Thursday, July 14, 2011

Targeted Research Equals Productivity Gold

Current Project: Requested Proposals
Status: Inching Along

I’ve learned many things the hard way about writing, including this little gem of wisdom: targeted research is worth its weight in productivity gold when done in the pre-writing stage. Don’t make assumptions about anything that is pivotal to plot or character, because laziness in this regard will come back to bite you in the metaphorical ass.

The hero of my first novel is the new police chief in a very small Iowa town. The heroine is a girl he grew up with who has been framed for murder. I originally had a scene where the hero catches the heroine breaking and entering, but he’s already fallen for her and he doesn’t arrest her. After all, he’s a small town police chief. He has more discretion than a big city police chief, right?

Wrong. Before revising my first draft, one of the things I did was to read Deb Dixon’s book, When You’re the Only Cop in Town. I also read the brilliant and detailed police procedurals Eleven Days and Known Suspects by ex-Iowa-small-town deputy sheriff Donald Harstad. I learned that small town cops, at least the ones in charge, may exercise discretion more often than their big city counterparts. However, no honest police chief will stretch the law for his own benefit, which is pretty much what my character did in Draft 1.

End result? Much revising and rewriting that could have been avoided.

What about you? Has there been a time when targeted research before your first draft would have saved you a lot of time and effort? 


Robin Weaver said...

Great post, Sarah. I tend to research topics that fascinate me and "then" get ideas for novels. As for up-front research, I tend NOT to do that, mostly because I don't know I need the research until a character veers in an unexpected direction. In the middle of a first draft, I have stopped to research psychiatric evaluations, stun guns, and straight jackets. I don't know how writers survived before the internet!

Judith Ashley said...

In my 3rd manuscript, SamMarie Ashe found a real mess I'd made about Restraining Orders. Bless her many times over because she checked out what really does happen so I could 'fix' the problem.
Had a discussion Tuesday with Helen Little about what age can children be legally left alone. That, it seems varies widely from state to state. I've some thinking to do about that one.

Judith Ashley

Genene Valleau said...

LOL, Sarah! I know what you mean. But it's also the small things that can trip a writer--we've probably all heard of eye color that changes without contact lenses over the course of a story. :)

And Judith brings up a very good point: laws vary from state to state. Not only that, but interpretation of those laws and actual practice varies from county to county and from official to official. Newbie caseworkers (or cops or garbage haulers or whatever) will make goofs no seasoned worker ever would.

Love this bit of wisdom, Sarah: "Don't make assumptions about anything..."

Sarah Raplee said...

Thanks for stopping by, Robin. I get ideas from my 'just-for-fun' research, too. I hate to stop to do research in the middle of a first draft, but there are times when the info is so important to character development or plot that I have to - like your psych evals, stun guns, and straight jadkets!

Sarah Raplee said...

Judith, legalities are a sticky wicket, not only because they vary between states, but because they may change over time. What we remember from ten years ago isn't necessarily true today.

Dang it anyway! :)

Sarah Raplee said...

Genene, I agree that there are many pitfalls out there waiting to trip up Writer Babe as she gingerly forges through the video-game-like journey of writing her latest book. Research and details are two of many monsters we must tame. :)

Tam Linsey said...

I actually have the opposite problem. I allow research questions to falter my writing. I can't find the answer, so I stop until I find it. Or I get lost down a rabbit trail of research about unrelated things while looking for an answer. But once I write something, I'm fairly certain my facts are correct, at least!

Diana Mcc. said...

Ver-r-r-y interesting, Sarah! I do some research before writing, but usually have to do more during the process. Research about facts or things that pop up as I get into the novel. Like Tam, I sometimes get "lost down that rabbit trail of research" in an entirely different direction and end up knowing more about a LOT of things, not just the answer I wanted.

Sarah Raplee said...

Ah, tam and Diana - the rabbit hole is another pitfall awaiting the unwary Writer Babe. But at least it's a fun one when it trips you up!

Unless the research is about a critical point, I wait if I'm in the middle of writing because it stops the flow of the story. I try to research critical stuff in the pre-writing stage as much as possible, but I can't foresee everythng either.

Good points!