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The Perils and Pitfalls of Research

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Please join me in welcoming author Tasha Alexander to WU today! Tasha has written 14 books in her bestselling historical series from the Victorian era featuring Lady Emily Hargreaves, most recently In the Shadow of Vesuvius. [2]

More from her bio:

The daughter of two philosophy professors, I grew up surrounded by books. I was convinced from an early age that I was born in the wrong century and spent much of my childhood under the dining room table pretending it was a covered wagon. Even there, I was never without a book in hand and loved reading and history more than anything. I studied English Literature and Medieval History at the University of Notre Dame. I played nomad for a long time, living in Indiana, Amsterdam, London, Wyoming, Vermont, Connecticut, and Tennessee before settling down in southeastern Wyoming. I still don’t have a covered wagon, but a log house goes a long way toward fulfilling my pioneer fantasies.

You can learn more about Tasha on her website [3], and by following her on Facebook [4] and Instagram [5].

The Perils and Pitfalls of Research

As a writer of historical fiction, I have both the pleasure and pain of counting research as an integral part of my work. Like any historian, I’m drawn to towering stacks of books about my subject, and it’s the best when I can get my hands on primary sources like diaries and letters that provide unfiltered (at least by time) insights into the period at hand. My novels are set throughout Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I try to visit the cities about which I’m writing. No book can entirely replace walking through the streets of Istanbul or Paris or Pompeii, and I want to make sure I have a deep understanding of my locations. Tough work, right? It’s no vacation, that’s for sure (ask my husband about walking fifteen miles a day for nine days in Russia; there was a lot of sleet), but I love it. Madly. Which can cause problems.

Writers know that, whatever their process, they have to end up with a completed manuscript. They also know that there is nothing easier than finding excuses not to write. For me, now, this generally comes in the form of not wanting to tear myself away from endlessly fascinating research, but before writing my first novel, I spent years explaining to myself why I couldn’t write. I had an all-consuming job. I had a baby. I was moving. I was moving again. I didn’t have a desk.

You don’t need a desk in order to write a book. Trust me.

Mark Twain said The secret of getting ahead is getting started. Smart guy, Twain. The blank page can be intimidating, especially in those moments when it feels like you’ll never, ever have a decent idea again. If you’re writing a historical, or anything else that requires substantial research, it’s easy to get sidetracked. After all, it’s part of the work. This is why I have more than three hundred books in my office. Fascinating though all of those tidbits of information you’re gleaning may be, it’s important to remember two things: First, that it’s possible no one other than yourself (including your readers) is going to share your enthusiasm for, say, the technical details of Victorian plumbing. Second, you can’t finish a book when you’re not writing.

Research isn’t writing.

Writing is sitting at your computer (or with paper) and getting down words, one after the other, until you have enough to make a book. Which is a lot of words.

Things that keep you from putting words on the page are not your friend. At least not unless you’re carefully managing them.

Before I start writing, I let myself read enough primary sources and thorough secondary ones that I feel comfortable in the time and place I’m setting my novel. I take a research trip, filling notebooks with observations. When I get home, I give myself a few weeks to percolate, having learned over the years that letting my brain quietly do its thing in the background is far more productive than consciously trying to force ideas to come.

And then I write.

Inevitably, things will crop up that require more research. If it’s a question of dipping back into a source and quickly finding an answer, I do it. If it takes more than that, I mark the spot (TK is your friend. Apparently there are no words—or hardly any words—in English that contain the two letters together, making it simple to search for the places in your manuscript you need to revisit) and don’t look at it again until I’ve finished the draft. Once I’ve got a draft, I can indulge in the luxury of returning to research, but at that point, I know so specifically what I need to find that I’m unlikely to go all the way down the rabbit hole. Which in no way means I’m not tempted.

Finding the right balance when it comes to research and writing is tricky. You need enough of the former to inform the latter, but not so much that you never start—or finish—putting your story down on paper.

All that said, when it comes to writing, it’s critical to work in a way you find inherently satisfying, pleasurable, even. After all, the writing—the actual art of it—is the only part of the book world over which the author has any control. Publishers, editors, art directors, marketing teams, sales reps, and booksellers handle the rest. In his marvelous Black Swan Green, David Mitchell wrote, “Once a poem’s left home it doesn’t care about you.” That hold for books, too. Yes, we have to finish what we start, avoid distraction, hit our deadlines. But we need to enjoy it, too.

So maybe, once in a while, indulge yourself. Spend a little more time on research. Just not at the expense of your own words.

How do you keep a tether on your research? When do you know enough is truly enough–or is it ever? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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