Research is important and there are plenty of tools to help us do thorough research but there is such a thing as too much search in the research. Sometimes you simply have to establish a good foundation and build on it, mistakes are what editing is for.
Each week I’ve been posting episodes of the Weekly Serial which is set in the Victorian period. Before I started did I need to know the exact number of panels in a woman’s corset? No, unless I’d planned to use it in the first scene. However, later on in The Opera I had Charlotte describing the discomfort and I needed to know a little about wearing a corset, at which point I could research it or write something, highlight it and change it during editing. A first draft of a story doesn’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to show anybody it until you’re ready so there’s no need to be embarrassed about mistakes. The point is there are things that don’t need to be researched before you start because you can’t plan for everything that might appear in a story and you might end up with reams of information that have absolutely no bearing.
Not only does over researching use up time that could be spent writing your first draft but it can also restrict your creativity if you become too confined by the research. Staying with the Victorian theme we all know that the Victorians had countless etiquette rules, there were numerous books published to educate young men and women on them and it would take a long time to learn them all. There are even rules about how high up a woman’s ankle she can lift her skirt to step off the pavement, when it might be appropriate to pull it higher, there’s even the fact that young women wore coloured stockings to excite young men’s… cough… hearts, when they lifted their skirts. These are all tiny details which may make you alter a scene in editing but could get you into a bit of a tangle when you’re originally writing it by making you overthink whether or not your female protagonist would be allowed to do something.
Generally speaking I find it is best to do broad research at the beginning of a novel and narrow it as I go. For example, I might draw on my own vague knowledge, read a little, both fiction and non-fiction, watch some documentaries and slowly build up a picture. In my own writing research is fairly constant, as long as it doesn’t impede my writing time. I may come across a detail that I need some exact knowledge on before I can continue, perhaps Victorian cold remedies, at which point I will do some research on that. Doing this I find that by the end of the first draft I know a lot more than I did at the beginning and can already go back and start changing things earlier in a story.
Then there’s what I think of as the ‘detail’ research. This is research that doesn’t affect the overall plot of the story things such as period specific metaphors or small details like a particular colour fashion. For instance a lot of people have heard of the Victorian’s arsenic green wallpaper. Will it change the plot of my story if in the first draft the wallpaper is green but upon checking the date of this fashion I find I’m too early and have to change the design? Not particularly.
As for the etiquette I would research this broadly, perhaps leaving detail for a second draft, but we are fiction writers, as long as it works for a story most people won’t mind if we fudge it a little. The precise rules about how a woman could lift her skirt and subsequently hold it, interesting as it may be it can get in the way of a story simply by being too much information.
My advice is to use your discretion when researching before beginning a story, don’t worry about accuracy because things can be checked and changed in subsequent drafts. Most of all allow yourself to be inventive because you’re not writing a piece of fiction, not a documentary.
If you do make a mistake then perhaps a reader will correct you, hopefully politely, and you’ll learn something new which is always interesting.
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