Recently, out of multiple Twitter conversations, this topic about research bubbled up to the surface, with many heated opinions on it, that all came down to the following questions. Should I do research before starting on a novel? Should I do research while I'm writing my 1st draft, or 2nd draft, or what number draft? Should I not write at all if I haven't done research? How much research do I need to do, when, how, why, and can someone hold my hand, please, because I'm afraid to start writing my novel because I haven't done the appropriate research? And more, in the similar manner. The funny thing is, I've been through this. I've done a ton of research, in various stages of writing, and I came to this very simple conclusion, for which I know I will be beaten up by an angry mob of writers who believe otherwise. Because, I say, write first, research later! Hey, don't look at me like that, I can back this up, okay? Of course, my 1 year of experience is nothing, in the grand scheme of things, but to me it's something, it's everything, actually. It saved me time and multiple headaches, so here is what I have to say on the subject.
Let your story drive your research, not your research drive your story. Before I seriously started writing my 1st novel, SIREN SUICIDES (and I started 3 times and abandoned it 2 times), I fretted, I trembled, I bit my nails in fear, because I was about to write about all things water, songs, boats, fishing, and even a touch of Greek mythology, of which I had no clue. I still don't. I've never gone fishing on a boat, I never dived, I never studied music, because singing in a choir and trying to play piano for a couple months doesn't count. I'm not a Greek mythology scholar, nor do I understand how sound passes through water and other scientifical stuff like that. In light of this and scared out of my mind, on top of it petrified of things like character development, plots, subplots, dialogue, exposition, style, you name it, I read a ton of books on writing and started doing detailed research. I wrote out a list of characters, I wrote a biography for each (gotta have backstory, right?), I bought books on marine life, I studied tides in Puget Sound (a lot of action is happening there), I researched types of fish, I researched... well, I better stop here because I researched a lot. I even went as far as plotting out the entire novel 3 (!) times, writing and rewriting it, a la Garth Nix style. Guess what, once I started writing, 90% of this research (90%!!!) went down the drain. All these hours I spent, were for nothing. I had fun, yes, but they didn't add to the story. In fact, those details distracted me, and I paid for it, paid with having to write more drafts than I needed. With ROSEHEAD, my 2nd novel, I ditched the whole research thing, and here is what happened.
When you commit to a story, the universe aligns in your favor. I'm not kidding. I had this epiphany multiple times now while writing ROSEHEAD, and I want to scream about it on every corner of the universe, because... *drumroll* ...instead of having to write 5 drafts, I think I will only need 2! Partially this is due to the fact that it's my 2nd novel and by now I have learned to write cleaner and hold things in my head, but partially it's due to the fact that I focused on the story from the start, I committed to it, and the story paid me back, so to say. You heard this saying before, write what you know? Well, I understand what it means now. It doesn't mean, write what you actually know in terms of factual knowledge, it means, write about what you have experienced emotionally, because you can fake everything else but your knowledge of life. You know how they also say, you don't know what it's like having a kid until you actually have one? The same principle applies. If you have experienced love, joy, grief, anger, bitterness, fury, terrible loss, amazing gain, you can write about them all convincingly. But if you haven't, no matter how much research you do, your reader won't believe you. Here is my method. I start writing my 1st draft and I write down the 1st thing that comes to my head. People's names, occupations, locations, everything. If something puzzles me, I may do a quick Google search, to find the correct term for something, and I move on. I let the story ask me questions, and then in 2nd draft all I have to do is simply supply the details that are missing, but the story is written down already, and that's the most important part. For example, I made up a forest on the outskirts of Berlin in ROSEHEAD, and today I learned that there actually is one, it's Grunewald. I had goosebumps. And this is not the only time that it happened. It's like my brain knows better than me, you know what I mean?
Even if you're wiring a historical novel, it's all about the story. I have heard people tell me that because I write fantasy, I can get away with not doing research beforehand. But I disagree. Historical novel or not, a story is a story is a story. It's about characters, about people, and stuff that happens to them based on their decisions. Aside from that, you can dress them up as medieval princes or aliens in spacesuits, it doesn't matter. If the reader doesn't care for your characters, no matter how detailed and authentic you are in your creation of the historical background, the reader will toss your book. The secret is, the reader will forgive research blunders in favor of the story, not the other way around. And it's a harsh lesson to learn, because once a reader is burned, a reader is very unlikely to pick up another novel written by you. Ouch. So what do you do? You research as you go, just enough to give you some information, a quick glance at an article or an image, not more, and keep moving forward. Keep writing. Write out your heart, write for the reason you started writing in the first place, and worry about specific details later. At least, this is my approach, and I'm loving it. After I'm done with ROSEHEAD, which is turning out not so much fantasy but more magical realism, I will start on IRKADURA, a literary novel set in Soviet Union in the 80's, and even though I am originally from Russia, I have forgotten many things. Yet I don't plan to do research until I complete the 1st draft, and then only sparingly, only enough to make the story sound authentic, focusing on the characters and not on the correct historical facts.
There. Wait... I hear someone knocking on my front door. It's the mob! They came for me! They... Oy! Let me shout something else in my defense. I only meant research about fiction books, hear me? Ouch, that looks like bananas! Don't throw bananas at me! Don't... Well, jokes aside, what about you? Can't wait to hear about your struggles in regards to research.