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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Gathering Research That Counts—a Cautionary Tale


Some revel in it and dive in with perhaps a little too much zeal; some flail and whine and procrastinate until they can't anymore, and continue to gripe during the process; and some whine and moan and complain and then find they actually like research...and go about the rest of their exploits with a jovial, can-do attitude and get stuff done.  

Everybody approaches the task differently, with varying rates of success.

Me, I actually like research (I'm one of those fanatical revelers :D). In fact, I like research so much that I overdo it and spend time looking up fairly irrelevant facts about things like ecosystems and water currents when I should be writing. 

I'm in recovery.

Back when I was a junior in college, I took a course that essentially revolved around gathering anthropological research—information about people groups and their cultures—and how to use that research in the context of ministry (I majored in Cross-Cultural Studies).

Initially I was excited about the project because it seemed easy enough and it was an opportunity to learn more about Japan because we got to choose our own people group—though it had to be a people group that hadn't been researched by other students in the last five years. I love Japan, so obviously I was going to choose a people Japan. (Didn't see that coming, did you? ;-) My mindset: Research+Japan=Double Win. 

I ended up choosing the Ryukyuan of Okinawa and used the term Okinawan...which turned into a funny story later because someone chose the same people group and it slipped the professor's notice because my fellow student referred to the people group as Ryukyuans! (: 

Anyway, our assignment was to fill a box with research on our chosen group and organize the info via categorical hanging folders as per the OCM, or Outline of Cultural Materials. 

The box itself was graded numerically, and I was an extremely busy student; time became the most important element of my efforts. Usefulness took a backseat to time spent because I had to have 15, 25, 30 (etc.) pieces of info in that box by the deadline(s) or risk failure...though that isn't to say I didn't think I was gathering at least somewhat useful information. I wouldn't realize how aimless my efforts truly were until I began to USE THE BOX. 

I don't know how I missed it...but the point of gathering research for the box was to write a paper—several papers, actually, each 10 pages with the exception of the capstone paper, which was 30+. Which requires research. Preferably relevant research. 

You see where I'm going with this? 

When I finally did get to writing said papers, I had a ton of unanswered—and unhappily required—questions that my box couldn't help me with. I had to do even MORE research. 

Commence table flipping and wailing about the cruelty of ignorance:

I'd say at least half of what I'd gathered was wasted effort. OUCH. Triple ouch, really. Still hurts sometimes...*sniffs*

If I'd known precisely what things I'd need to research to complete the papers, if I'd had some sort of rubric or guide, my research would have been targeted and, well, relevant. A good use of my time.

I wouldn't have had to go back much, maybe even at all (perhaps wishful thinking there, but a girl can dream). But I didn't have a rubric other than the numeric requirement, so I wasted HOURS filling up that box...and used more HOURS gathering legit research to write my whopping 30+ page capstone project paper. 

The happy ending: My paper was the best in the class! All that work paid off. 


*ahem* My actual point because my happy ending seems a bit contradictory: it isn't always going to turn out that well, and I could've saved myself a load of precious time. Ironic, isn't it? I tried to save time by gathering as much research as I could in as little time as possible...and ended up wasting time instead because it wasn't usable. 

You'd think I'd have learned from that experience. 


Yep, maybe it takes a bit longer to sink in sometimes...because I did the exact same thing for Whispers and Murmurs. 

I threw myself into research, assuming that because I was building a whole new world that pretty much everything was going to be relevant. —____—. Of course not everything was extraneous, but designating every piece of land as tundra, taiga, marshland—with specific details? Really??

I wish I was. *headdesk*
What I actually needed was much, much simpler: a few specific plant and animal types I could place in the story, basic climate/geographical details (does it have mountains? Is it humid? Could Erevfaüna be crossed on foot in a day?), and overarching details about government structure (monarchy? How many advisers? Protection system/police?). 

I could add a few more things to that list, but man...if I'd had a list—a relevant, good list—before I started researching, it would have saved me so much time and heartache!!

Here's the thing. Most people give the advice of researching and getting to know your world and characters as well as you can, and that's all well and good, but people rarely note how aimless a task this can be...and how easy it is to waste hours "researching" subjects that won't ever be used. 

So here's my advice: dive into your world with a gameplan. 

If you're writing a paper and it doesn't have a rubric, ask your prof to give you some direction so you don't waste your time. (And if they won't give you a rubric, ask classmates who've taken the class before and make your own.)

Don't edit down your potential research points in your brainstorming sessions; that's not what I'm referring to. When you brainstorm your world—fantasy or not—you need to think about what's going to be there. Don't limit yourself here. A crazy idea in a brainstorming session can become a goldmine when refined!

But after such sessions, take a long, hard, discriminating look at the things you REALLY want to showcase in your world and ask yourself how you can narrow down your search. 

Your main questions: 
  • Is this relevant?
  • Can I use this—this specific bit? (Particularly in reference to characters. Huge time suck alert!)
  • Will this honestly help my audience immerse themselves in the world? 
  • How little can I get away with—for my RFDR first, then again for revisions and final draft(s)? 
  • Am I certain this setting, idea, etc. will be in the final draft? 

That last one's particularly important because if you aren't 100% sure—and yes, I mean 100%, not 99—don't waste precious time on researching scene specifics (general research is ok, though). Write your scene and fill in the details later when you're doing revisions. You don't want to research something only to find out you're never going to use it because you cut the scene to make your ms tighter and more coherent. 

Of course everyone is different; pantsers aren't likely to research much of anything before they dive headfirst. Plotters (can you tell I'm a plotter? Ha) are liable to try and get all their ducks in a row before dipping their toes in. 

But ultimately, regardless of which camp you favor, you don't want to waste your time. 

Don't do what I did. Construct a solid game plan and go for the win by gathering research you can use! 

If you're looking for a bit more direction, author Cat Winters wrote a guest post—10 Ways I Researched for In the Shadow of Blackbirds—at The Nocturnal Library. Because it was a historical novel her research was meticulous...but she had direction and her efforts were fruitful. (Also, stellar novel.)

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