A good thing about writing several novels one after the other is that it becomes easier to notice patterns in the way one works.

Some things I learned are generally applicable. For example, this time I know stretches of rough draft in which nothing happens will eventually make sense, or they won’t, and if they don’t make sense, I can cut them. I know now I will cut a lot. Thousands of words with each draft. Paradoxically, that makes it easier for me to put words on the page. Thank you, Greg Frost, for “give yourself permission to write crap,” no matter whose pithy quote it was in the beginning.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that research isn’t something one does and then is finished with. There seems to be a baseline amount of knowledge my mind needs, but once I’ve hit that level, ideas start to form, and I start writing. In the course of writing, I discover things I need to know, often small but important things, like “if she buys a hat in this particular summer, what kind will it be, and how much will it cost?” Then I go and find that out and slip it into the text. Sometimes I use placeholder information until I have a chance to research again; this is rough draft, after all.

Other times, the research process is more nebulous. If feeling stuck, not stuck enough to stop writing, but stuck enough that inspiration would be welcome, research can help. For example, I can read period newspapers and make notes, with few expectations beyond, “see if I can find anything about Thanksgiving.” And in the course of that generalized reading, come across some facts about a sugar shortage which I can use to shore up an event I’d already written in the text.

Then there’s the research that’s going on parallel to the writing. This is usually books. I generally search for books in groups by topic, work my way through those, and then move on to another topic; this seems to help my mind organize what it’s learning. Books are good because, unlike the microfiche machine, I can carry them around, marking pages with sticky notes or making notes in my notebook, or sometimes typing up the notes for easy reference when I have my laptop and nothing else.

These books are often where the synergy comes in. I’m writing, writing, writing, and sometimes my parallel track of reading shows me, “That thing that happened to this guy, it can happen to my guy! Except with my guy, it would be like this…” and I’m off. Then I go to the other books I’ve accumulated on that topic, and get more ideas, and so on.The only trick to this is explained in another pithy quote I got from Greg, and this one is his own, I think: “Don’t research it to death,” which is what he told me years ago when I began my first attempt at a historical. Just because I’m using a book for research doesn’t mean I have to read every word. I skim as much as I can, to the parts I know I can use. (Sure, I get involved in reading probably not-useful bits every now and again, but I try to avoid this.) If I need those bits I skimmed over, I can always go back to the book later. Initially, I am ruthless. I pillage for what’s useful, because if I read everything, I won’t have time to write. If I don’t write, I won’t know what I need to research next. And then where would I be? Looking at an unfinished manuscript, no doubt.

Related Post: Reading for the Writer.