Focus Your Writing Through Focused Research

Laura Ayo

I once dropped a watermelon out of a second story window in the name of research. With my husband armed with a video camera and two preschoolers hopping with excitement from the sidelines, I let it plummet to the driveway below. I wanted to see how far the pink flesh would scatter after it hit the pavement. I wanted to hear the splat, watch the rind split open and analyze the juice spray pattern from the impact. I sacrificed a perfectly good watermelon for the sake of gathering sensory details that would lend authenticity to a story I was writing at the time. It ranks in the top five of the most fun I’ve had while doing research.

Sadly, most research isn’t that exciting. Yet it’s necessary if you write, well, in any genre, really. As I mentioned during NaNoWriMo, it’s easy to get sucked down the research rabbit hole when you’re working on a first draft of a new manuscript. At that time, I shared tips to stay on track when your goal is simply getting the story on the page. But sometimes, you can’t move forward with a scene until you have a clear understanding of how it would unfold in real life, or, in the case of completely made up worlds, for readers to suspend disbelief.

During Write by Midnight last month, I had reached a point in my work in progress where I needed to do more research before I could write a few key scenes. The scenes took place on an 18th century colonial sailing vessel during a gale. The ship suffered crippling damage during the storm, which required repairs on the open water. The ship’s crew enlisted the help of my protagonist, a 12-year-old prisoner on the ship, for the repair work, which resulted in a more permanent “job” of cabin boy once the ship was on its way again.

As I started to work on these scenes, I realized I couldn’t write more than a few sentences without knowing what kind of damage a sailing vessel could sustain during a storm, how it would feasibly have been repaired and what a cabin boy’s job might entail. I also knew from past experience that trying to get these answers could derail my writing efforts if I let it.

I could have spent hours upon hours reading about how ships were repaired at sea or what tasks a cabin boy might be assigned to carry out on an 18th century ship. I’m sure I would have learned a lot in the process. But the problem with doing too much research is that you want to incorporate what you discover into your manuscript, even when it’s not pertinent to the story. After all, you just spent all that time doing the research, and who could blame you for wanting to enlighten your readers with all the interesting tidbits you discovered?

To keep myself from going off on tangents, I try to limit my research by searching for three interesting, provocative or simply useful details to work into whatever scene I’m researching. I focus on finding information that my character would be most likely to take note of. I look for things that play on the senses. I try to find elements that readers would find memorable. But once I find three things, I stop – at least for the first draft. I might do more research to flesh out a scene during the revision phase; but I’ve found over the years that usually the three details I incorporated into the scene on the first go-round are enough to carry the scene through to polishing a final draft.

Thanks to my background as an investigative journalist, I’ve also honed my skills at finding facts quickly. For instance, many people don’t know that Google has an “Advanced Search” function. You can get to it by clicking on the “Settings” link in the bottom right corner of the screen on the Google home page and then clicking “Advanced Search.” Sometimes, just typing a search term into the line that says “this exact word or phrase” is enough to get me past all the garbage that a normal internet search digs up. But usually I pair my search term with other features of the “Advanced Search” engine that are designed to narrow the parameters.

If I want scholarly sources, I use the “site or domain” feature and type in “edu” to only see answers tied to a university or academic source. You can use that same feature to search for answers generated by professional organizations or trade associations (“org”) or websites backed by government agencies (“gov”).

Selecting the “file type” feature also helps me narrow my searches. If I’m looking for statistics, I’m going to have more luck with searching for spreadsheets with the “file type” as “xls.” I know I’m most likely to find imaged texts (i.e. original documents, really old stuff or things that are out of print) by using the “pdf” file type.

The more specific you can make your search, the less time you’ll waste wading through information that isn’t really what you’re looking for. The same holds true for using the “find” (Control-F) feature once you open a website or document to drive your eye right to the information you’re seeking, rather than reading every word until you find it.

Within 10 minutes of research, I had read step-by-step instructions, complete with period accurate terminology and diagrams, of how sailors repaired masts broken during storms. From that, I easily culled my three details and spent the rest of my time weaving them into the scene I was writing that day. Was it as exciting as dropping a watermelon out of a window and watching it smash on the driveway to the cheers of my children? Of course not; but it helped me write an action-packed scene my target audience will hopefully find just as riveting.

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