The Research Conundrum

By Katriena Knights

For some reason, I keep developing plots for my stories that require a ton of research. I don’t know why I’ve been doing this. I guess the need to just learn stuff overcomes the desire to get a book done quickly and efficiently. For example, my current WIP is a sequel to Necromancing Nim, which took place in Denver and Urbana, Illinois. Both places I’m pretty familiar with. But the sequel, Summoning Sebastian, sends my little vampire/vampire/human ménage off to the wilds of Siberia.

I’ve never been to the wilds of Siberia. I’m not sure I ever want to go to the wilds of Siberia. But the book ended up there. So I have to do research.

The conundrum comes when I try to figure out how to do research. My first instinct is to learn EVERYTHINGALLOFITRIGHTNOW. So I buy a ton of books, print out a bunch of websites, and collect a metric whackton of information.

And then almost never read it. Or at least not all of it.

I go ahead and plow through my story, stopping here and there to look up items, but mostly extrapolating from what I actually have managed to read from this information-collection orgy. So the story gets written. But then when I’m done I feel like I have a ton of research gaps.

So we go back to LEARNEVERYTHINGALLOFITRIGHTNOW. That creates a vicious circle.

I’m working on a piece now where I’ve constructed the plot based on some things I already know will work, but that I’ll need to do a bit of research on to clarify. When I go back to do the rewrite on each section (this is a really fast turnaround job), I do the research on just the bits I need to know about, make whatever additions or changes I think are going to work, then move on.

When I started Summoning Sebastian, I collected a ton of books about Russia. (In all fairness, I’m doing research on I think two, maybe three other WIPs with the same materials.) And yes, a lot of what I learned in the initial reading made it into the story. But when it came down to it, I did a lot more on-the-spot research, writing sections in a fairly vague, generic way, then coming back and filling in details as I got to individual scenes that needed them.

I really have no idea which is the better approach. I know I tend to over-research. In the midst of researching for several stories set in Russia or with Russian protagonists, I ended up actually learning a bit of Russian. Which is overkill in the extreme. On the other hand, while I was cleaning up bits of Summoning Sebastian, it was really handy to be able to read menus of airport restaurants in Chelyabinsk without having to run everything through Google Translate. Your mileage may vary.

What are other ways to approach research? Is binging an acceptable method, or should I reconsider my life choices? Has anybody else been crazy enough to learn an entire language just to write a foreign character? Talk to me below. I promise not to judge.

Photo credit: "Old Books" by zdelia, from freeimages.com

Patricia Stoltey
Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia's third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, was released November 2014. Dead Wrong was a finalist in the thriller category for the Colorado Book Awards. Visit her blog at http://patriciastolteybooks.com

7 thoughts on “The Research Conundrum

  1. Hi Katriena,

    Great post and topic. I think a lot of us who write fiction are in the same conundrum. I’ve asked both my sister (the one with the masters in history) and some librarian friends, and I just seem to get a vague bit about “primary sources” and “secondary sources.”

    To me, I think journaling helps a lot. As I write about the subject as if I were working for National Geographic, a bunch of questions pop into my head. Once I have the questions then I have a “research plan” and can work from there to find specific answers.

    As for the reliability of the Internet, I figure if three sources confirm a main research point, I’m good. Still, I much prefer talking to experts to get a real feel for a subject. Good luck with your research, and if you come up with a pragmatic source document for THAT subject, I’d really appreciate hearing more about it.

  2. This is a helpful post, Katriena. I’ve only had to do serious research for one of my manuscripts so far but I found it so addictive I even drove through the Kickapoo Indian reservation in Kansas to get the lay of the land and poked around on the Internet until I found information on the modern Kickapoo and their language. And that was only one tiny part of the info I needed for the novel. It was hard to stop the research and do the writing. Your process seems much more controlled, which is a good thing.

    • HA HA HA HA HA I laugh because you said my process was controlled. Obviously I did a good job of making it look like I know what I’m talking about. I often feel like I’m just bogged down in research when I should be writing. It’s really hard to tell when hanging on the Internet walking through a town on Google Streetview is actually beneficial or just procrastinating.

  3. I do exactly the same thing. The story takes precedence, and sometimes the research suffers for it. I used to be a research *machine* not too long ago (in academia), but writing fiction has changed my focus and process. I also used six different languages in my first book, set in a neighborhood filled with immigrants, so I know that routine, too. Not sure how many rabbis I spoke to and now own the Roman Ritual from pre-Vatican II. 😉

  4. Many of my subjects require research time…. and since I was that weirdo in high school that assigned myself research projects about things I was interested in, of course I can get carried away and have to reign myself back in. Sometimes the research is more fun that the first draft. Well, that is where discipline comes in. But the research has often taken the plots to the next level. So well worth the “conundrum.” Thanks for the post!

  5. Your post hit home for me (in two ways!). First, when I saw Urbana, IL. I moved to the Western Slope two years ago from Charleston, IL, so I’m also very familiar with Urbana. Second, research! I’ve never liked history and when I had the idea for a middle grade fantasy set in 1300 England, I didn’t even know where to start. Like you, I ordered books, saved websites, and wrote. I found medieval life suddenly fascinating. The book moved out of England into a fantasy world, but the research helped ground it. Nothing’s wasted!

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