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.
Really hitting home for me today, Steven. In the back of my head I’ve always delayed writing that dream book because of (what I saw as) the need for exhaustive, time-consuming research. Guess it’s time to retire that excuse.
I like what you’ve done with time-chunking (not sure what the mainstream term for it is). I’ve been experimenting with limiting my work time instead of setting goals for my work productivity, and it’s showing good results so far…
Thanks for the post!
“…the more research you do, then less writing you do.” I needed to hear that. And realized, reading your post, that I don’t have someone calling my bullshit bullshit.
Thank you for your ongoing insights.
Wonderful! Just what I needed to hear. If I’m being honest, I’m a bit of a research junkie no matter what it’s for–I actually find it fun! But there is no doubt I use it as a delay tactic when I need to be sitting down and producing copy or code.
So true! For me, it’s usually “fact-checking”, rather than research. The only way I’ve been able to get around it is to add (***CHECK FACT***), and move on.
This is brilliant advice because it ferrets out Resistance where Resistance loves to camouflage itself: In tasks that can be rationalized as integral to the “process.”
I almost always over-research projects–and a lot of my research is done online where I can keep clicking deeper and deeper into the rabbit’s hole.
Sing to me me, Oh Muse, kick me in the pants and help me set boundaries on research!
This is so helpful – thank you Steven. I love the idea of limiting the time you spend on research to one hour and using it as a warm-up to the real work, rather than spending some of your writing days entirely on research. From the reader’s perspective, a good story is so much more important than the facts – we so often forget that. And as Keith says, which is something you do, it’s good to have someone in our lives calling our Resistance tactics by their rightful name. Thanks again.
Ed Dale of the 30 Day Challenge picked up your post and quoted it on his blog – http://www.eddale.co/general/research-is-not-work-steven-pressfield-on-research
I’m very glad he did. I spend too long looking for the ideal subject to blog on instead of choosing one and writing it up. Ideally I’d get in the habit of writing up each story that appeals to me and then choosing which to post!
I really understand Resistance!
Wow. This was a really helpful article. I love the act of researching, and until today I don’t think I realized that I was mistaking research for actually working. Thanks for shifting my view.
I totally get what you are saying about over-researching but at the same time – to be a bit controversial – it strikes me that when you say,
“In my non-working hours, I’ll read the stuff I need for research.”
you are still doing your research but what you have done is extend your working day! If you use that research when you write then to say that you are not working is just playing with concepts…It almost sounds like you don’t want to accept that you can enjoy any part of your work so if you are enjoying it, it must be something you are doing in ‘non-working’ hours!
Of course, there is always a danger of procrastination when involved in creative work but there is equally a danger of getting hung up on product not process, of being so fixed on achieving the end result that we forget to allow ourselves to fill our creative wells. Perhaps research is your way of filling the well and sparking ideas…
Hi Steven, just wanted to point out that a lot of the research I do is actually not just a trawl for facts, but an attempt to kickstart my imagination. I mean, the stuff you find! It’s mindboggling sometimes, and nothing you could ever hope to dream up in your wildest fantasies around the subject. So, I suppose my point here is, story, yes, but surely research plays a major role, in that it sends you down plot lines you’d never think to go.
Or am I putting the cart before the horse here?
Actually, apropos my other two posts (well, one post) I think I might be just hovering around the same point made by Wild C… a way of filling your creative wells. Enuf said. That’s all folks!
OK. One last shot, because I found a link from this site to Pfangirl and this from Steven…
Then, and this is the most important thing: details. The more details you can bring to the page, the realer a depiction of an alien time will seem. When I was writing about WWII tanks for “Killing Rommel,” I wanted the reader to feel what it was like to be inside one of these steel monsters in 100-degree heat in the Libyan desert. Every detail helps. The rolling terrain, the heat of the steel in the sun, the way the tank commander has to press the small of his back against the rim of the turrent to keep his balance, the little racks inside the turret where he keeps his binoculars, his boiled sweets, the three books he’s reading during the boring periods. Details make a piece come alive.
Bingo! I guess that says it all, really. THAT’S why I do research! To enable ME to believe in the reality I’m creating. In fact, wipe all that… here’s the final def…
I research in order to believe my own fiction.
I remember playing Hugo and Frederick in Anouih’s Ring Around the Moon. I couldn’t find that bastard Hugo’s humanity so I began to research the period (first decade of last century) and then it struck me like a thunderbolt. This guy is DOOMED. He’s in his mid twenties, he’s officer material and here we are poised on the brink of a world war. This guy dies at Verdun. I cried. But from that moment on I had no problem playing Hugo.
Sorry, that came out of left field. Fin.
You are right about research. I can be resistance personified and that’s one of my great excuses. Actually it’s not even an excuse. I freely admit to doing it. I will tell my better half, “i’ll do almost anything rather than doing the work I am supposed to be doing, which is writing.” Just rereading War is Art and the first thing that struck me is your routine. Do all the ritualistic prep stuff and then sit down to write. Practicing that -except my own routine – helps. Work is then the absolute focus for x amount of time.