The Writing Life: Everything Requires Research

The title pretty much says it all, folks. When I’m writing, I’m constantly needing to research things: medieval clothing, swords of various eras, ships, rigging, rope names, sewer system management, tidal estuaries, mercantile societies and the role of guilds within said societies, pre-industrial food staples in different parts of the world, the burial rites of various cultures and much much more. And that is to write fantasy, which when I was young I thought wouldn’t need any research, because heck, I was going to make everything up from scratch! The optimism of youth right there.

But no. Everything requires research.

Advertising on amazon: research. Once you’ve done some and worked out the rules you then have to research keywords that’ll work. Or genre categories that best match your book. Then you can move on to researching Facebook advertising. If you wanna. But maybe I should research my overall marketing strategy first. Or maybe I should have done that before I did my research into how to build my website. Or perhaps do it as part of my ongoing research into what to have on it. (Announcement: I finally made the first chapter of The Thief and The Demon available here on my website, under the Books tab. I meant to do it months ago, but swithered over just the first, or the first four chapters! Just one for now.)

Hiring people to help you with aspects of book production? Research. Wondering about tax implications of book earnings? (Don’t laugh at the back!)  Research. How to run a blog? Research. (Clearly ignored in my case.) Which sales platforms to use and why? Research. What font would I prefer my print edition to be in? Research.

It truly is never ending. And I try to cut it into one hour chunks so it doesn’t get overwhelming. One hour on X subject, then switch to Y before X becomes a rabbit hole and I learn far more than I ever needed to about Scandinavian clinker techniques in shipbuilding. In the 9th-11th centuries. Don’t judge.

The one hour then switch is good for all the stuff around the business of writing, and helps me to nibble away at the things I need to do. Currently it is keywords, and an hour at a time of coming up with new ones and inputting them is about all I can take at one sitting. Then I can spend an hour trying to fashion new advertising copy. Or reworking the old stuff to freshen it up. Or researching what makes the most effective advertising copy!

I think if you turn it into tinkering, rather than labouring, it becomes slightly more fun, and each hour becomes useful, rather than turning into what can often feel like a lost afternoon or evening.

One hour, and one research topic at a time.

Oh yeah, and there’s actual writing to do too…

Good luck to all writers, and may your researches be enlightening, amusing, and fruitful!

13 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Everything Requires Research

  1. Stuart Wright

    Well Roddy, this has turned into a excessively long reply! I never thought I’d be one of those people whose replies are longer than the blog posts! This is a first for me!

    I think most of what follows is relevant to your post, if a bit leftfield in places, and hopefully interesting for you and my fellow readers, but will understand completely if you don’t publish it. In fact I don’t expect you to publish it now it’s grown so outsized and full of questions.

    There are too many questions for you to reasonably answer, and your readers are on your blog to read what you write and suitably proportioned responses from their fellow readers.

    In any case, I hope you find my comments and feedback interesting ( when you have time to read them! ) – you’re welcome to edit this reply and share a few snippets with your readers if that works better.

    Firstly, I think publishing the first chapter of “The Thief and the Demon” on your blog is great! A much better context than the “look inside” option on Amazon. It was easy to find too.

    As far as running a blog goes you’ve got the main thing right which is regular posts that are interesting to read, a decent set of categories for navigation and a set of regular readers; the rest will evolve from that.

    Sometimes blogs work well with associated discussion forums, perhaps in time your blog may result in discussions more suited to a forum…

    Your one hour at a time idea for all the hard grind supporting activities sounds great, I may try that.

    Have you heard of the “Pomodoro Technique”? It uses shorter work periods of 25 minutes with short 3 – 5 minute breaks and then a longer 15 – 30 minute break after 4 work periods : [ ]. I’ve not tried it because my work environment is quiet and conducive to long periods of concentration, however I probably should as one of the common problems in my line of work* is concentrating too hard on one thing and forgetting ( or missing ) the bigger picture.

    * Software Engineering

    For fantasy writing you’ve got to create a believable world as well as tell a great story.

    My brief efforts at fantasy writing used no research and as a result felt insubstantial, abstract and pretty disappointing – at that point I realised that writing was not my creative calling because my passion for it was not strong enough to carry me through all the pre-requisite world building research.

    Your depth of research shows in your writing, which is descriptive and vivid – I’m about a fifth of the way through “The Thief and the Demon” and well hooked into the story, in part due to the tangible reality of the world you have created. It’s a very enjoyable read!

    I am a very occasional reader these days so my visualisation skills are limited and benefit a lot from your hard research work.

    Despite the predominantly great descriptions, for me one or two really good parts in the story have required more concentration than I’ve had available at the time of reading – probably due to me being a bit tired at the time…

    This is a minor criticism and probably not justified, however I thought it worth mentioning as there must be a possibility, with all the research you do, that occasionally due to having such a clear picture of what you’re describing in your mind as you write, while also focusing on moving the story forward, you might forget to give the reader enough queues to help them intuit what is not explicitly described.

    I don’t know, I’m not a writer ( though I would still like to be one in some form ), I just imagine the above scenario would certainly happen to me if I was.

    I look forward to posting my review on Amazon once I’ve read “The Thief and the Demon” and to replacing more of my TV and movie time with the fuller experience of reading for enjoyment 🙂

    On creative and business research:

    In my day job as a software engineer ( which is more of a craft than a science ) there is a constant tension between the need to research ( the right way of doing something ) and the need produce some piece of working software quickly. Finding the right balance between research and creative action produces a momentum that can be very productive.

    I think this tension between research and creative action is a good thing: the research can be a kind of refined fuel for the creative process, so long as the fuel is of suitable quality the product of the creative work based on it will have firm foundations and be successful.

    The research problem for business models and digital marketing must be a challenge for any creative person looking to distribute their work. Recently I found myself spending two or three weeks looking into business and trademark legalities rather than enjoying the process of working on my own creative project, the ideas for which have gestated over years, a self-improvement app ( which I’ll need use to help me finish the project in a reasonable timescale! ).

    It seems like nearly every programmer ( and some non-programmers ) think they can make an app these days. I expect it’s the same with writers and writing books!

    The difference between me and the those who don’t succeed is not that I “know” I can do it, it’s that I “know” people will want what I’m going to create. How do I know that? Market research and some investigations into human nature.

    It must be the same for writers, who writes a book without any thought for their readers’ needs and succeeds? Very few writers indeed I would think ( or am I wrong? ).

    I know your focus in writing is not commercial, as I understand it you write because you have to write, for the love of writing and to share your fantasy worlds and stories with your readers.

    Do you think about what your readers want or need? Or do you just work for your readers indirectly through your own knowledge of the fantasy fiction genre and what you perceive as being needed and fulfilled by your contribution to that genre?

    I know in real terms my research for my app has been fairly minimal, the plan is to get feedback from users once it’s out there and then to improve it, in software development this customer feedback loop is of critical importance.

    Does the same process apply to writing? How important is your readership feedback loop?

    In general do you think fantasy fiction writers tend to lead the way for their readership or are they strongly influenced by their reader feedback? I think I would choose to be strongly influenced by readership feedback as I would want to establish a ‘dialogue’ with my readers to deepen the creative process.

    With all the hard work involved in creative writing, is there any value in market research where commercial gain is not the primary goal for writing?

    I’d be very interested in your answers to any of my questions, please don’t feel obliged to answer any of them!

    Lastly: my apologies for all the brackets – I can’t seem to write anything these days without using them! ( It’s all that coding! ) 🙂

    I’m not sure why this ended up being such a long reply, the post title and content hit a subject area that’s relevant to my own work and of keen interest to me.

    — I’ll keep my future replies to a normal length! —

    1. Stuart – I think you have just started your own blogging career, haha! I have just got round to reading this, and you ask a lot of interesting questions. I think I will answer them in future blog posts of mine, each of which will address some of what you have said. Thank you for the blog seeds you scattered with this response to my blog!

      One answer though – I did not, and do not write to market – I did not investigate, identify and then try to fill what I percieved to be a ‘gap’ in the fantasy market. It never really occurred to me to do so: more power to those that do. I figured, perhaps egotisticaly, that the story I had in mind had a good mixture of the familiar and the new, given my own reading of fantasy over the years. To be honest I didn’t even go that far: I knew I had a good story, and ran with it, from first conception to final completion I had something i was excited about, and hoped others might be too.

      As for feedback, I welcome it. Whether or not I would let feedback change the way I write or the shape of future stories is harder to say. I think, as in the editorial process, you’d look at the feedback on its merits, and see if it could help you make your writing stronger, or your story better. It is a very fine line to walk, to take feedback, but remain the captain of your ship, and I think each writer faces that challenge in their own way. What is essential is that as the writer you commit to, and believe in what you write before and after feedback is received. If feedback leads you in a direction you don’t believe in or feel, the writing will suffer, in my honest. As I said, it is a fine line to walk!

      Final thing – I have always regarded it as a bad thing when you could ‘see’ where a writer was showing off their research in their book. I tried to avoid that quite strenuously in TTATD, but maybe not strenuously enough, it seems!

      1. Stuart Wright

        You’re very welcome Roddy! I’m delighted you liked my questions and look forward to reading your answers in future posts.

        Thanks for explaining you do not write to the market – or gaps in the market. I suppose the market just exists and is broad enough for any well written book to have a natural readership.

        I expect it would be difficult to keep the creative spirit free enough for original work if the writer is too concerned with what their readers think, or how to best to target the market. Perhaps those writers less confident in their creative vision may find comfort in such constraints, but such comforts might come at the expense of true success.

        If I was a writer myself, my questions would have been different, or at least presented differently.

        Your response on reader feedback is interesting, I hear you on the the writer being in control with heartfelt commitment to their work, captaining their ship through the challenges of reader feedback as well as the many other challenges a writer must face I am sure. It sounds both exhilarating and hard going!

        As far as your research being “visible”, you’ve misunderstood me there, I was paying you a compliment:

        “Your depth of research shows in your writing, which is descriptive and vivid …”

        What I meant was the quality of your descriptions is only possible through deep research, not that your writing is obviously researched. It’s the fact that your research is NOT ‘on display’ that makes the experience of reading your descriptions so vivid.

        It is normally painfully obvious when a writer has not researched their material sufficiently and attempts detailed description, or dialogue, that pain is not present in your writing.

        Excessively detailed description would reveal the research, but you don’t do that as I implied in my slight criticism about you possibly ( very occasionally ) being a bit light on ‘descriptive queues’ to help the reader “intuit what is not explicitly described” – that is the difficult balance to strike to give reader enough room to use their own imagination – stimulated by your careful descriptive queues well placed thanks ( in part ) to your depth of research.

        I admit from time to time when reading TTATD I have paused to admire the art of some of your descriptions AFTER reading them, wondered how you might have researched parts, that’s my habitual interest in how things work not an awareness of your research impeding on my reading experience.

        Some of your dialogue and characters thinking about political and organisational matters is assured and realistic yet also fairly complex and requires careful reading, even this work feels balanced to me and consistent with the story world.

        I would say your hard work removing traces of your research has paid off!

  2. Stuart Wright

    Just to clarify, using the “Customer Feedback” and “Readership Feedback” loops I describe is a form of targeted market research.

    For software development ( and other product development ) researching Customer Feedback is standard practice.

    Obviously as a writer you will be interested in readership feedback, the question is how much do you and other writers consciously research that feedback to inform your ongoing writing work?

    Is there value in researching readership feedback to help better target future writing to the same readership base if the purpose of writing is primarily non-commercial? I have absolutely no idea what writers do in this area and would be interested to know.

    Do fantasy novels tend to be standalone pieces of art or a response in an ongoing writer-reader dialogue? Previously I had assumed the former, now after thinking about the importance of research in writing I’m not so certain…

    1. More great questions! From my current perspective, I am committed to a vision for the shape of stories in the World Belt for a minimum of two more books. Once they are completed I am going to take stock and decide what direction to go in thereafter, but for now the plan for me is to write a quality book a year for the next two years, set in the World Belt and loosely linked, though essentially stand alone, but each capable of being woven into a much larger story. Whether that larger story gets told depends on the reaction to the first three books. I want to write the epic cycle, but if the opening three books do not find an audience, then I may have to put it on hold, and go in a different direction. That will be a difficult decision as I am already very invested in that story, and have it mostly plotted out, and it is cool AF. But, I also have other stories ready and waiting to have flesh put on their bones, so it isn’t as if I’m hurting for options in terms of stories to write.

      I lean in the direction of art. Other writers have definitely written on the basis of creating what they know an audience wants. It’s the knowing that is the tricky part, given the lag time between audience research and getting the written book out there. If you can write fast and fluidly, you can keep up with the market. I am not quite so fleet, so must make other choices…

  3. Stuart Wright

    It’s good to know there’s more World Belt books well and truly in the pipeline, I look forward to reading them and also to seeing what feedback they get and how much of an audience they find.

    As a reader it will be interesting to see how my experience of the books compares to others.

    I never thought about the lag between audience research and the next book being published, I had assumed that the market trends for writing were slow moving. Perhaps the writer-reader dialogue I imagined is better suited to a serial publication, or short stories rather than novels?

    1. Perhaps so. The other thing is in app production you’re going to take feedback and use it to immediately improve the product in a hopefully virtuous feedback loop of improvement. The product, designed for use, is improved by users commenting on how they’d like it to work better for them. I don’t see many writers wanting to go back in and rewrite sections of their already released book based on feedback, (this is what beta readers are helpful for pre-release!) unless the feedback was significant and unanimous, so the kinds of feedback and the ways in which they are used I think would be very different. An interactive serial would be interesting – and you now see that kind of playing out on TV. Remember the wild fan theories around Lost? And now Westworld is in part about the viewing community participating in the game/puzzle of the show when it isn’t on the air as much as when it is being watched. Creating the same phenomenon in a written serial could lead down many rabbit holes. And again, Lost could be held up as an example of a show writing itself into a corner and not (for many people) satisfactorily escaping.

  4. Stuart Wright

    As you say, there are fundamental differences between the customer feedback loop for an app and reader feedback for any piece of creative writing.

    A newspaper journalist or magazine writer might cater for their readers directly but that’s more like product refinement to sell more copy than the reader being involved in the evolution of a creative work.

    It’s sounding like there isn’t current forum for the writer-reader dialogue I had in mind, other than the standard longer term influence of reader reviews and feedback with which each writer must find their own unique balance.

    A shame! I liked the idea… I wonder if we’ll ever get crowd funded fantasy novels, think Star Citizen vs epic fantasy series in the homage to the style of a past master, or an existing author choosing to ask his readership which way they’d like an already started series to go in return for a living wage so that he can concentrate solely on creating that work…

    Would that process still be creative writing? Or would it be a form of product development?

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