How to write while you are researching

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gumandsoda

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Hello! I have never written historical fiction before, but I have an idea for a story that I would like to follow, but it will definitely involve some historical research. I am wondering how/if to move forward with writing while also conducting research, or if that is even possible. Thank you! :)
 

Woollybear

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Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I bet the answers are very individualized. As a plotter, I'd be outlining the story and characters as I do the research. But also, you will reach a point in your writing ability where even research after the book is finished can be back-woven into the story line.

So, for me, the answer would be "research all the time, before during and after the drafting, and use what you find to polish and enhance the story."
 

Maryn

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I imagine everyone has their own method, but what I do is use brackets to indicate where something is missing, whether it's research or something else.

So in my WIP (work in progress) there's [finish sex scene with her annoyed at his selfishness] and I could just as easily be [have them travel to X by whatever means research indicates] or [describe his tailoring in detail, showing he's not ragged but is not well to do].

This way you can search for an open bracket character easily and find what still needs writing or researching, while writing all around those gaps.

I'd urge you to be quite specific about each aspect you bracket. For example, the travel one I made up might be followed by [describe an inn, its cost], [describe food and where they eat], [factor the weather and road conditions into their comfort or lack of comfort], etc.

I would assume some people use comments, other colored text, still others a program that lets you create research needs that link to the place the result will be inserted.

Oh, and when I research something, I keep it in a file titled Research (clever, huh?), and within it are files named with my books' titles, and within each book's file each specific research I did, with as meaningful a name as I can come up with and including any books, links, etc. that were my source of information. Naming it well helps me find it again (Weather London Autumn 1819 is pretty specific.)

Maryn, who doesn't write historical, but sets in times not the present
 

Lakey

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I agree with both Woollybear's and Maryn's suggestions. There are different kinds of research, and different ways that research can contribute to your story. There will be an iterative process -- your story idea will drive you to do research, and the things you learn in your research will drive changes and refinements to your story.

So you need to engage in writing and research simultaneously as the project goes along, as Woollybear suggests. You also need to be a little flexible, growing accustomed to plotting or writing when you're not quite sure how the history plays out, and to changing your plans when you learn something that pushes your story in a different direction.

Even with the details that Maryn suggests, it's a two-way street, an iterative process. You will have gaps where you will want placeholders for specifics to fill in later, as she suggests. But you might also do some general research without a specific piece of information in mind, because that can spark ideas for details to add to your story that you never would have thought of if you hadn't come across it in your browsing.

:e2coffee:
 

ChaseJxyz

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I write fantasy(ish) stories, which does take a lot of research, including of IRL historical things. The research happens throughout the writing process, including during outlining and even before that, when I'm just mashing ideas together and seeing what coalesces. I need to have a "foundation" to build the outline on, so a lot of my research at that stage is for the "rules" as well as "vibes"* of the setting.

But I also tend to get inspiration from my research. Honestly, I find limitations greater sources for creativity than otherwise. So if I discover, for example, law enforcement really doesn't use shoulder holsters because of how long it takes to draw your weapon (or normal people since it's harder to conceal), does that stop me? No, because for my character, making the gun as difficult for other people to touch as possible is the most important fact, even if it makes other things more difficult. But I only looked this up when I was writing the scene where someone would need to notice she has a gun on her. It wasn't necessary when I was designing her motivations/conflicts in the outline stage. But with that info, I was able to tweak the scene to fit with the facts

*For me, this sets the tone/voice/style of a story. So the names of people/places/things, the language characters use, the kinds of adjectives in the narration or what it focuses on. I try to figure this out early on so I don't have to re-write everything later
 

Chris P

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When I gotta write, I gotta write, even if later research completely undoes a perfect scene. That's the downside of writing ahead of research. Sometimes I'm left having to decide if just a little fudging is allowed, or if it's too far, or if I have to scrap and redo entire scenes or series of scenes.

The upside of writing ahead of research is that research is NEVER done. Never. There's always one more newspaper that covered the story from a different angle, one more partially translated memoir from someone who was there, one more reference to a reference that references something that they say is related but might not be, and one more seed of doubt that somehow, I've missed something that will get called out. If I waited until I'd done enough research, I'd never write. I finally bookmarked this, the "porcupines are allergic to raisins" moment that keeps me up at night: https://www.gocomics.com/bloomcounty/1985/02/10
 

gumandsoda

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This is kind of how I'm feeling -- I haven't really written anything since I finished the second rewrite of my novel and it's killing me. So what's the first story idea I get that really has any pull? Something that involves research into another time period and culture. However, I think I'm going to do a back-and-forth between that time period and the present, so this will allow me to write the present-day parts and then, like everyone has said, leave notes and spaces where I know I need to fill in the historical/cultural parts. I am definitely a pantser -- I wish I wasn't especially for this thing, but I can't seem to do it any other way.
 

angeliz2k

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What is your baseline understanding of the era? You can't really get started unless you have a good grounding in the setting--what people wore, the technology level, how they spoke, what they spoke about, what foods they ate, what kind of homes they lived in, etc. Without that starting knowledge, you'll have words on the page, but they're likely to be all wrong.

That being said, no matter how careful your planning and pre-research, you're almost certainly going to have to do some research along the way. Unexpectedly, you'll find yourself Googling when people started using "wanker" (alas, too late for your ms, as you suspected from the beginning; and you were so hoping to use "wanker"). Your curiosity may also get the better of you, and you can't help but continue looking into your subject, and, lo and behold, you find new, relevant information or learn that you were wrong about something. (Ask me how I know.)

So, I guess my answer is, All of the above. I, at least, research before, during, and after.
 

gumandsoda

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What is your baseline understanding of the era? You can't really get started unless you have a good grounding in the setting--what people wore, the technology level, how they spoke, what they spoke about, what foods they ate, what kind of homes they lived in, etc. Without that starting knowledge, you'll have words on the page, but they're likely to be all wrong.

That being said, no matter how careful your planning and pre-research, you're almost certainly going to have to do some research along the way. Unexpectedly, you'll find yourself Googling when people started using "wanker" (alas, too late for your ms, as you suspected from the beginning; and you were so hoping to use "wanker"). Your curiosity may also get the better of you, and you can't help but continue looking into your subject, and, lo and behold, you find new, relevant information or learn that you were wrong about something. (Ask me how I know.)

So, I guess my answer is, All of the above. I, at least, research before, during, and after.
Yeah, my baseline understanding of the era isn't that great, and I am writing about a culture that my grandmother grew up in (and during the time when she would have been a young girl and a teenager), but that I don't know a whole lot about. So I definitely have some work to do. Since I am in a place where I really just need to start writing again, I may work on something else that's easier while I'm researching this piece and add to it when I feel inspired or when I feel like I am getting a handle on pieces of the time and culture.
 

llyralen

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When I gotta write, I gotta write, even if later research completely undoes a perfect scene. That's the downside of writing ahead of research. Sometimes I'm left having to decide if just a little fudging is allowed, or if it's too far, or if I have to scrap and redo entire scenes or series of scenes.

The upside of writing ahead of research is that research is NEVER done. Never. There's always one more newspaper that covered the story from a different angle, one more partially translated memoir from someone who was there, one more reference to a reference that references something that they say is related but might not be, and one more seed of doubt that somehow, I've missed something that will get called out. If I waited until I'd done enough research, I'd never write. I finally bookmarked this, the "porcupines are allergic to raisins" moment that keeps me up at night: https://www.gocomics.com/bloomcounty/1985/02/10
I’m the person you are describing who researches and researches and doesn’t write. I don’t know how to flip it. I think I am going to, but it has meant taking some distance from the research by researching a tangent sister area of research for a while. By a while I mean 3 years compared to 11 years researching the main thing I’m trying to write. I’m just starting to be able to view the story from an angle where the writing craft might be as important as the research (who am I kidding? What sacrilege!) I’m addicted to research— I love being immersed in my lake of research. Hopefully I can get addicted to writing again at some point so others can dive into this delicious water with me.
 
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Chris P

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I’m the person you are describing who researches and researches and doesn’t write. I don’t know how to flip it. I think I am going to, but it has meant taking some distance from the research by researching a tangent sister area of research for a while. By a while I mean 3 years compared to 11 years researching the main thing I’m trying to write. I’m just starting to be able to view the story from an angle where the writing craft might be as important as the research (who am I kidding? What sacrilege!) I’m addicted to research— I love being immersed in my lake of research. Hopefully I can get addicted to writing again at some point so others can dive into this delicious water with me.

My only suggestion would be to research something fairly specific, then write a 2000 word scene (or part of a scene, about 6 pages) in which that topic plays a key point. This is knowing the scene might never be used in the final draft, and that other details are going to change later.

To channel the sound advice of a former member here, doing more research is only going to teach you how to do more research. The only way to learn how to write what you've learned into a story is to write what you've learned into a story.
 

llyralen

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My only suggestion would be to research something fairly specific, then write a 2000 word scene (or part of a scene, about 6 pages) in which that topic plays a key point. This is knowing the scene might never be used in the final draft, and that other details are going to change later.

To channel the sound advice of a former member here, doing more research is only going to teach you how to do more research. The only way to learn how to write what you've learned into a story is to write what you've learned into a story.
Hopefully it isn’t too late for me, because everything you’re saying is true. I am a really really good researcher at this point.

I think it’s a good suggestion. :) I gotta pull myself forward in the writing somehow.
 

llyralen

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My only suggestion would be to research something fairly specific, then write a 2000 word scene (or part of a scene, about 6 pages) in which that topic plays a key point. This is knowing the scene might never be used in the final draft, and that other details are going to change later.

To channel the sound advice of a former member here, doing more research is only going to teach you how to do more research. The only way to learn how to write what you've learned into a story is to write what you've learned into a story.
Hopefully it isn’t too late for me, because everything you’re saying is true. I am a really good researcher at this point.

I think it’s a good suggestion. :) I gotta pull myself forward in the writing somehow.
 

Chris P

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Hopefully it isn’t too late for me, because everything you’re saying is true. I am a really good researcher at this point.

I think it’s a good suggestion. :) I gotta pull myself forward in the writing somehow.
Never too late!

Another idea: maybe this particular project is calling you to put together something non-fic? My current non-fic project started with research for a historical fiction on a topic I already loved, and following connecting a couple dots I hit upon an idea for a project. Who knows if it will go anywhere, since I think it might be a very niche market, but I will complete it because it's one of those I can put as much or as little work into as I want.
 

llyralen

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Never too late!

Another idea: maybe this particular project is calling you to put together something non-fic? My current non-fic project started with research for a historical fiction on a topic I already loved, and following connecting a couple dots I hit upon an idea for a project. Who knows if it will go anywhere, since I think it might be a very niche market, but I will complete it because it's one of those I can put as much or as little work into as I want.
I have thought of this and it probably would sell well, actually. Every time I talk about my research people seem to want to hear a lot more, but for some reason I haven’t been excited about that, probably because it doesn’t lead me to ask more questions that make me research more. LOL. The addiction is real, I say!

Please send me a message, I’d love to hear about what you are researching and maybe I could get excited about a non-fic project?
 
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ishtar'sgate

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I research enough so that I'm comfortable in the period. I know what the average day in the life of my MC looks like, small details of the setting, the society etc. Once I feel I have that nailed down I can move ahead. For myself it's far too easy to keep on researching without actually doing any writing because I'm afraid I'll get things wrong. Plus I just love doing research. Once I start writing though, it comes together pretty naturally. I keep my research material handy and review relevant passages for specific scenes as I need to.
 

Tocotin

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I think it's entirely possible to write while researching. The research might or might not end. A lot depends on your reasons for picking your setting, and on your approach to it.

From what I've seen, historical writers fall roughly into two groups, when it comes to choosing the setting. They choose a particular setting because it's exciting, or popular, or it goes well with some other aspect of the story, or they choose a setting because they are deeply fascinated with it. Both of these approaches are entirely valid, of course.

Writers in the first group are interested in various eras and places and historical figures, and like to change them often. For them the research does end, because it must end: they aren't into long-term relationships with their settings. If you are in this group, you'd probably want to do as much research as possible before jumping in. You can research (heh heh) a little bit online and see how those writers do it, how they figure out their topics for research, what kind of sources they use, etc. These writers often work impressively fast and are prolific, and their advice is to prepare well and to narrow your theme as much as possible in order not to get sucked into the rabbit hole of research. For example, if you are writing about, say, intrigue in the court of Catherine the Great, you don't need to research the hell out of the Russo-Turkish Wars just because it might at some point become a topic of conversation for your characters; but you will have to know well who the current favorite of the empress was, and what kind of person they were, and who they were friends or foes with. You must be able to assess what you need, and then write. If you don't know a particular detail in the scene, like the color of the walls or the spices in the food, just [put stuff in square brackets] or something like that, for later, and go. Unless you are really interested. Unless you feel that you are falling in love with the period. Then you might be ready to settle down, at least temporarily (hur hur).

If you are ready to do that, then yeah, you will be one of those writers for whom research never ends. You will be constantly reading and gathering sources and materials, because you'll feel that you never know enough, and you might become fascinated by the period to the point of being obsessed (but it will feel great!). If you are one of those writers, you might be drawn to historical fiction for the sheer atmosphere and flavor of the period, as well as, and sometimes rather than, the historical events and personages. Then the time comes when you do feel at home in the period to some extent, and then you might find out that you want to write more than one book set in that period – therefore there's no need to know everything right now, or overstuff the story with all the details you've gathered so far. It's a pretty liberating feeling. Sometimes, when you are truly comfortable in a certain period, you don't need all that much to be able to write something. One-two solid books with good footnotes might be enough, really, to inspire you and let the story grow, if you feel the setting in your bones.

Good luck!

:troll
 

angeliz2k

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Great points, Tocotin! I consider myself mostly a two-time-period kind of gal: early-to-mid Victorian/antebellum and Edwardian/WWI. I don't really do the decades in between, nor much before or after. At this point, I particularly know the early-to-mid 1800s very well and don't need to do much research at all except the exact timing of specific events or specific facts that might pop up. I'm not quite as well-versed in the 1900s and 1910s, but I'm fairly comfortable there, too.
 

benbenberi

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I came up with a boffo idea for a historical fiction while I was doing my PhD research in French archives. I planned to use some of the historical people and events from the dissertation in the novel, even took a little extra archive time away from the PhD topic to do some tangential research for the novel. Then I came home, finished the dissertation, and played a bit with the novel, outlining & so on. And I realized that there were some critical details missing in my notes -- things like who was where precisely when, what was weather in a place when certain critical outside events occurred, etc -- that would matter to the story. Details that I knew could be answered in the archives, if I only had 6 months to a year to go back in and extract them. I even knew which series of documents probably had most of what I wanted. And I knew, with certainty, that I was never going to get the opportunity to do that. Knowing that the facts existed and were discoverable in principle but completely inaccessible to me in practice pretty much killed the whole project dead for 20 years. I eventually resurrected it with the thought, if I turn it into a secondary-world fantasy and file off all the historical serial numbers, nothing I've already researched will have been wasted but then I can just make stuff up where I need to! It's enormously liberating. And someday I'll actually finish writing it.
 

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