writer in progress: research! let's not and say we did

This is a matter of curiosity; and you have got a woman for your ally. Under such conditions, success is certain. -- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

He wasn't exactly lost, because cats never get lost. He merely didn't know where everything else was. -- Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

How often is imagination the mother of truth? -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

I have to lower my voice on this one, because it would seem, yet again, that I'm committing a writerly heresy, but here is the nasty truth:

I hate research.

I know. Stunning, isn't it?

I didn't think that this was much of a revelation until I began digging deeper into writing circles--reading writers' memoirs, listening to talks at writing festivals. Over and over I'd hear a writer say something along the lines of this:

"I love research. I just love researching so much! It's the actual writing that's miserable, and I put it off by researching. The danger is getting lost in the research, letting it stretch for ever, and not getting the writing done!"

I heard two writers saying as much once in a room full of writerly listeners, and everyone chuckled, as if to say, I know just what you mean!

I was the one scratching her head saying, really? I can't even imagine what that's like!

Research has been the bane of my writing life--I'm stunned to hear that it's the other way around for some.

In fact, I wish I could inject a bit more of that mindset into my life, because I'll do just about anything to avoid research. In my mind, I've already done my share: There's a number of competent research papers with my name on them. Yes, I can regurgitate facts from other books... point proven. Let's move on.

Which is one of the reasons I landed in the fantasy genre. I look over my shoulder a bit nervously at the unicorns and dragons and wizardly writers, the "real" fantasy writers. I'm not quite there, but I do like stepping away from reality, giving my characters enough room to make up their own places, their own rules.

And also, or so I hoped, I would get myself off the research hook.

Yeah, right.

Truth is: even when you're making up a world from scratch, there's still plenty of research that has to be done. Readers are plenty savvy, and I'm guessing they know a lot more than I do. So I'm still piling up history books with a groan, and putting off the day when I need to read them all.

That is, I was. Until I finally saw the light, the big beautiful key to research: I don't do it.

Or at least, I don't call it research. And I don't treat it like research. Instead, I looked at all the learning and nonfiction I was already doing, naturally, on my own. All the stuff I was reaching for, without the big ugly Research bird on my shoulder.

What do I love learning about? Can't I write about that?

What if I write about the subjects that fascinate me no matter what. Things I was learning on the sly. If I write about that, if my worlds and scenes are based around that, then I'm home free. The learning gets done, the scenes are written, and I'm passionate about the subject--an enthusiasm that, hopefully, shows up in the characters and action.

Why did it take me so long--four years?!--to realize this? Is there a Puritan streak in me, which thinks, if it's fun, it's a bad idea? Maybe. But somehow, I was writing about subjects that 1) required research, and 2) I wasn't interested in learning about.

Looking at it objectively, I can see now that it was a bad idea. But at the time, it seemed to make sense...

So I've finally corrected my ways. At the heart of my current project--this draft I've been working on feverishly--is a massive library, the library to end all libraries. So I get to read about people who love books, collectors, writers, caretakers... anyone who is crazy about books.

Which is precisely what I would do anyway.

For an added bonus? I went on a field trip last week, to nearby Washington University, to look at their rare book collection. William Morris's edition of Canterbury Tales? A late 15th century book of hours? Yes please.

It's a moral that most people probably knew anyway: to get something done, make it fun.

Or better yet: Write out of your passion.

... And cook what excites you, draw what you've been doodling, knit what you daydream about, embrace the stuff you've always loved.

I don't know why this is hard for me--is it hard for you? Does it dodge you too, elude you? I'm going to practice sticking to what I love, from now on. 

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