On Research, Or What I Learned from a Single Sheet of Fool’s Cap

I’ve been lucky in my career in having a few really terrific mentors–just guys who’ve taught me stuff about writing and work. The best is Norman Stahl, the cosmically brilliant documentarian, novelist and military historian. Do you know people who’ve got a lot of bullshit? Norm has the least of anybody I’ve ever known. In fact I would say Norm has absolutely NO bullshit. Here’s one thing he told me:

“God created the single sheet of yellow fool’s cap to be exactly the right length to hold the entire outline of a novel.”

What did he mean by that? I’m tempted to say, “Don’t do any research.” But Norm is a gorilla for research. What he was really warning me about was extraneous and superfluous preparation.

Research can be just that. Resistance loves research because the more research you do, the less writing you do.

Research as Resistance

Because my books are so research-heavy, one of the questions I get asked a lot is: “How much research do you do before you begin actually writing?” The answer is, “As little as possible.”

We don’t need to know the type of mead cup favored by Boudica, the warrior queen. We can look that up (or make it up) later. What we need is the story.

It’s not because I don’t value research. I do. I love it. It’s often the most fun part of a project. But research can be pernicious because it’s so easy to tell yourself, when you’re doing it, that you’re actually working. You’re not. You’re preparing to work.

I’m collaborating right now on a project with Randall Wallace, who wrote the Academy Award-winning movie Braveheart. Here’s something I learned from watching him work. Whenever I would write a specific–a place, a historical date, whatever–he would change it to a generality. If I started a scene like this:


Randy would alter it to


He was absolutely right. Why? Because the audience (or the director/producer/actor/financier) doesn’t give a damn about the specific name of the place. It’s just a camp. Our job is to make the place work in the story, not get the history or geography right.

Of course the ideal is to do both, but forced to choose, story must always win.

How Shakespeare did it

The Bard researched his classical plays–Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, etc.–by reading Plutarch’s Lives. Have you ever read these? They’re great–and short. Twenty pages. Why did Shakespeare limit himself to such a minimalist source? Because the greatest writer in the English language wasn’t trolling for facts, he was hunting for the story. He wasn’t writing a biography of Caesar (which would require real research), he was writing a play with characters and a theme that would speak to his audience. I’m sure his quill started quivering when he saw Brutus … Cassius … jealousy of a great man, the aftermath of regicide. Anne, fetch me my sheet of fool’s cap!

My own trick with research

Here’s what I do. In my non-working hours, I’ll read the stuff I need for research. I buy the books, rather than take them out from the library. That way I’m free to mark them up, dog-ear, underline, highlight. Then each morning I take the first hour at the keyboard to transcribe those notes into files. This is an excellent warm-up for the day; it gets me filling pages without having to do any really hard work. And it’s a good way to steep myself in the material. The trick, for me, is to limit this research time to a single hour. Then I stop. Religiously. The next three hours are real work.

That sheet of fool’s cap

Back to what Norm Stahl said about that single sheet of fool’s cap. What he really meant was: Don’t prepare, do. Don’t let Resistance sucker you into wasting months on background, foundation, planning. All that can come later. What we need now is to get rolling. We need momentum. Energy. The story is what counts and it’s the story that’s scaring the bejesus out of us. We’re avoiding facing that nut-busting work. Norm’s advice has been tremendously emancipating for me because now, when I sit down to lay out any potential project, I strip it at once of all superfluities. Beginning, middle, end. Theme and characters. That’s it.

Now I can start my research.

[This is #4 in our series of “Writing Wednesdays.”  Today’s winner of a signed The War of Art is W.R. Pike, whose quote was the kick-off for the above post: “This second, we can sit down and do our work.”  That’s W.R.!  Please keep the quotes coming.]


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  1. Kenn MacRae on August 12, 2009 at 9:08 am

    Thanks as always Steven: guilty as charged.

    A great article that outlines some shackles I still struggle to break free from: Resistance in the form of research that still manages to convince me, from time to time, that it belongs ahead of writing in the queue.

    It doesn’t.

    Don’t get it right, get it written.

  2. Ruth Kozak on August 12, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Hi Steve, this my first visit here but I will definitely make a point of returning often and directing others to the site. It seems I work a lot like you — because there is so much never-ending research with historical fictions books. I did most of it in the years before I even started my novel and research as I go along. I just got stuck for awhile because someone contested a ‘date’ of an event that happened to a minor character that precipitates the end of my novel. Then I read a quote that help unstuck me “A historical fiction writer can take any number of liberties with the facts”. That, along with a stern lecture I had from one of Classical scholar friends help me move ahead without being so darn concerned with ‘accuracy’. After all, what we know is from histories written years after the events happened and nothing back then was recorded in exact years or months anyway.

    You can get so immersed in these niggling details it totally derails your work.
    And yes, I love “Plutarch’s Lives” and a few of those others.

    By the way, I’ve got just a couple of chapter to go and I’m finished. I keep remembering what you told me about the end being more difficult than the beginning.

  3. Viviana Goldenberg on August 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Let me paraphrase Robert de Niro in “Taxi Driver” : ” Are you talking to me?” LOL.
    I agree that research can mean Resistance but in some cases cases , specially while dealing with historical events I like to arrive to my own conclusion before writing it down and the problem is that in some cases the sources are very bias, even the ones that have live during the events they write about, like Thucydides or that write their own version of the lives of people that lived 500 years before them, like Plutarch.

  4. andrew lubin on August 12, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Steve – you are so right. Get it written, and then edit, research, re-write, and edit again. Except for tonight, where editing and honest reflection made me delete the pages I wrote yesterday – now I can attack the subject matter from a different direction.

  5. zenpundit on August 12, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    “Of course the ideal is to do both, but forced to choose, story must always win.”

    I think that you have the acme of good communication there Steve. Whether I am teaching children, adults or training professionals, using a story to exemplify the point always gets them to where I need them to be 10 x faster than a step by step explanation.

    These “Writing Wednesday’s” are really useful – please keep at them!

  6. historyguy99 on August 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    I have been looking forward to reading your blog every Wednesday and this week did not dissapoint.

    This installment of “Writing Wednesday’s” really struck a solid note. Your insight is not only helpful to the budding writer, but serves to illustrate why the most infuential historians are those who can tell a good story, much to the dismay to their dry staid brethern who produce dusty empirical tomes, read only by those seeking research when writing a great story.

  7. Kevin Ward on August 13, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Favorite War of Art quote this week — “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” pg. 40

  8. Scott Locklin on August 13, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Dang; again you fish barreled me. I have an excuse for going to the library this morning: there are no modern books on the religious heresy of Mazdak. I’m pretty sure I carry around most of what is known about Mazdak in my casaba already, but it’s nice to check your references when you’re getting published. Ya, I got published; commissioned for more, and for money even. I ain’t quitting my day job counting other people’s money, but -hell, the only reason I’m trying to make money is to afford the time to write.

  9. Jennifer Maurici on August 15, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    I think someone may have used this quote already, but because it fits so perfectly with where I’m at right now, I have to use it. My favorite quote for this week – “Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid.” – pg. 108

  10. Dicksie McDaniel on August 22, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Okay, I’m way behind everyone else. I just finished War of Art — in one sitting. I had been told of it, but I didn’t buy it/read it until now, and (guess what) it turned out to be perfect timing. I am enthralled. I am inspired. I am buying this book or recommending this book for friends/acquaintances. I see it was published in 2004. Where have I been these last five years?

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