Monday, 28 March 2011

Research Is Fun, But That Doesn't Mean You Should Do It

I swear it hadn't occurred to me to try looking up Wintergreen Life Savers until Debs and Karen suggested it on Thursday. So I Googled and immediately discovered that they're called Wint-O-Green, and were introduced in 1918, the second flavour of Life Saver after the original Pep-O-Mint developed in 1912. Each one has 15 calories, but tragically you can't get them here, only in the US. They're manufactured by Wrigley, which in turn is owned by Mars and...

Yes, I lost twenty five minutes of my life getting my teeth into a nice bit of superfluous research.

That's the trouble with research. It's seductive, but it's a time waster. You really should be writing, but you convince yourself that research is work as you happily fossick about in the sea of information that is the Internet.

Don't. Don't do ANY research until you've finished the first draft and are more or less happy with the story line and structure. At that point you'll know what you actually need to know. It's no good going to Paris and researching all that (although it might be jolly good fun) unless you know for certain your characters will go to Paris. And even then, the things you research might be the wrong ones. For A Single to Rome I went to Rome three times on research trips, and I'd been a student there, but there were still a few things that I'd missed that had to be researched on line. And there were lots of places that I did research (restaurants, bars...) that weren't needed in the final draft.

What you do instead is make it up. You take a leap of faith that the right answer WILL be there when you need it, and just write what you'd like to happen. Then, when you know what the perfect situation is and that you're going to keep that scene in, you go back and research it. Because you know exactly what you need, the research is quick and simple - and you've got the writing done instead of getting stuck in the research process.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Jim Murdoch said...

But it’s also remembering to go back and check. In one of Jeanette Winterson’s novels a character while in America eats a Polo Mint – my wife, who is American, was aghast – and that’s when I got the whole history of Life Savers presented to me in great detail and the big question was who copied whom – Polo Mints didn’t come on the market until 1948 as it happens. I guess it depends on what it is you need to research. Google is so good at providing information that I do look up some things there and then – the height of Godzilla jumps to mind – but mostly I’m like you, I make a guess and move on. I had the hardest time with my novel Milligan and Murphy which is set in a version of Ireland in the 1930s. There is a small scene where the protagonists encounter a prostitute and I needed to know what the going rates for sex were back then. Now that’s something Google’s not so good for. I ended up writing to the Mitchell Library but answer came there none and so I never mentioned money in the end.

Kate Kyle said...

Thanks for this post, Sarah. I'm stuck in research while I should be writing the first draft.
Oh, I hatre research - it's never fun, it's such a bother!

Debs Carr said...

This is something I need to take note of as I love researching and can spend far too long doing it.

Time to finish my dirty draft before doing any further research, I think.

Karen said...

VERY good advice - it's so easy to get sidetracked. As I did, also looking up Wintergreen Life Savers!

Sarah Duncan said...

When I'm writing and I come to a bit I know I ought to research to make sure the facts are right I put XXX and carry on making it up. Then I can easily track down all the stuff that needs checking.

BTW I'm so excited to discover you can get Wint-o-Green Life Savers in the UK on Amazon Grocery. Thanks to Sandra for the tip off, and I'll report if they were worth waiting for later.