Today I turned to The Modern Library Writer's Workshop by Stephen Koch. On his chapter entitled Finishing, Koch discusses how late one might continue researching.
Keep on researching until the last day. According to his wife, Katia, this is what Thomas Mann did. "When he was working on a book, he immersed himself to an extraordinary degree in the relevant subject matter, learning all he could right up until the book was finished. he got hold of everything worth knowing on the topic, collecting a mass of material, but as soon as the book was finished, he forgot it all again. He was no longer interested in it." Late research will function like all crowning touches, its relevance and usability, even at the last minute, will be instantly clear, leaping out at you. Indeed, some of the very best research of all is just such "last-minute" research, precisely because your sense of what is relevant now has a pitch of completeness and sensitivity it has never had before."I find this tremendously encouraging. I am still left with questions, of course. How does one know what is "everything worth knowing on the topic" and how did he get "hold of" it? This was aeons before google - it was slogging through actual dusty tomes, searching shelves and catalogues, talking to people by WRITING to them and hoping in a week or so you would hear back. Ye Gads.
Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird has a slightly more folksy take on research. She calls it 'Calling Around' for one thing. She believes that most humans love to be asked questions about what they know and you should bravely pick up the phone and call these people. Of course, you have to know what they are expert in first. "Hey Uncle Phil, know anything about wild plants in the prairies? No? Uh, know anyone who does?"
In Stephen King's On Writing, I finally found something about research. I say finally because King didn't put in so much as table of contents let alone an index so I had to use my intuition as to where it might be. Luckily I've read this great book about a zillion times so it finally showed itself. King says that research is a specialized kind of back story.
And please, if you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which know little or nothing, remember that word back. That's where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you're learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewr system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.King ends with this warning: "Just don't end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first."
Today's challenge is to look at your wip and honestly assess what you may have fluffed over that needs to be more thoroughly researched. If you are in the early parts of a story then you may just need to think about what areas you are going to need to research. If you are revising, like me, you may still have some markers holding a place needing research, or you may need to bury your research in the back story and not hit your readers over the head with it. Wherever you are and whatever type of book you may be writing, have a look at your research with a cold eye.
I'll do the same.
These two pictures are of a Pow Wow I went to two summers ago, researching for my book, True.