The Seductions of Research

Having tentatively decided to do this YA novel for NaNoWriMo (I’m registered as jpmurphy, by the way if you’re looking for writing buddies) I decided that I should firm up a bit of the setting. Actual writing is not allowed until November 1st, but outlining is, and research definitely is. So I am doing both.

Originally I had wanted to place this in the 17th Century during the plague year (1665, I think it was?). But the more I thought about it, WWI seemed like a better time period: zeppelins and submarines threatened the skies and seas (the story will, I think, feature both). And of course in the intervening years there had been born one Jules Verne. I’ve added in a number of other items, including suits of armor and magic traditions from a number of cultures. Long story short: there’s a lot of reading I can do!

And that’s where things get tricky. I can read endlessly on these subjects. I have twenty browser tabs open right now on WWI U-boats alone: Starting at the left are general pages, and on toward the right I’ve narrowed my search specifically to either the UB-I, a torpedo attack boat, or the UC-II, a mine-layer, that seem to be among the smallest boats fielded by the German Imperial Navy. (Why are those things important? Well, you’ll find out later. I’m still looking for deck plans for the UB-I and UC-II, by the way…) I’ve got articles open on WWI troop recruitment, on popular music and books of the era, all sorts of interesting stuff. I could read for days and days on any of these subjects. I got some excellent advice from Dr. Doyle on becoming an instant expert, and I am putting that to good use!

… Too good, in fact. There’s a reason I went into academic research in the first place: I really enjoy learning. And there needs to come a point at which I stop reading and start writing. Fortunately for me, if I don’t start writing on Nov 1st, I don’t have much chance of getting to 50,000 words by Nov 30th. And yet that makes me nervous: I know I’m going to be getting things very wrong when I write, and so my instinct is to learn as much as I can first. I can see how this can be deadly, because there’s always one more thing to read. I have “inner editor” problems too: I am very prone to stopping cold in the middle of a sentence to come up with the right word/concept or to check a fact. That can be lethal, it can stop me for days sometimes. I’ve recently come upon good advice for dealing with this problem that I look forward to trying, but so far my perfectionist streak has been problematic.

But I am coming around to finally accepting the other big piece of advice I’ve been receiving: write the first draft with some basic knowledge but not too much more. Plan on fact-checking before and during the production of a second draft. Most of what I consider crucial knowledge probably isn’t, after all, and I can bend and twist the plot after the fact to match the facts without breaking too much. This kills me: my main piece of writing before this was my PhD thesis, which is not the sort of document that can be (or maybe I should say, should be) written in this matter. It just feels wrong, you know? And yet, this is fiction. The basic plot does not depend on any one fact, and when push comes to shove, any detail can be changed to reflect reality.

But I’m also finding that reality will often meet me partway. For example, I mentioned above that the plot required a fairly small submarine to have been scuttled off the coast of England. Well, most U-boats were pretty big, but after some digging I found two classes that each had a crew of 14. The UC-II looked promising, but was a little too big. The UB-I, however, looks almost perfect at a mere ~75 feet long. It was mostly used in the Mediterranean, but there was a flotilla off the coast of Flanders. And hey… a couple of them were lost at sea and have not been found. As long as I’m vague enough (oh gosh, there are barnacles obscuring the designation. What a shame) it can be entirely reasonable for one of these subs to have wandered out where I need it to be 🙂

Now, this I found in advance, but I had already mapped out that part of the plot. If I had written the novel all the way through, I could have come back and revised just a little to make the story fit the facts on the ground. This, I need to remember in November.

How about the rest of you? How much research do you do before writing? If you’re not writing things that need to reflect history or technology, how much world-building do you do in general ahead of time? How comfortable are you just “winging it” and coming back to fix it later?

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