Write First, Research Later

Write First, Research Later

First of all, you’re not going mad. I did change my URL. If you’ve lost your subscription (which I’ve heard can happen), please subscribe again! The button is still somewhere to the right of this post (I think, though I was fiddling with the theme a lot) and I don’t want to lose you :)

Oh, and I changed my Twitter username to match. Well, actually, I changed this to match that. Whatever. I’m now @miriamjoywrites over there as well.

Today I’m here to talk about the benefits of not doing research before you write your first draft, which is quite the opposite of any advice I’ve ever been given, but I find it helps. I’m not saying it’s always the thing to do, but I’m saying sometimes it can help. Let me give you two case studies:

National Novel Writing Month 2010, Beneath The Branches

I’d wanted to write this novel for years. It was based on the stories about Niall Noigiallach, or Niall of the Nine Hostages, which I’d first heard when I was about ten, on account of a family connection. It needed research – I needed to know the stories about him, obviously, in order to be able to draw on them. I also needed to know about Celtic society.

However, I’d been planning for NaNo since August of that year, and the plans I had made had been for Figurehead. I had character outlines, plot outlines, the works – and I was bored of the story. A week before the end of October and the start of NaNo, I suddenly realised that I wanted to write Beneath the Branches instead. I didn’t want to write Figurehead. I wanted to write this story.

I had a week to research. I decided that the stories were more important than the little society details (rightly so, I think) and read up on those, and wrote the novel.

It was terrible. No, the plot wasn’t, but the writing was. The head-hopping! The descriptions! Everything about it was bad. Then again, it was 127,000 words that I wrote in just over two weeks, so it’s no surprise. Also, I hadn’t written many novels back then. It was practice.

But reading it back, I realise what I needed was knowledge of the society, of the boats they used, of how families worked, of what they wore – the stories weren’t enough. I should have researched before I started.

And yet I’m advocating doing the opposite. Why? Case study number two:

National Novel Writing Month 2011, The Quiet Ones

I find NaNo a good way to get a first draft down, which is why both of these are NaNos. Also, when you’ve got a deadline, you don’t get sidetracked researching. Either you research beforehand, or you research afterwards before you write the second draft, and that’s how it works. Hence why they make good examples.

The Quiet Ones is a story about modern day knights, to put it simply. Did I do research beforehand? Erm, no. I’d written the first chapters of it before, but I was rewriting it to address various characterisation flaws and general failures of plot. (And I think, though I say so myself, that I succeeded.)

I knew nothing about swordfighting save for what I’d picked up by osmosis – reading about it, a few hours of fencing on a school trip when I was eleven, and seeing it in films. Plus, 75% of the novel happens at their university, and I had no idea what uni they went to.

It looked, in my head, a bit like Durham. And it worked like Durham too, in that it was collegiate and had catered colleges and meal tickets and all that. Why? Because my sister went to Durham, so it was the only uni about which I knew anything of the workings – all the others I’d seen only the surface. However, it wasn’t Durham, because it was in Scotland. What’s more, it was really far North. They’re the Far Northern Blues, these Knights, after all.

I decided to do a quick edit of The Quiet Ones (removing typos etc), but apparently I’m incapable of editing without completely rewriting, so I’ve ended up heading off on a second draft of that instead of any of the other things I’m supposed to be doing. I’m taking this opportunity to all the research into swordfighting (links to info as comments would be appreciated a lot) and fencing, and also into universities.

I needed a uni that did both Archaeology and Maths (two subjects that are specified that characters study). I needed one that was far North, had good sports facilities, and a large library that was close to accommodation. I needed it to have a fencing society, as well as various martial arts clubs. I needed there to be students from all over the country – and indeed, international students too. I needed them to have a lot of science facilities.

So, obviously, I ended up with Aberdeen. (I’ve been reading their prospectus for information for a couple of days now!)

But the reason I advocate doing this afterwards, even though it may help you get clearer images in your head for the first draft, is that it’s easier to tune up scenes to work with the info you’ve got then to try and extract from the information what you need to write the scene. You’ll get too hung up on trying to make it accurate and will have to research every little detail before you start writing – and it’ll never get done. Plus, if you’re like me, you’ll be sick of it all before you’ve even started writing.

If you’ve got the bare bones, and then you research, you’ll not only find bits that you got right without realising it, you’ll also find that it’s easier to rewrite things to work. That’s been my experience, at least.

And guess what?

I know for a fact that The Quiet Ones is the best first draft I’ve ever written.

10 thoughts on “Write First, Research Later

  1. I think you might have a bit of truth in there. A certain amount of knowledge is useful – you had some idea of how a college worked and how sword fighting worked – but the detialed research can probably be done later. Which reminds me. I ought to follow you about for this research, as i’ve got a bit of sword fighting in my novels as well.

    1. Ha ha, yeah, feel free to follow me about, though so far everything I’ve found has mainly been via Wikipedia’s external links from pages such as ‘historical fencing’.

  2. Hi Miriam,
    First of all: I love the new theme; it’s very…colourful. :D
    Secondly: I didn’t notice the change in URL. How unobservant of me, haha! Anyway, if I had noticed, I bet I would have complimented the straight-forwardness of it. That’s always a good thing to have as an URL.
    Lastly: ‘The Quiet Ones’ sounds really interesting. When do you think that the next draft will be done? (More importantly: when will I be able to read it?)
    xD Alex :)

    1. No one can spell ‘delorfinde’, so I decided to change my Twitter handle, and then thought I should change this to match. If you didn’t notice I’m assuming that means subscriptions etc are working as normal – which is always nice to know.
      Next draft will be done when I get around to finishing it. Might take a bit of a hiatus in June though, for Camp NaNoWriMo. On the other hand, might just carry on. Don’t really know yet.
      So, am I to deduce that you are offering to beta-read? That would be tremendously exciting, to have a new beta-reader.

      1. Yes, as far as I know, subscriptions are still working for you. At least, I still got an update.
        Actually, yeah, I am deciding to express an interest to Beta-read. *grin* I can’t say I’ll be very good at it, but if you manage something for the summer (when I have the most free time), I should be able to.

        1. Summer sounds awesome. Great! Charley and Cathryn know me so well that everything I write sounds pretty much the same, I’m imagining. It’ll be nice to have a fresh perspective.

  3. I agree! I always want to get going while my passion for the plot is still hot – I do the research to tidy up afterwards :)

    And I like the new theme – a little bright at first, bt one gets used to it very fast :)

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