A Word on Research in Writing & Revising

I have developed a new obsession, which has distracted me from posting every other day. Although I had heard about NaNoWriMo, and eventually learned that it is an actual organization, not just a tag like “Black History Month,” I had never participated or researched the matter. This changed when I saw one of the writers I follow of Twitter (I am an overly-active Tweeter) posting about a live Tweet session for writers. I discovered, after following and tweeting and favoriting, that this chat was in preparation for Camp NaNoWriMo. Camp is like a precursor to NaNoWriMo in November. It is designed to help you set achievable goals, discover what a reasonable word count is for your pace, and help you figure out what type of preparation you need for writing in November. I decided to sign up and use this as an excuse to jump-start on Two Guns. My daily word count goal is 2,000 wpd. I am doing fairly well, and have made several friends.

THAT is my reason for not blogging obsessively. I have been chatting with my fellow campers, and throwing words onto paper. However, I realize that I need to put the pen and paper aside, and put forth a post. Originally, this post was going to be all about NaNoWriMo, but I decided on a better topic.

RESEARCH

Some writers are of the “write what you know” camp, and others are of the “write what you want” camp. I am a little of both. Research can be daunting, but it can also be exciting (especially if you model your characters after delicious-looking people). My most recent adventure was exploring my husband’s EMT textbooks on how one would deliver a baby outside of a hospital, and what complications are possible. In my current project, there is a woman who dies while attempting to deliver, and the baby must be cut from the womb. My next step is looking up a caesarian-section on YouTube, so that I can describe it appropriately.

Is that necessary? No. I imagine, especially since this is such a hack procedure, that I don’t need to use proper terminology or describe it appropriately. However, I am morbid, and want to describe it in detail. That being said, I have already finished writing the scene, which is where I make my point:

Most research should be conducted for revisions, not for the initial writing. Initial writing should be unhindered, unless your topic hinges upon something that you could be wrong about. For example, feudal structure in Medieval England. Unless you know details of this complex system before writing, you need to research the topic to make sure that your story makes sense. This should occur BEFORE writing, after the initial spark of an idea. Now, if you do write, and some detail makes your plot fall apart, don’t fret! You can always change it to some fictional location in which your system works, because it’s your world, and you are the God of that world. I have had to do that more than once.

No matter what you do, do not give up on a plot because you don’t know enough about it, or don’t want to do the research. You can always mold a plot to make it more manageable. Likewise, don’t throw out a piece you have already written because the science or psychology is faulty. Many of these pieces only need a little bit of tweaking to make it work.

Research is important, but it shouldn’t hinder your writing. If anything, it can build up a scene that might have been lacking, or could have used a bit more imagery, or needed a slight change of pace. You should not feel anxious, while writing a scene, about whether or not it is accurate. I never once paused to think, What color is a baby when it first comes out? I just spat “purple” out on the page, and continued to write. Once I was at a pausing point, I flipped a few pages in the EMT book to pictures of an actual delivery, and discovered that “purple,” “gray,” or “brown” all would have been appropriate descriptors. And that I forgot to include the afterbirth. Darn. (Is afterbirth actually an issue when the mother is dead?)

Whatever you do, DO NOT throw things on the page, leave it, and assume you’re right, or that your readers don’t know as much about it as you do. Don’t assume the plot-contrivance fairy will save you, because she won’t.

Just look at Michael Crichton.

I LOVE Michael Crichton. After Alice Hoffman, I have read more Crichton books than any other writer. I was devastated when he died, and elated when I learned that Pirate Latitudes was being released. I consumed that book in two days (life gets in the way sometimes!), and I was entertained, but also a bit disappointed. The plot-contrivance fairy comes out more than once (How could he not know that it was a trap?), but the biggest gripe I had was about something that could have been fixed with a two-minute Google search, and changing a name.

In the book, one of the characters gets a snake in their pants. A usually-fearless character is terrified, because it is the most venomous, dangerous snake in the area. They make a huge, long-winded deal about getting this snake out of the character’s pants.

Except… it’s a coral snake. Yes, yes, I admit, most readers won’t know a coral snake from a boomslang, but Crichton should not have assumed that. I would have slapped him on his wrist if I had caught him writing that. Coral snakes, yes, are venomous, and, yes, the most venomous snake in the US (and surrounding islands, apparently). They could potentially kill you. However, you have to be either very creative or very stupid to get killed by a coral snake. First and foremost, because their fangs are in the back of their mouths. It is highly unlikely, even if they do bite you, that their fangs will catch you, and will be able to inject the venom. Secondly, coral snakes are notoriously docile. They’re practically cuddly. I wouldn’t recommend going out and picking one up, but it takes a lot to make one attempt to bite you. You would have to harass it a bit beforehand. The character could have simply dropped trou, picked up the snake, or nudged it out of the way.

I understand that Crichton may have abandoned this novel because of its flaws, and his publishers simply saw an opportunity when he died. He may have died before or during revisions (which is what I suspect happened), and nobody thought twice about the snake. However, if neither of those were the case, he could have simply done a tiny bit of research and changed the snake into a type of viper – native to the area, notoriously aggressive, and kills several people every year. All that had to be done was change the name of the snake.

That’s all I can think about when I recall that book. Petty, I know, but I was extremely disappointed.

/rant.

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