On Research

In the comments thread on my post about some of the research for Liar Kathleen asked:

Justine, is there a point in your writing/editing process when you have to make yourself stop researching?

I started answering the questions in the comments but it got too long so I have given my answer its own post. Lucky answer gets an upgrade!1

No, there’s no point in writing a book in which I stop researching. In fact, I was up at Central Park again this week checking out a few things for Liar that I’ll now be changing in the first pass pages.2

Especially when I’m writing an historical the research is all the time. As some of you may know my current project is set in the 1930s in New York City. Before I started writing I already knew a fair amount about the place and the period because of earlier research projects. So the first thing I did was to find out if there’d be any new books since I my research was now more a decade old. Then I started reading those new books and articles. At the same time I started writing the novel.

That’s one of the important things I have learned. Never leave the writing until you feel like you’re on top of the research. Because if you’re anything like me you’ll never get there. I’ve been at this for well over a year now and I still don’t feel like I know enough. I’m still finding out cool tidbits. Did you know there was a Little Syria in NYC in the 1920s? I just found that out yesterday. Now I’m wondering if it was still around in the early 1930s. What did it look like?

I used to do the research first and only when I felt like I knew enough did I start writing. But I never felt like I did. So—you guessed it—I didn’t start writing. The only reason I started my PhD thesis was because my scholarship was going to run out. But I learned my lesson: never put off the writing.

I write until I hit a point where I don’t know enough. If it’s a big thing—I’m writing a scene set in a buffet flat in Harlem but I’m not sure what one might have looked like—I’ll stop writing and go back to researching. But if it’s just a small thing I leave a note for myself [what kind of toothpaste? powder?] and continue writing.

Which means I’m always constantly rewriting—going back and filling in the square brackets, as well as changing stuff I’ve guessed wrong, and adding cool new details: Little Syria!3 That’s one of the many reasons I love writing historical fictions. The research is fun. And unlike scholarly research I don’t have to footnote everything. Or anything really.

It’s all of the fun with little of the tedium.

Kathleen also asked:

I’ve been doing a lot of historical/scientific research for my story and there is always so much more to learn. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missing something or that a scientist somewhere is writing a breakthrough paper that will destroy my entire plot. Is this feeling just part of the fiction writing gig?

Yes, that feeling is part of any writing gig that involves lots of research. There’s always more to learn. But it’s one of the beauties of fiction. It doesn’t matter if some scientist makes a breakthrough that negates your plot because you’re writing fiction not a peer-review science article. A good story is a good story. Lots of my fave sf is based on outmoded science. Proabably all of it. Doesn’t matter.

All fiction dates in one way or other. But the good fiction outlives its datedness.

  1. Hope it doesn’t go to the answer’s head. []
  2. Typeset pages which have been proof read. I.e. these are the first page that look like the book will finally look. I check to see if I agree with the proof reader’s catches and to fix anything else that needs fixing. []
  3. Which may change the direction of the plot. []


  1. Tim Keating on #

    “Cheeking out”? Is that something you Aussies do? It sounds fun.

  2. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Regarding Kathleen’s concern:

    I remember reading this article about Jean Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear) and how she was all embarrassed by her earlier caveman books because they’ve discovered so much is wrong since then, but then, in researching for her later books, she met all these scientists who were dying to show her their unpublished findings (even though that’s a huge no-no in scientific circles) and take her on private tours of caves where they found paintings and such, saying “I became an anthropologist because of your books!” and she felt better.

    Similarly, stories abound about people who go work for NASA or become physicists because they loved Star Trek. Doesn’t matter if the science is bad or outdated or not discovered yet (after all, a lot of the original SF writers were writing about things that seemed preposterous but are now actually true). It still gets people excited about science, about discovery, about time periods. Fiction writers are doing their small part to make these things accessible to the non-researchers, which not only makes things easier for the researchers, but also inspires a new generation of them. Everyone wins!

    Someone could say, “I became a history student because I fell in love with this historical period in your novel.” They’re not going to hold some paltry inaccuracy against you for awakening in them a vast love of the field in general.

  3. Justine on #

    Tim Keating: Fixed.

    Diana: Excellent point. I feel stupid for not having thought of it.

  4. PixelFish on #

    I haven’t published a novel, but I do know that research never seems to stop, partly because it’s such an AWESOME idea generator. Or, put another way, sometimes the initial research happens accidentally, because I’ll see something in a documentary or whatnot, and it will spark something and go, “Hey, this fits into the world right here. Just give it a quarter twist to the left.” For example, I picked up John Barry’s fascinating account of the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918, more because it was topical re: news. But there was some really interesting details that happen to fit really well into the novel that comes after the one I’m working on. A documentary linked on Boing Boing turned out to give me the missing piece for the current work. You never know when and where the missing bits of your novel will turn up.

    That said, I think too much research can delay story. So when I feel the story muse is strong but I don’t have the research, I just write through that section anyway, and put notes in brackets about stuff I need to look up. Mostly just because I’ve had too many past experiences when I’d go to look something up in thel library or online, only to emerge knowing about half a dozen new things, but not having written a scrap.

  5. kath on #

    Here’s a question, perhaps a stupid one: how do you successfully incorporate what you’ve found in your research into your work? This is a problem I’m having, and I’m not sure how to reconcile it. I’m afraid that no matter how much research I do (and I’m a librarian; I know how to research), it won’t work.

    I’ve read some historical fiction where I’ve never felt the “time” was right, and some where I felt very much as though I was in the time period, with characters and surroundings behaving accordingly.

    Any thoughts on this?

  6. Kathleen on #

    Thanks Justine & friends for all your encouragement. I especially related to Diana’s comment as my book is all about anthropology and archaeology.

    For the record, my head (and ego) is still the same size 😀

  7. Steph on #

    Thanks for posting this, Justine! It’s always so interesting to find out about an author’s writing process 🙂

  8. David Scholes on #

    I couldn’t agree more.

    A good yarn is a good yarn, no matter if the science it is based on is or becomes outmoded.

    I keep some of my short stories sufficiently far ahead that I think it might take the science quite a while to catch up.

  9. Gillian on #

    That reminds me, if ever you and I are in the same city at the same time and *if* you are interested, get me to bring you my 1947 male cologne (I found it in an antique shop recently – I use it in my teaching). The bottle is 1947, but the cologne was designed in 1925 and was *definitely* popular in the thirties. I’m not willing to make a trip to New York specially for this, but I only live a few hours from Sydney.

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