Research: A Writer's Best Friend and A Writer's Worst Enemy

This article, from Joseph Finder, originally appeared in his Tips For Writers in May of 2009.

My name is Joe, and I’m a research-aholic.

This should surprise no one who reads my books. In fact, I’ve taken some teasing about the length of the “acknowledgments” sections of my books, because so many people have been so generous about sharing their expertise with me.

I have always considered “Write what you know” one of the most useless pieces of advice a beginning author gets. Write what I know? If I’d started out writing what I knew, I’d have come up with 10 or 12 pages about a kid in upstate New York who wanted to be a cartoonist (I did, actually; see my monthly newsletter for more about this). Granted, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, among others, did very well in turning their life experiences into literature — but I wanted to write thrillers, and my life was not thrilling.

No, for me, writing was all about having my characters do things I could only dream of, whether that was taking the Concorde to Paris, escaping assassins on the streets of Moscow, or wining and dining beautiful women in Boston’s finest restaurants (which I am now able to do, thanks to my wife and daughter, but you know what I mean).

And let’s face it: research is the fun part. Who wouldn’t want to ride along with cops, learn to shoot guns (lots of guns!), and talk to interesting people about the cool things they do? It’s much more fun than sitting alone in front of a blank computer screen, trying to figure out what happens next.

Research has also given me some of my best plot points and material. A weapons expert once showed me how to smuggle a gun through airport security and on to a plane. Believe me, I could not have thought that one up by myself.

But every hour you spend doing the fun stuff of research is time you’re not writing. And I’m here to tell you that research, while fun and often necessary, is addictive and dangerous.

It’s also a great crutch. All novelists feel like impostors at times; it’s only natural to feel unqualified and insecure in what you’re writing about. You don’t really know it — what do we know, we’re writers, right? Ñ so you want to find out as much as you can. But in the age of the Internet, you’re always one hyperlink away from the next website or article, and it can go on ad infinitum. The easiest thing in the world is to put off writing while you find out exactly how many gallons the New York City reservoirs hold, or how long it takes to fly from Washington to Timbuktu, or whether Brazilians drive on the right or the left-hand side of the road.

So stop. Put the story first. Write your story first, and fact-check later. It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate; it just has to be plausible.

John Grisham was 100 pages into his latest book, The Associate, which was set at the Princeton Law School — when he found out that Princeton doesn’t have a law school. It didn’t derail him; he just moved the story to Yale, which does have a law school. The key is that the setting wasn’t the important part, the story was — and he’d already written 100 pages, so he was able to go back and make the necessary changes.

Read the rest of the article on Joseph Finder’s site, and click here to subscribe to his newsletter or Tips For Writers. 

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