On Research, Part Two

I got an e-mail a few weeks ago from Jeff Wills, who is writing an historical novel and was curious about how I did research. I promised I would answer in this space as soon as the launch of The Profession was over. So … here goes:

JW: My question is about your method of research and writing. I know your position is do “as little research as possible” and jump in, but I guess I’m interested in some of the details of how YOU jump in.

SP: First, Jeff, though I do advocate plunging in on the work even before you know all the research facts, I don’t mean to downplay the importance of research. My aim in plunging in is to avoid letting research become Resistance.

JW: Do you outline the story first? I know you like maps but do you write character sketches of the main characters? Do you use note cards for bits of information you want to throw in?

SP: I do outline the story. I start from the end and work backwards. I break it down into three acts—beginning, middle and end. Or sometimes into David Lean’s “Eight Major Sequences.”

I think of the story as a clothesline. I’m going to hang X major sequences on that line. I just have to figure out what they are and what sequence they’ll be hung in. But this isn’t really research. Nor are character sketches (which I do, sort of) or bits of information (which I do, a lot.) This is structuring a story. It can be done with the bare minimum of research.

JW: While it may be resistance to do too much research I find it hard to capture the idioms and feel of the period (historical novel) if you haven’t done some deep reading … my research gives me all kinds of ideas for the book.

SP: Jeff, I’m with you. Research is the meat and potatoes of any non-“pure fiction” book. Plus it’s fun. I look for details, because details bring the story to life. I was talking to an Israeli friend the other day and she used the phrase “falling between the chairs” instead of what we might say in American English, “falling between the cracks.” If I were writing a book about Israel, I would make a note of my friend’s phrase and find a place to use it.

In the working folder for a war story, let’s say, I’ll have probably a hundred files before I’m done. I take notes as I read for research and, little by little, the files build up: Geography, Slang and Acronyms, Weapons and Vehicles, Theme, Timeline, etc. Some of the files will wind up being sixty single-spaced pages. Every time I come upon something in my research that looks like I’ll need it, I’ll stick it in the proper file, then I’ll read those files over till the stuff sticks in my head.

“Timeline,” for instance, keeps track of the chronology of events, because often the story will jump around in time and it might confuse me. So I keep a literal timeline to refer back to.

“Slang” is one of my favorite files. For Killing Rommel, I had almost fifty pages of Brit/Aussie/New Zealand WWII slang. If in research I were reading a memoir, say, of a soldier who fought in that time period, I’d record every instance of slang—e.g. “true gen” for “the facts” or “bollocks” for “B.S.”

Slang in dialogue makes characters come to life and it makes a distant historical time seem immediate and credible. Like Hemingway when he uses “tight” for “drunk” or “sore” for “pissed off.” We feel like we’re back in the 20’s with him.

I absolutely agree with you that ideas pop up all the time in research. Here’s one from Killing Rommel. I wrote a love scene between the narrator and his fiancee. A few weeks later I happened to be visiting my uncle Charlie, who was 91 and a vet of that exact time and theater. I asked him, “Were you and Aunt Peggy sleeping together before you were married?” He laughed. “Hell, no! That never happened back then.” So I had to cut a pretty good sex scene.

How much research is enough? For me, I know I’ve done enough research when I’m reading a book for research and I catch the author in a mistake. For Tides of War, it was important that I knew the street layout of ancient Athens. After about a year of work, I was reading a book on that subject; the author was describing where the Prytaneum was in relation to the Pnyx. Out loud I said, “That’s wrong.” That’s when I knew I had done enough research.

Writing one book of historical fiction, in my opinion, is the equivalent of earning a Ph.D. That’s how much work you have to do and that’s how thoroughly you have to master your subject. By the time Manda Scott, the wonderful English writer, had finished Dreaming the Eagle, I guarantee you she knew more about the warrior queen Boudica than anyone else on earth. Or if she didn’t, she and whoever was ahead of her would fit easily into a phone booth.

So, bottom line, Jeff, I applaud your zeal for research. Don’t let me throw you off when I say “Dive in first.” I’m just trying to warn you (and me) about the seductive charms of research. Real research is not for the faint of heart. You can’t dabble, you have to dig. Fortunately it’s great fun, isn’t it? We just have to remember not to get lost back there in the library stacks. We have to come out and finish our dissertation.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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  1. Paul C on June 22, 2011 at 4:50 am

    Here’s the New York Times describing Elmore Leonard’s writing habits:
    “He writes seven days a week in the living room of a nice house in the suburbs here with a No. 5 Pilot Pen on unlined yellow paper. He does not use e-mail or a computer. He types the handwritten pages on an I.B.M. Selectric, which occasionally breaks down from daily exertion.
    ‘There’s one name in the phonebook who repairs typewriters,’ Mr. Leonard said, adding, ‘he says he can live on $6,000 a year. He lives in a trailer park.’”

    • Dave H on June 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm

      I don’t understand what this has to do with the topic.

      • Paul C on June 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm

        I confess Elmore Leonard’s writing doesn’t have anything specific to the topic of historical novels. But six decades of writing seven days a week is what Do the Work and beating Resistance are all about, whether you’re writing historical novels or contemporary novels.

  2. Brandy on June 22, 2011 at 10:22 am

    I love the idea that writing a book of historical fiction is equivalent to earning a Ph.D. That’s powerful!

    My question is, how was it different writing non-fiction books like Do The Work and The War of Art? Was there more or less research involved? Thanks Steven!

  3. Reeves on June 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    For those Entrepreneurs that read this blog, this is especially important. There’s only so much research that can be done up front before you’re just stalling. In starting our business my dad (an entrepreneur) used the phrase “shit or get off the pot.” It came to the point where we had to take what we had learned and get the ball rolling. Every day for the last 5 years we keep doing research to test assumptions, and to make sure our “storyline” is meshing with our reality. But if we hadn’t gotten started we would’ve just kept researching different paths not knowing if we were on a dead end road or not.

  4. zaina on June 22, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks Steven for these Info !!!…it really helps to know how to start writing a story …specially if it was a historical one …and i liked your way of arranging the story into 3 parts by starting from the end and work backwards ( i have always done that with my own stories , i just felt it was the right way )

  5. Gary on June 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Excellent stuff! I’ve always wondered how you go about your work. Thanks for the insight.

  6. Gary on June 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Looking for research part one and cannot seem to locate it?

  7. Michelle @ The True Book Addict on June 22, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks for this. I’m currently researching a historical novel as well and it is a daunting task!

  8. Linda Proud on June 23, 2011 at 1:07 am

    You’re absolutely right about writing a historical novel being equivalent to PhD. I left school without qualifications and now work regularly for the University of Oxford because, as I’ve been told, my novels (Italian Renaissance) ‘count’. But is the corollary to this that historical novels shouldn’t bend the facts to suit the story?

  9. Jeff Wills on June 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you, Steve. I appreciate you answering my email on your excellent blog. The novel is slowly coming together. Tryng to balance work, family and novel writing is a real challenge but I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. That’s why I return to Writing Wednesday’s every week for advice, wisdom and encouragement on how to go Pro.

  10. skip on June 24, 2011 at 4:50 am

    regarding writing a historical novel, what comes first: the passion about the time/subject motivating your energy to write it, Or, overcoming the real potential that you might be writing the next great novel but nobody will read it ?!?

  11. Colin Leonard on July 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Question for you! If I write a fiction, historical, theory novel am I allowed to use real peoples names (Main character fiction,historical/theory real deceased WW2 Germans) or am I restricted in what I am allowed to write?

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