you understand. Amongst these jottings are links to websites for NASA, astronomy, biological sciences, space, and many associated subjects. It’s a lot of background reading.
All this extra information resulted in a re-examination of my original story. There are factors I now understand will render it less than accurate. And some, though by no means all, of my speculation regarding the future needs to be modified. One incident, the opening piece of excitement, the hook, no longer works for a number of reasons. So, I have to rewrite that portion. There are other parts that will need modification as well. And I need to rejig the central purpose of the mission I began with. Nevertheless, the basic idea remains sound and I’ll set about a thorough rewrite.
The danger is that I’ll discover further new information during the process. Some of that may be relevant to my story. Other news will merely be of interest. I’ll have to deal with that particular distraction as I work my way through the text.
The important thing now is that I get on with the book. I could spend the next forty years (I should be so lucky, to live to 108!) allowing new research to prevent my completing the story. But I won’t. I’ll keep an ear and an eye on developments, but I’ll finish the story and see if my publisher likes it: he’s already shown real interest. It will be written. And soon. Starting today.
And that’s my point here. There comes a time when research must stop and the real work of writing begins. For me, that time has arrived.
Are you using research as a delaying technique, is this procrastination, or do you really need to do more? It’s worth considering seriously, especially if you’re ever going to complete that novel! I am.