On Research, Or What I Learned From A Single Sheet Of Fool’s Cap
[I’m excited to share some of the new posts that will go up in the coming weeks. But for now, a repeat of one of the lessons I learned from Norman Stahl.]
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:
EXT. BIR GOLAN CAMP – NIGHT
Randy would alter it to
EXT. DESERT CAMP – NIGHT
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.