How to research your novel & what it brings

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I have mixed feelings about research. On the one hand it can be dull because it’s not actual writing and can take discipline, but on the other hand it’s learning and it’s creative because I don’t know what exciting things it will bring to my story.

Research can also be a fearful process. Will I find the story hook I need? Will it give me the dramatic plot points I’m seeking? Will it fit with the story I have in my head? Or will it take me down rabbit holes? This depends, of course, on how much of your story exists in your head, and whether you’re a pantser or plotter.

There’s the danger too that research can become a procrastination point, as it has with me lately. Here are my best tips on how to research effectively and efficiently:

  1. Explore – First and foremost, research is about exploration. Perhaps you’re just looking for details that will make your story realistic like setting and costume, but maybe you’re looking for plot points and characters. Let your curiosity loose and see where it takes you.
  2. Read – Scour stories, articles, and other pieces you find on the internet. Devour books (fiction and non-fiction). Trawl through diaries and old newspapers. Investigate journals. Go where you need to go. Become a magpie.
  3. Watch films, documentaries, TV – Visual research such as watching films,  documentaries or TV programs can be a rich source for writers. They can be emotive and give you pictures of things that might have been challenging to imagine. Use them as enrichment and to add authenticity.
  4. Conduct interviews – Talk to people. Is there an expert who could help you? Is there someone you’d like to use as a character? Were there people who experienced the kind of event you’re writing about? Most people are willing to help out so find your courage and ask. All they can say is no.
  5. Travel – My next story is going to require me to travel overseas during a particular event that will be the culmination of my novel. I also need to be there to see whose pathways I will cross and where that will lead me. I know one author who needed French WWII collaborator stories for her story so she went to a rural town there, sat in a cafe, told people what she was after and gradually locals came to her to talk. Travel can add colour, character and plot points. Create the opportunity for synchronicity to happen.
  6. Take organised notes – I use a physical book or sheets of paper to write up the details of each piece I research, then I highlight key information with a pen and rewrite it in a more meaningful way. For my first novel being published next year, I wrote up must-have points in sequential order because that’s how my story was organised. I ended up with 3 pages of notes that I used as a checklist. For any details, I had the longer notes. Also, I do separate notes for ideas that emerge during the process.
  7. Trust – With my last two novels I’ve had clear ideas of how the stories were going to work, meaning that while my research filled in gaps, I didn’t need it for plot points. With my current story I’m somewhat in the dark so I’m relying a lot more on what emerges during this process. Whether you’re a panster or plotter, trust that your research will give you what you need.
  8. Background only – Whatever you find through your research, your novel is fiction, not a lecture. Your research should inspire and inform you and provide authenticity where needed. It should never dictate your story or characters. Let it sink in to your mind and fall into the background.
  9. When to stop – Stop when you have enough critical information and can start writing your story. You could research forever, which can become an excuse for procrastination. Just dive in. You can always do research along the way to fill in specific details.

 

Stoke your creative fires

While all fiction and creative non-fiction requires strong characters with something to say, my next novel, a strained family saga, is especially character driven. I’m reading The Art of Character by David Corbett to extend and deepen my abilities, and (in theory), liberate my creativity. What are you doing to improve your work?

‘Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.’
Albert Einstein

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Why creatives need down time

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It took me a long time to work out that down time isn’t wasting time, rather it’s an essential practice to creativity. I had such a protestant work ethic in me it felt lazy taking time out from writing. But I eventually realised that having a break by walking or doodling or reading or cooking refreshed me. When I returned to writing my problems were solved, my words flowed into art and I made other breakthroughs.

Science confirms that taking a break by napping, meditating or walking in nature increases productivity, replenishes attention, solidifies memories and encourages creativity.

Professor Lajos Székely talks about the creative pause ‘…when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness’. And I love this quote from Ferris Jabr saying ‘Epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during down time’.

When you consider the apparently 18 things that highly creative people do differently, it confirms that down time is indeed fundamental to creativity.

Highly creative people daydream, observe everything, work the hours that work for them, take time for solitude, turn adversity into advantage, seek out new experiences, fail up (rather than taking it personally they use it constructively), ask the big questions, watch people, take risks, view life as an opportunity for self-expression, follow their true passions, get out of their own heads, lose track of time, surround themselves with beauty, connect the dots (finding vision), constantly shake things up and make time for mindfulness.

But down time can’t be spent just any way. In the digital era we’ve become addicted to the distractions of google, email, social media, TV and so on. Being distracted is easy because it stops us from thinking or feeling anything challenging. Yet sometimes this is exactly the place where growth and problem-solving occurs. If you hate being bored like I do, the reality is that it gives space for the mind to wander, which is where creativity can happen.

Here are some ideas about how to build down time into your life to expand your creativity:

  1. Create sacred space that’s technology free. If you go for a walk, don’t take your phone. Allow your mind to wander, feel the breeze on your face, smell nature, listen to the sounds around you, look at the people’s faces. Use it to connect with what’s around you.
  2. Schedule down time where you allow your thoughts to roam free. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way advocates going on a regular artist date with yourself, where for say two hours a week you commit time to ‘nurturing your creative consciousness’. She says it’s like spending quality time with or pampering your artist self. Take them to an art gallery or the zoo, wherever they tell you they need to go.
  3. Meditate. The practice of observing yourself and allowing thoughts to come through you without attachment or engagement allows things to come up in a safe way. Meditation promotes focus, calmness, clarity and insight.
  4. Listen to and trust yourself. If you feel you need a break, don’t chastise yourself for being lazy. Listen to yourself and trust that your mind knows when it needs down time. Creativity happens in mysterious ways.

When re/writing makes you bored

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Some days when you write the words appear dull, the message unoriginal, the work turgid. You just don’t feel it. This might be your mood, but when I find myself regularly bored with my writing, I know something is wrong.

Here are some ideas on how to write yourself out of your boredom and shift (back) into creative brilliance:

  1. Write for YOU! Don’t write for others—what you think you should be writing, what you believe the market wants, what your family says, what your upbringing dictates. Writing must be authentic to be good. Writing is hard enough let alone when you’re pretending to be someone or something you’re not. This can make you feel vulnerable, but it’s only writing. See where it takes you.
  2. What are you really trying to say? Write in stages until you discover what this is. Sometimes I get caught up in the technical stuff or what my head tells me etc.. This has value. But when I’m done with all of that, I get annoyed and ask myself what it is I’m really trying to say and write with all of me. This is when I surprise myself. This is what kindles my fire.
  3. Noun and verbs are the key to lively sentences that carry the reader onwards. They’re the central elements in creating action and movement. Choose powerful and evocative ones. Rather than writing The cat sat on the hat say The tabby crushed the fedora.
  4. Cut out the crap. This means the superfluous adjectives and adverbs, the things you’ve already said in a different way, word repetition, anything that’s not central to or doesn’t advance your plot (kill your darlings), sentences that tell the reader what you’ve already led them towards knowing (patronising, ick).
  5. Space out description and back story. Rather than having great chunks of these, eke them out in bits (up to three lines) as your characters take action. That way you’re not taking readers out of the story. Also, ensure you begin your chapters with exposition (action or showing) or timely narrative (informative telling).
  6. Consider structure. This is a huge topic covering setting, plot, theme and more. Each story, and indeed chapter and section, should have a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (of sorts). If your beginning is short and sharp, your middle bloated and ending sudden, your structure needs adjusting. Get the first draft done and adjust. Write tables or chapter summaries, anything that gives you perspective .
  7. Are you allowing your characters to be authentic, or are you telling them who they should be? Sometimes characters surprise you or go rogue or want to leave your story. Authentic writing fosters real characters. Listen to them. They’re not boring, or if they are, they’re meant to be.

Happy writing over the holidays. See you in 2018!