Write Now, Research Later

Laura Ayo

I’m five days into one of the biggest personal challenges I’ve ever taken on as a writer. Like thousands of other writers across the globe this month, I’m attempting to write a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days during National Novel Writing Month. To hit the target, I need to write 1,667 words a day. I’ve either met or come close to that goal all but one day. On Nov. 2, I only wrote about 400 words. I’d love to say that life got in the way that day. I had work to do, children to mother and other responsibilities that needed my attention. But the reality of the matter is I spent four hours working on my novel that day. So, what happened to result in such a low output? I got sucked down the research rabbit hole.

Throughout my career as a journalist, I have spent countless hours digging through long abandoned files in basements and scanning through microfilm until my eyes crossed. I have turned conducting Internet searches into an art form. When it comes to rooting out details and confirming facts, I am patient, thorough and methodical.

Those traits are both a blessing and a curse, however, when it comes to writing a historical fiction novel – at least, during the first draft. My story is based on an event that took place in the mid-1700’s. But thanks to the Internet, there are diaries, census records, maps, birth records, death records, ship manifests, newspaper articles and so many other resources available at my fingertips to fill in the details I want to include in my story to make it authentic, factual and interesting. Discovering those details takes time. And if I want to see 50,000 next to the “words so far” space on my NaNoWriMo dashboard by Nov. 30, I don’t have that kind of time to spare right now.

Seeing a measly 400 words after four hours of “writing” on Nov. 2 – just day two of a month-long challenge – was my wake-up call.

So here are my tips for not getting sucked down the research rabbit hole:

Allow yourself a pre-project research period. To prepare for NaNoWriMo, I allowed myself time to read about the event around which my story is based. This phase was a fact-finding mission only. From it, I culled a rough timeline of what happened, a general picture of where it happened, a basic understanding of who the main characters were, and a preliminary idea of the trauma and triumphs experienced by the real people who experienced it. By the time Nov. 1 rolled around, I had enough of a broad understanding of the true events that I could focus my energy on the fun part – writing a story about it.

Remember it’s a first draft. First drafts will always, always be revised. They’ll probably be revised multiple times. So, save the revision phase for filling in the details, rather than taking time away from your precious story crafting time and creative groove to research. For now, it’s okay to write, “Cecile decorated the table with KIND OF FLOWERS** to celebrate the end of the harvest.” On Day 1 of NaNoWriMo, I used placeholders, jotted notes on a “look this up later” list, ignored the details and logged over 1,000 words in less than two hours. On Day 2, I got hung up on what kind of flowers bloomed in September in my story’s setting. So, resist the urge to look up details – and waste hours trying to find them – and just write during a first draft. Thankfully, I did just that on days three and four and my word counts blossomed.

Unplug. By this I mean, don’t write anywhere where you can easily go online. If you write on a computer, turn off your Wi-Fi. Put your phone in another room if you can. If you have easy access to the Internet, you’ll be tempted to use it. It’s called the World Wide WEB for a reason, after all. So, eliminate the temptation and you’ll be more productive.

Take research breaks. Sometimes, you simply need to learn more about something before you can keep writing the story. So, have a plan of action for when those moments arise. Designate a specific time of day, or day of the week, to focus on researching the things you need to learn to keep your story moving forward. I never allow myself to take these research breaks until after I’ve met my writing goals for the day/week. And I set a timer to make sure I don’t spend too much time down in the rabbit hole.

On Nov. 2, I deviated from all my plans and good intentions, and I’m still playing catch-up, as a result. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 1,297 extra words to write today. Wish me luck!

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