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My Research Revelation

word processor [1]So I’m trying to bootstrap my writing game to the next level by investing time and hard work in research. Now, those who know me know that “I hate research like a cat hates baths.” But just now I made an amazing personal breakthrough and since I love process as much as I hate research, I wanted to share it with you at once.

There I was, reading source material and taking notes. I had my .pdf research file and my “store notes here” file open side by side on my big computer screen, and when I read something useful on the left side, I’d write it down on the right. This wasn’t going okay. I was bored. The act of doing research didn’t engage me at all. It wasn’t telling me what I really wanted to know, and it seemed to be taking way too long. Worse – worst – I was impatient to write; I’m always impatient to write. I never feel particularly good when I’m not writing, and even laying the necessary pipe of research doesn’t quell the itchy feeling that “I’m falling behind in my existence.” Yuck, right? Yuck.

Then I had a thought – a revelation, really – and it stemmed from my bedrock belief that “all assumptions should be questioned all the time.” At that moment I was operating under two assumptions. One was that I hate research and the other was that I was doing research the only way research could be or should be done. Determined to challenge those assumptions, I asked myself what my research was really meant to do. Add data, right? Give me enough information to “solve the problem of the story.” But there were other storytelling problems to be solved as well: problems of event, voice, detail, characterization, dialogue and so on. I was using research to do this one narrow thing – add data – but I suddenly realized that it could do much more.

So here’s what I decided to try: Instead of just mechanically recording relevant information, why not try interpreting it? By these means I could interestingly multitask, not just completing the “odium” of research, but also bench-testing my characters’ voice, vocabulary and point of view, plus the many ways I might choose to convey this world on the page. To put things in an even neater little nutshell: Instead of just gathering information, I decided to build a relationship with my research – a dynamic relationship that didn’t just store future building blocks of story but put them into story right frugging now!

What changed? Everything changed. Suddenly my research document wasn’t just something that I would build now and mine later for detail. Suddenly, and without any real effort on my part, it was my door into story. Sure I was researching, but I was writing as well – writing without expectation and without consequences. Seeing what would happen just… well, just to see what would happen. My impatience quelled, my creativity took over, and – literally for the first time in my life – research started to be fun.

My mistake had been in thinking that I needed some “critical mass” of information before I could start. First things first: I had to finish my homework. By (finally!) challenging that assumption, I turned research from a boring burden into an integral, real-time part of my process. Let me see if I can give you an example.

In the world of my story there are these city gates. Eventually I will need to know those gates quite well: what they’re made of; how they operate; how to assail them; much more. Instead of just recording “gate data,” I tried placing two characters in front of a gate and let them discuss it. Now I’m not just learning about gates. I’m learning about gates, about attitudes toward gates, about characters’ conflicts rooted in those attitudes, and abundant other stuff about how my characters talk, act and think. All because I made the one simple change from recording to relating.

What happened next? I was transformed. Each turned page of research became a treasure hunt for interesting story elements – and the treasure was totally there. After a lifetime of doing research in my head (making stuff up), I found myself doing research – real research – and converting it into story stuff at a fantastic clip. I wrote more words, much faster, than I ever had before. Usable words, too, backed with the authority that real research brings. And all of it was fast, easy and fun – the way writing is meant to be but so often is not.

Suddenly I no longer hate research. All day, every day, I can’t wait to have at it, because now I know what exciting discoveries await at the breathtaking intersection of what I’m learning and what I create.

This is no small matter, folks. I’m north of sixty now, and I have a feeling that if I knew then what I know now about research – about how to appropriately approach it and engage it – my writing life would have been very much different. Do I feel regret for all that lost time? Not exactly. As a teacher of writers I’m always telling my students that there are some capabilities you can’t rush, you just have to grow into. For me, research was one of those things.

But I can’t begin to describe how turned on I am right now. I’m writing at a deeper, richer and manifestly more authentic level than ever before, and it all stems from that one simple change: I started having a relationship with research.

May I commend the strategy to your attention? Next time you’re “reading for information,” try reading and writing for information. You may or may not find the real spine of the story that way, but if you’re willing to fail on the page (and we should all be willing to fail on the page) then it won’t matter, because you can always go back and find the spine – or fix the spine – later.

As for me, as a writer, I know I’ll never be the same. I’ll probably never write another novel without a rich vein of research to draw upon, a steady stream of facts that I can turn into story stuff. My writing will be much better. How do I know? Because, hey, it already totally is.

So what’s your approach? What do you know about research that I can only imagine? What strategies do you use to get out of the information-gathering stage and into “real” writing? Or does nobody draw that distinction but me?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!