A writer’s confession: I have no patience for research

Aw, man. Research looks HARD.

Are you interested in learning about other writers’ methods and madness? I am. I enjoy perusing your blogs to see what gets your fingers tapping and to find out what holds you back. One lament I come across frequently: Making excuses not to write.

It seems many writers will tackle all kinds of peripheral activities, like making character bios and outlines and backstories, in order to feel they are indeed working on their novels without actually working on their novels. Others will continuously read books and interview people and watch travel documentaries… while page one still remains a blank sheet.

When it comes to writing fiction, my hang-up is the reverse: I have no patience for research. I just want to get writing, yesterday if possible. Why pore over maps of Connecticut, read books on Victorian home-construction methods, and investigate the Wankel rotary engine when I all I have to do is sit down, open MS Word, and send my heroine on her merry way into the basement of a creaking old mansion so she can discover that mysterious trap door?

[I don’t know how the Wankel rotary engine fits into that scenario, but I’ll figure it out]

When I write an arts-and-entertainment piece somewhere, of course I will do the research to get names, events, and dates correct. And, like all of you, I enjoying learning new things. For real, I‘m all over non-fiction books like a dung beetle. I read titles on critical thinking, popular science, psychology, art, writing, film study, you name it. Hell, I probably have a book on Victorian home construction lying around my apartment somewhere. But if I have to read it, I won’t want to.

The reason my stories take place in fictional cities: I can’t get geographical details wrong when I make the place up, can I? As long as I don’t put the slaughterhouse on Gilligan Street in chapter one but change it to Skipper Avenue in chapter three, I’m good.

Inventing towns is easy, though. What about smaller spaces? I’ve never been inside a submarine, so I risk losing my reader if I refer to the cockpit or the windshield wipers. I’ll set that story on a jet instead (and be sure omit the periscope sequence).

Still an acceptable workaround, but I’m starting to limit myself when it comes to settings, both macro and micro. A bigger problem is how to place characters into these settings. I could make my main character a cop, as long as I stay away from procedural details, but then he may seem like a Law and Order reject. A nurse is ok, since my sister is an RN and I can ask her questions. But what about coroners and surgeons, two common character types in commercial fiction? I’ve seen them on TV, but so has my reader. How about an antique collector?  A dog breeder? I’ll just be making shit up.

Without research, we wouldn’t be able to point to things knowingly.

My distaste for research allows me to use the excuse that I’m writing what I know.  I set a lot of my stories in rock clubs and bars and populate them with musicians and bartenders, since I’ve lived that. Or I’ll have teenagers messing around in the woods and sneaking into places they shouldn’t, because I’ve lived that too.

However.

I really gotta start that novel soon. I’ve had this cool idea for a while, and I’d begin tonight if I could. But I can’t avoid it: This one needs heavy research. It’s high-concept sci-fi/horror that will fall apart like a Wankel rotary engine with the screws missing if I pull the science out of my butt.

You’ll be proud (or, perhaps, indifferent) to learn that I already burned through three books from my research list. Of course, if I had taken notes, I probably wouldn’t have to read them again. Damn. I knew it seemed too easy!

Worse, I’m also staring at an immediate future of digging through some pretty dry (and sometime expensive to procure) academic material. But I’ve got to get over this hump, because I am not getting any younger, and you can’t write a bestseller until you write it.

So what’s your pain as a writer? Getting started or getting started right?

See what too much studying does to a guy?

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21 responses to “A writer’s confession: I have no patience for research

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Eric, as a writer of historical fiction (currently in the midst of reading my 21st research book for my novel-in-progress), I cried a little when I saw the title of this post.

    Fortunately, it was so amusingly written (as usual), I got over it. Plus, I see you’re slowly making your way over to the path of righteousness. You can do it. I got through a 400-page tome on the 13th-century English Church and lived to tell the tale. Highlighters and notes in the margins are your friends for not forgetting what you’ve read. So too are Amazon’s used booksellers for finding used, academic books for cheap.

    • ericjbaker

      I have great admiration for writers of historical fiction. Nobody wants to hear someone say, “Duh, the 1925 Model T didn’t have the chrome door handle. It was the ’26. THIS BOOK SUCKS!”

      Me not wanting to do research doesn’t mean I’m sloppy with the details, though. I don’t want someone reading my story to be distracted by minor inaccuracies. I read a novel a couple of years ago that has someone listening to a Bach Piano Concerto. Unfortunately for the author, Bach never wrote such a thing. If she had used “harpsichord” instead of “piano,” her tale would have kept chugging along.

      I get used books and music off the Amazon marketplace all the time. Isn’t it great? With my pending project, however, a couple of the research titles I want are over $100, even for a used copy. Damn scientists!

      In the meantime, I should probably invest in some of those mini post-its.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Michelle Proulx

    This is exactly why I don’t write historical fiction, lol. Who has time for days and days of research? Stick to sci-fi and fantasy! That’s were it’s at — the only research you have to do is read other sci-fi and fantasy books, since it’s all made up anyway 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Ah, a kindred spirit!

      The real problem with historical fiction is the lack of flesh-eating aliens. Some of those French Gothic cathedrals look like H.R. Giger designs. It seems like a natural fit.

      • Michelle Proulx

        Preach! I feel you that your next book should be a grossly inaccurate historical rendition of when flesh-eating aliens attack Medieval Europe. Ready for the plot twist? The black plague wasn’t actually a disease – the church just called it a plague to cover up the presence of slimy, alien flesh-eaters rampaging across the continent. And … write!

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I enjoy researching places more so than events in history. When I sit down to write, I just want to write, not relive my 10th grade history class.

    • ericjbaker

      Scouting locations locations is fun, but things are seldom where I want them for the story (Everything seems farther apart in real life). Maybe I should just let the location inspire me.

  • nrhatch

    Starting . . . never a problem for me.
    Finishing what I’ve started . . . a big stumbling block. 😉

    Enjoy the journey of researching and writing your novel, Eric.

  • feminineocean

    My pain in writing is to keep the feeling that the story is really important – thus I’ve managed to write one short story I’m really proud of. I tend more to creative non-fiction and poetry. I have probably a dozen future fiction stories as ideas or outlines but don’t pursue them because the ideas are overwhelming to me. Other problem, I can get bogged down in research too.

    • ericjbaker

      I’ve only read one piece by you (can we call it narrative non-fiction?), and I loved it. I sure hope you consider some of those other outlines.

      Maybe it will seem less overwhelming if you pick the strongest idea, work on that one, and put the others in a drawer for a little while.

  • jdhoward

    Great post. The ‘write what you know’ (or at least what interests you) strategy is probably best if one doesn’t have the time or patience for research. You won’t find me writing anything related to botany, computer technology, spaceships, football (or any sports). I’d rather write about other dimensions and the afterlife. Who can prove me wrong on that stuff? I just have to make sure that everything makes theoretical sense.

    • ericjbaker

      A good strategy for speculative fiction (I’m using that as a catch-all for sci-fi, horror, and supernatural) may be to start with the day-to-day, mundane world then add fantastical elements as a contrast.

      Some things people will simply accept, like dragons flying and Jedi using The Force, when the writer operates in a world of total fantasy. My novel idea, however, is within the realm of possibility, so I have to consider practical problems. I don’t want to rewrite the whole thing because of a flawed foundation.

      As far as writing about other dimensions, you probably have knowledge already because it interests you. Your intelligence can take over on the theoretical aspect. I’m going to go ahead and say that serious writers have above-average brain power (certainly the ones who read my blog do!), so the logic is organic.

  • Life is Bittersweet « Spirit Lights The Way

    […] posts:  Fast Forward ~ The Romance of the Sleeper Train (Kate Shrewsday) * A Writer’s Confession ~ I Have No Patience For Research (Eric John Baker) * Lip Smacking Tax […]

  • Sobpol

    “So what’s your pain as a writer?” Holding out on finishing but it is also a Yossarian joy

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