Stuck in the Research Mudbog: Rachael Stapleton tells us when to spin our wheels and when to get pulled out?
Final Tour Stop: Feb 23rd Fang-Tastic BooksSometimes, you just can’t avoid research—it’s like driving through mud. Actually I’m reminded of Burketon Hills, a thrilling and muddy place my Dad used to take me where 4x4 trucks with oversized tires would climb dunes and play in the mud. Much like currently writing the third book in my Temple of Indra series except now I am the monster truck spinning my wheels and flinging dirt. The message behind both mud bogging and research is the same—drive through enough of it, and you’re probably going to get stuck. With research tires spinning, historical wars flying and forward progress on your novel halted, what is a writer to do?
My series hinges on reincarnation and time travel of a sort which technically feels a lot like historical fiction because two of my main characters go back to where it all began to rescue one of their own. Here are some of the tabs open on my browser this morning Wallachian Revolution of 1848, The Politics of Witchcraft Studies, Romanian Folklore and Haunted Romania. Need another coffee? Me too.
I thought I knew enough about Romania to set a fictional backdrop there, after all I watched Dracula, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf and Transylvania 6-5000. Tee hee! Unfortunately, as I pour over the historical facts and political strife that was the Danubian Principalities, I realize this place has undergone a lot of war and finding the right time period is going to be a challenge.
Why don’t I just abandon this setting? Great idea! How much easier would it be to just pick a new setting for my book, Prague, Austria, Hungary—oh wait I did that in Book One and it was also full of political strife, besides would you leave your once shiny new toy truck stuck in the mud? Me neither. I’m a Taurus and that makes me as stubborn as a bull. I would love to take a trip to Transylvania to visit the fifteenth century Corvinești Castle that is northwest of the Carpathian Mountain range and situated by the river Zlasti. Wouldn’t that shake something loose? From the pictures, it’s an imposing building, with forty-three rooms, two balconies and two bridges supported by four massive stone pillars. I could do some in-person research on the torture chamber, no, it’s not the red room of Fifty Shades, it’s even worse. Gasp! I could learn about the Hunyadi era when many people were brutally tortured and killed within the castle walls, brutally beaten, hanged and decapitated. The funny thing about research is a lot of the stuff I learn doesn’t even wind up in my story. But it still informs my writing. This is part of the job and it’s the reason you should not shy away from it. So here is my advice for when your virtual truck gets hung up on a rock or you flood that magnificent engine that is your brain?
Rock It Out
As soon as you get stuck, you need to come to a complete stop, go in reverse, and get back where you started from—solid ground—so head back to your notes. To do this you need to be organized ahead of time. If you didn’t write an outline before then take the time and do it now. Start with the hook. This is a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “An architect travels back in time to save his wife.” The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture and can be used in online pitch contests. Some hints on what makes a good sentence: Shorter is better. No character names. Which character has the most to lose in this story? What does he/she want to win. Now expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence for backdrop and story setup, one sentence each for your (3) disasters, then one more sentence to tell the ending. Note: This is not the back-cover copy for your book. This paragraph summarizes the whole story. Your back-cover copy should summarize only about the first quarter of the story.
Place dry, solid objects beneath the edge of the tire in the direction you want to go (forward or reverse). Some drivers like floor mats or sticks, I like characters. Characters are an intricate part of any novel. For each of your major characters, write a one-page summary sheet that tells: name, a one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline, what he/she wants (motivation), what does he/she want (goal), what’s preventing him/her from reaching this goal (conflict), what will he/she learn, how will he/she change (epiphany). Once you’ve created characters, take your four-page synopsis and make a list of all the scenes using a spreadsheet that you’ll need to turn the story into a novel.
If you plan to drive through mud on a regular basis, it is probably wise to outfit your truck with some sort of winch. Even if you don’t have a winch, a friend’s Hi-Lift jack can be used to pull the vehicle free. Likewise a good writers group can come in handy. Sometimes we need a little help from our writer friends. Take your prep work with you and talk it out. I can’t count how many times I've been rescued by Yvonne, Susan, Marissa, Lora, Connie and Ann.
Last But Not Least—Pull It Out
Oftentimes, the best and quickest way to get your truck unstuck is to have another truck simply pull you out. Which means get back to writing and worry about the historical accuracy, names of places, people and dates, during the rewrites. The truth is I love to research. I could spend years delving into castle architecture alone just to write a thriller that hinges on one small and obscure architectural fact. I would live in research land forever but at a certain point, you need to just write. That is why I’ve put a rule in place. I allow myself to research during two phases: the idea phase and the rewriting phase. In between, research is a distraction.
Here are some of the great sites offering research advice that I live by.