Friday, November 15, 2013

Thriller Guy has just finished a short crime novel and is in the throes of writing the sixth entry in Allen Appel’s epic, historical time travel Pastmaster series, so he is acutely aware of the perils of taking any opportunity to not write. Going upstairs to check out the refrigerator, stepping outside to get a little vitamin D, checking Facebook, checking e-mail, there are hundreds of ways a writer can fill the time when he should be writing. (TG has blogged about the pain of writing on many occasions, so he won’t go into that here.)

 One of the chief methods of putting off writing -- particularly dangerous when writing novels with a strong historical element -- is the peril of Internet research. Being always aware of this danger, TG was struck when he recently read this quotation from Michael Chabon in The
Wall Street Journal.

"Research is incredibly pleasurable and seductive and you have to be on your guard against it. It's very easy to use it as an excuse not to write. There's always one more fact that could help you and you probably shouldn't start writing until you find out the boots worn by German troops in World War II, and if I just knew who made those boots then I could write my chapter. So you have to be on your guard against that.

"The Internet is there to say 'just one more link, just one more link.' The Internet wants you not to get your work done and the thing that is most insidious about it is the way it does that is by being the greatest research and productivity tool in the history of the human race."

And today, whilst perusing Facebook -- instead of writing -- TG found an entry by thriller writer Joe Finder about the same subject. TG will now lift whole portions on the article from his newsletter. Readers can go here to read the entire piece. Finder is a nice guy, TG has interviewed him, and he writes good thrillers.

Finder: “But every hour you spend doing the fun stuff of research is time you're not writing. And I'm here to tell you that research, while fun and often necessary, is addictive and dangerous.
“It's also a great crutch. All novelists feel like impostors at times; it's only natural to feel unqualified and insecure in what you're writing about. You don't really know it — what do we
know, we're writers, right? So you want to find out as much as you can. But in the age of the Internet, you're always one hyperlink away from the next website or article, and it can go on ad infinitum. The easiest thing in the world is to put off writing while you find out exactly how many gallons the New York City reservoirs hold, or how long it takes to fly from Washington to Timbuktu, or whether Brazilians drive on the right or the left-hand side of the road.
“So stop. Put the story first. Write your story first, and fact-check later. It doesn't have to be 100% accurate; it just has to be plausible.

“John Grisham was 100 pages into his latest book, The Associate, which was set at the Princeton Law School — when he found out that Princeton doesn't have a law school. It didn't derail him; he just moved the story to Yale, which does have a law school. The key is that the setting wasn't the important part, the story was — and he'd already written 100 pages, so he was able to go back and make the necessary changes.
“In Hollywood they call this “fixing it in post.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces need to come together just so in order to get a scene right on film. If 99 things are right and one thing is wrong, it's not worth shooting an entire scene again; they can fix it in post-production, by overdubbing sound or correcting color or editing something out. The key is to keep going, so the production can “make its day,” and stay on schedule.
“That's what John Grisham knows: the key is to keep going. “When I write fiction, it takes a lot to get me out of the seat to check anything,” he said in a recent interview. “I hate to stop writing to go check a fact, to go find a city, to go to a hotel — I'll just make stuff up.”
“And you know what? Readers hate it, too. Nothing is worse than stopping a story to give your readers all the great research you did about how and when some government agency happened to be based in West Virginia instead of in Washington, DC, or why that particular vintage of Burgundy is considered the best, or who manufactures a particular kind of pistol in the United States.”

(TG here. Finder goes on to discuss what happens when you make a firearms mistake. You get tons of irate emails from gun people. This has also been TG’s experience as well.)

Finder: “But then I defer to that king of all research, James Michener, whose Herculean efforts filled whole bookshelves (Hawaii, Caravans, The Source, Centennial, etc., etc...).

Even he admitted that research can only get you so far: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than that writer's solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth ... To praise a writer for having done research is like praising a bus driver for knowing how to shift gears; if he can't perform that function, he has no right to climb into the bus.” Because the story, like the bus, has to go somewhere.
“I wrestle with this constantly. I've had to set time limits on my research. If questions come up while I'm writing, I might make a call or fire off an email, but I don't stop writing while I wait for an answer; I keep writing, and fill in details later.”

TG agrees. And adds… Many times you don’t need to be absolutely accurate, or even pretty much accurate. Not as long as your story is dragging the reader along by his collar. TG has had this proven to him many times. After a first, second or third draft, TG has readers who will go over the manuscript to check for typos, plot flubs, anything that’s wrong that can be fixed. Time and again, TG has found that in the action sequences the amount of editing is drastically reduced. The errors are still there, but the readers, even those who are tasked with finding mistakes, get caught up in the story just like everyone else and miss many more errors than they usually do. The takeaway?

Story, story, story. Readers will forgive mistakes. They will not forgive boredom and frustration. Stories will never get written by writers seeking perfection.

First draft = story. The rest is simply details.


  1. When one takes on a challenge regarding something they know little about because the characters and the story have to live it, research is the only way to get comfortable within the skin of the passion for it. Even if it means one more day, one more tale, one more fact, one more find, if it enriches the imagination, it's worth the effort and time. When the imagination is nourished to the point where the author can function within the life of the story, the passion for research should be quieted. It's realtive, and often essential.

  2. Absolutely true and wonderfully put. The problem is often quieting the passion (sometimes obsession) for the research. In reality, or at least my reality, I have to do enough research to get within the skin but then leave the details for later as they invariably come up as the writing progresses. After the first draft it's usually much clearer as to the need for additional research.

  3. I agree. And, the research is a nice buffer to editing, which could get tedious. Writers and authors have insatiable minds. I have a sign over the desk that says "Let it breathe. It isn't fine wine, but it's alive - if you let it be." Thank you for your response. All the best - S.M. Starkey