See, research used to be a whole lot harder back in the day before the Internet. I know there are a whole bunch of you right now clutching your hearts and staggering around like Fred Sanford exclaiming; “No…no Internet? What did people do all day long?” I could tell you but that’s another essay for another time. This one here is about my ruminations and musings on the pitfalls of doing research.
Way back in the 1980s in order to do my research for whatever I was working on at the time what I would do is set aside a day (usually Saturday) to go to my local library and spend the morning just researching. At that time I lived in Ebbets Field.
Which was only a nice little thirty minute walk to the library on Grand Army Plaza. So I got my exercise as well. Once the research was done I treated myself to the rest of the day off.
So now we fast-forward to the Internet Age where I can now simply Google any information about anything at all and do my research in my pajamas in the comfort of my home because now the library comes to me. And that’s a good thing. Maybe too much of a good thing.
Let me explain: the current project I’m working on is set during World War I during what was one of the most important conflicts in the history of warfare: The Battle of Cambrai. Cambrai is a town in France that is distinguished due to the fact that it was first time tanks were used in large numbers in combat successfully. Now, I know as much about The Battle of Cambrai as I do about the dark side of the moon. But that’s where things get interesting.
I go ahead and Google up The Battle of Cambrai and there’s a whole lotta good articles and information on the battle. I breathe a sigh of relief and dig in. The trail of research even leads me to YouTube as there’s a goodish number of documentaries from the History Channel about The Battle of Cambrai. I’m encouraged now, y’see? I hungrily absorb everything I’m learning and putting into the story as now I feel much more confident being armed with dates, names and maps to give my story a solid foundation.
So what’s the problem?
I re-read the first three chapters of the book and it occurred to me that what I had actually done was bury the story under the weight of the dates, names and maps. So intent had I been making sure I had the historical stuff right I sacrificed doing the stuff that I know how to do: dialog, characterization, action. Y’know…the stuff I had been asked to do on this project as that was the reason I had been engaged to work on it in the first place.
And I’ve always been the guy who preached that if facts got in the way of telling a good story then throw the facts away and don’t worry about it. But I didn’t do it this time and after some time I had it figured out as to why I wasn’t doing it. These weren’t my characters and this wasn’t a setting I had chosen. My confidence wasn’t holding me up on this one. And usually my confidence level is ridiculously high. But not this time. This time I felt I needed the facts to prove that I knew what I was doing.
And after a couple of days of burning up brain cells meditating about the situation it got through to me that I did know what I was doing. I was asked to write an action packed pulp adventure full of derring-do, thrills and chills. I hadn’t been asked to write a historical fiction novel ala John Jakes. The historical stuff of World War I and The Battle of Cambrai was just the backdrop for the story.
So what did I do? Why I scrapped the first three chapters and rewrote them, of course. But this time I only used just as much research as I needed to move the story along and that’s all.
So what’s the moral of this story? I guess it’s not to let research get in the way of having fun writing. Unless of course you actually are writing a historical fiction novel and in that case it’s of primary importance that you stick to the facts. Or maybe the moral is that since research is so easy to do now that it’s way too easy to get caught up in research for research’s sake and convince yourself that you’re doing research when you’re actually entertaining yourself swimming in the sea of research.
But you’ll be glad to know that once I got through trudging through that bog, the novel proved to be a lot easier to work on and it’s going faster than I thought it would. What novel is this you ask?
Well, if I told you that now then I wouldn’t have a subject for us to talk about the next time, would I?