Research or Write? That is the Question.

The Red Planet

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.

11 thoughts on “Research or Write? That is the Question.

  1. That’s the thing – there’s so much information out there and more is added all the time, but at least we’re not sitting in a library wishing there were more books on the subject

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    1. Yes, DM, one of the advantages of the current age is ‘instant’ accessibility to new knowledge. It can sometimes become overwhelming, but at least we have the choice over whether we use that access.


  2. Hmm…how long is that piece of string? Only the writer knows when they have done enough research, and even then there come these sudden realisations that more is needed! Sigh.

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    1. It’s an imponderable, Mick. I think all we can do is decide that the book needs writing and now’s the time to do it. In some case, I suspect it’s actually necessary to avoid any further research simply in order to get the story out there!
      I’m now in the editing process; well, actually a rewrite!

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  3. When I first became interested in being a librarian – at age 14 – my first instinct was to work in the field of historical research, especially the Tudors. That instinct is still there, but now I’ve moved back into the Plantagenets. As a writer, I have long accepted that the research is much more enjoyable than the actual graft of writing, but not just that. And this is where some writers fall down, because I know from experience that three days of research might need to result in just one throwaway sentence in the finished book. It must be difficult not to flaunt your new-found knowledge, but it can be death to the quality of the work in progress.

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    1. Absolutely right, April. As an author, you need to know which parts of your research will be background material, which bits will be crucial to the tale. And you need to be ruthless about judging whether a cherished nugget, gleaned from hours of searching, is actually germain to the story or simply something you’d like to include so your readers know how clever you are!
      Thanks for your comment.


  4. Ah, gone are the school days reading of travellers to Mars popping the occasional pill for physical survival and carrying around a shotgun in case of nasties, eh? Oh, the innocence!

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    1. Even the good stuff in fiction can get it wrong. e.g. a fundamental story element for the film, The Martian, involves the character being speared by a piece of equipment blown off the surface structure during a dust storm. Trouble is, with an atmosphere less than 1% the density of Earth, even a 100kph wind would result in something like a 10kph breeze on Earth, so structural damage would be a non-starter!
      It’s details like this that emerge from the research and ruin your original ideas, if you’re concerned to get it right, that is!
      Still, I’ve started the rewrite and found a way to overcome some of the faults in the original story without utterly destroying it. In fact, I think the new version will be a lot better. Long live research in depth!
      Thanks for your comment, Linda.


  5. Kudos to you for doing all that research! Wow. I think it’s essential that an author try to conform as much as possible to, at least, the common wisdom around a topic. It adds to the authenticity and believability of a work. I love reading those sci-fi books where the science sounds so real, I wonder if it is!

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    1. Yes. Because science fiction is often read by scientists as well as those with no scientific expertise, I think the research can help make the science element as plausible as possible. The last thing an author needs is some expert commenting that the whole thing, or a large portion of it, is just not credible.
      Thanks for the comment.

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