Develop a Habit of Research in Writing

Over a lifetime, a writer might develop an amazing array of facts and information because of lengthy research into the topics of their stories.  In a study of medieval Paris, an author may learn all the historical landmarks, the city streets and their ancient layout before the city was modernized, or the placement of walls and battlements that are no longer standing in the present day.  The writer might also discover customs now lost to society, such as the rag-catcher who would collect the used handkerchiefs of the city dwellers and take them on to be ‘recycled’ in other ways.  This research can stay with a writer for years after they have finished their story and it is a product of research conducted once the writer has the germ of the narrative firmly in mind.  This is the research that most of us come to associate with the daily life of a professional writer.

But research can occur at any stage of the game, in many forms, and should be a universal writing habit. The curious writer is the one best poised to uncover story almost by accident, thus sparing himself the discomfort of having to dream up a narrative from scratch. It’s a common adage in the writing community that one does not think up a story, one writes it down like a faithful assistant. Julia Cameron attributes this to having a good sense of direction. A good habit of daily research means that stories come to the writer, rather than the writer chasing them down like butterflies with a net. The writer must be curious. A curious writer is rewarded with ideas that she never strove for and these are the most natural and organic ideas. They become discoveries like buried treasure and the writer is so enthusiastic to get to the bottom of the discovery that this delight infects the prose and shines through to the reader.

Be curious! Set up some RSS news feeds of unusual news stories or interview your eldest relatives, study your genealogy, watch some documentaries, browse the library and pick up a history book for free, then read it for the next week, or put it down if it bores you. Alternatively keep it another week if you found something you can’t put down. (Every writer should belong to a library as it’s part of being a card-carrying member of the secret writers’ society.)

Make a new friend, study a subject that everyone else laughs at, follow a subversive trend or embrace a controversial topic, develop a new hobby, study your town and discover new areas you’ve never visited before, or learn about the depths of the ocean.

Listen to new music, change your radio station, grit your teeth and try fifteen minutes of listening to NPR on the radio, read the biography of your favorite composer, follow the life story of a popular musician, take a course at your local college in psychology, sociology, or anthropology and learn the motivations of people and society. Study a god. Consider reality. Consider magic.

After breathing, research is the one other thing that writers do regularly. A writer must be curious and brave; must develop a strong tolerance for new opinions, different viewpoints, and unfamiliar material. If not a strong tolerance for it, then some authors have the unique tendency to dissolve into that great sea of information, even losing their sense of identity into it for a while and simply becoming a lens for the fragments of story and perception that aren’t their own. It is only after the deep dive that they return to the shore and find their voice again to tell a story.

Authors will do this frequently. Apart from putting words on a page, it is probably the second most practiced activity in a writer’s repertoire. Make it yours.