Monday, March 08, 2010

Inspired by International Women's Day

    Annually on March 8, the world celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women. When I found out that my first blog post for Romance Magicians fell on International Women’s Day, I was elated.  I just knew that I would write an inspiring piece about the contributions of great women in literature, and the accolades would flow like a keg at a frat party. All I needed to put my plan in motion was a little research.

    Research, sweet research. As a lawyer, research is the life’s blood of my profession. I have to research the facts of a case, the applicable law, opposing counsel and the judge - and that is just the beginning!  High school and college debate taught me how to research efficiently and effectively. I’m like a mole; I can find anything.   My head (and ego) swell with the praise I’ve received about my ability to research a legal issue and crank out a well-reasoned and precise argument quickly. I thought those skills would transfer well to my non-legal writing efforts.

    Starting early last week, I began planning this post. My first post had to great.  No, it had to be better than great.  People were actually going to read what I wrote. I needed to create Pulitzer quality material.  Did I start writing and revising to get myself to that goal?  Heck no! I needed to research!  And what has that research accomplished?  My blog post is due, and I have a huge folder busting with articles and notes about the history of International Women’s Day and countless women whose achievements deserve recognition.  The word count?  Oh, that is precious.  The word count, you ask again? Um, well, how would you like to talk about something else.

    I am going to let you in on a dirty little secret - research is my greatest procrastination tool This experience highlighted what I already knew about myself, but wanted to deny.  I use research to delay writing.  Several years ago, I realized that it was time to tinkle or get off the pot with respect to my aspirations to write.  Laptop in hand, I used a week’s vacation at the beach to try to live the dream.  I wrote a little, but nothing significant.  Something hindered my progress.  I knew what it was! My problem was that I hadn’t educated myself enough on how to write. That was easy enough to fix.  Surely I could find a good book or two on writing.

    I used to joke when I was in law school that if you could lose weight and get in shape by owning exercise videos, I would be an Olympic contender.  The same goes for books on writing.  I’m ashamed to admit that I spent the better part of a year reading book after book on how to write.  Repeatedly, I told myself I wasn’t ready to start writing.  I just needed to finish the book on plotting.  I couldn’t be expected to write until I’d read enough on how to develop my characters.  Somewhere around the time that the books I’d bought on how to write were equaling the books I’d bought to read for pleasure, I realized that instead of researching how to write, I needed to write.

    Phase two of the procrastination process wasn’t much better.  The notebook of story ideas on my desk demanded that I engage in substantive research.  Oh internet, you are a seductive tool ready to steal minutes, hours, days and weeks from me.  A few notebooks (and months) of research later, I realized that my obsession with substantive research was, once again, keeping me from doing what I needed to do - write.  I vowed that I would have to be satisfied with a level of incompleteness in my research and start writing. 

    Good fortune should come to the person who designed the button on my laptop that lets me disable the internet.  Feeling empowered, I hit that button and started my outline (how outlining is a procrastination tool is a post for another day).  From there, I moved on to writing.  But wait! I needed more research - I needed to find the perfect name for a character and the precise word for description.  Convinced I had my addiction under control, I hit the internet button.  I would only take a few minutes.  A little necessary research won’t hurt.  I think we all know how that turned out.

    Hello, my name is Heather, and I am a researchaholic.  To combat my addiction, I try to do the following:

  • Write what you know.  This keeps the temptation to research at a minimum.  It is probably best that I not write a book about an astrophysicist.  I’m not even sure I can spell astrophysicist without a little research, let alone write a story about one.    
  • Make a list of what you need and do your research in your down time.  I keep a notebook next to my writing desk.  The notebook contains a list of substantive research which I need to complete (history of a building, mythology, pictures of a location, etc.).  The notebook also contains “lemon drop” research.  (I was once in a deposition where periodically, opposing counsel would say “lemon drop.”   I thought he had confectioner’s tourettes.  When I asked him about it, he shared that it was his way of marking the transcript.  If there was something he knew he needed to research after the deposition, he would use the index of the transcript to find all of the “lemon drop” moments.)  Similarly, in my writing when I need to find a better name or word than what I have used, I insert “lemon drop” before whatever I will want to replace so I can use “find and replace” to locate the spot in the manuscript easier.  I keep my notebook in my purse when I’m not writing.  When I find myself with down time when I can’t write, I try to use that time to finish my research. 
  • Research as part of your revision process.  This isn’t really a step which I developed, but a strategy I hope to employ.  A friend who has published three books shared with me that she does some big picture research that would relate to plot points before she writes, but that she saves most of her detail oriented research for the revision process.  I haven’t tried this, but it makes sense.  She explained that this method allows her to focus on the story through the first draft.  After she constructs the skeleton of her novel, she bulks up the muscle and tissue with research.  I’m seriously contemplating using this method for my next book because I want to write the darn thing, not just research what goes into it.

    And so I return to the writing of this blog post. I wish I’d been able to provide you with the dissertation on great women in history, but I think I need to do a little more research.  The women whose accomplishments are honored on International Women’s Day didn’t simply research the world around them.  They were women of action. So, in that spirit, I need to take action.  No more research.  It is time to write.




Gwen Hernandez said...

What a great post, Heather! Research is definitely a good way to NOT write. I'm glad you've found some ways to control it.

I love the lemon drop method and the research notebook. I use ZZZ instead of lemon drop, but I hadn't thought of writing down what I need in the notebook I keep with me. I may steal that. ;-)

Nice job on your first post!

Heather said...

Thanks Gwen!

Doing research in my down time (when I have short breaks at work, on my blackberry when I am in a waiting room/lobby, etc.) has not only helped me get more words out of my writing time, but it has also kept me in the mindset of my story.

Callie James said...

Wonderful first post, Heather!

I love research but have very little time for it. I make lists of what I need to research to keep my wandering the internet down to a minimum. :)

Heather said...

Thanks Callie!

At work, research never seemed to get away from me. I think it is a combination of strict deadlines and dry subject matter that keeps my research in check at the office. I am working with some strictly self-imposed deadlines for my fiction writing (although some of my opposing counsel might call my legal writing fiction :)), but the fun factor of the research easily leads me down the path of time wasting.

Jeanie said...

Heather, I am definitely stealing the lemon drop idea! That would work so much better than using a symbol, like an asterisk, for example!

Also love the idea of getting the story down and then going back and plugging in the research. What a lovely post!

Heather said...

Thanks Jeanie!

I am not sure what methods everyone else uses to keep the research procrastination to a minimum, but I know I am fighting an uphill battle!

Cari Hislop said...

As a historical romance writer I could spend my entire life researching and never know everything. I do actively learn new things all the time, but mainly I wait until I know I need to know something and then I do a thorough dig, take notes, and return to the story. I find this works for me.

I think there's another danger to spending too much time researching (other than losing time). One can accumulate a horde of wonderful facts and be tempted to squeeze them all into the story. This cramming can cause blobs of dullness, like unsightly rolls of fat protruding out over a flesh biting waistline. These wordy blobs break the flow and can irritate the reader (at least they irritate me as a reader). This really affects my genre because no one alive remembers what it was like living in 1815. Jayne Austen didn't have to describe how the food was arranged on the table, everyone knew. Sometimes I have to point it out, but sometimes I don't bother if it's not important.

I try to keep facts in the action and dialogue. Using facts in the setting (or scenery) is the most tricky. It's so easy for a narating author to start blobbing, but I know no one wants to read a monologue on my favorite Chippendale chair back designs no matter how well I write one so unless one of the characters is giving a lecture on chairs you'd never read it in one of my stories.

I remind myself all the time; if it doesn't move the story forward, take it out (even if it's good)! It's always better to have a smooth flowing shorter story, then a long blobby story.

Heather said...

Cari, you make great points! I think I risk the danger of the "muffin top blobbing" for the fruit of my research. Your perspective is particularly helpful in light of the necessity of research in your writing. Thank you for taking the time to share your comment.

Nannette Conway said...

Great first post Heather! I also love researching. Thanks for the tips on keeping it in check.

Carla Swafford said...

Wonderful post, Heather!

It's funny how I can read for two hours, researching, and use only one line in the book.

Heather said...

Nannette and Carla - thank you for your kind words!

Louisa Cornell said...

Wonderful post, Heather!! Another historical romance writer here and if I told you the number of research books I own on Regency England you would gasp. Or at least my bookshelves at home gasp under the weight. They sit there on that shelf like rows upon rows of Twinkies at a Biggest Loser reunion.

I can spend HOURS reading through them and by the time I look up I have forgotten what I went to look up in the first place!

And I do like the idea of writing the story and going back to plug in the research. I do that frequently with street addresses in Regency London. I have a notebook for each book I write and I have a section where I stick post its on what I need to look up later, i.e. Need an address for Cain's town house in Mayfair. It really helps!

JoAnn said...

Great post, Heather! Thanks (I'm another research-aholic, and even though I don't write historicals, I seem to choose occupations for my characters that I know nothing about!).

Heather said...

JoAnn and Louisa - thank you both for taking the time to read my post and willingly "out" yourself as sharing in my addiction. We can all support each other in keeping our writing momentum up while avoiding the temptation to research "just this one little thing!"