Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thoughts on Research

LightedSantaThrough the years, we’ve had a strange sort of holiday tradition where I put up a Christmas wreath on the door and Christmas candles in the windows and call the outdoor part of the decorating done—and the children ask for a Light Show Spectacular.

This has gone on for the last 10 years.  Each year, I’ve said, “We’re really not the outdoor lights sort of people.”  And each year the kids have grumbled under their breath.

This year, my 13 year old son called me on it.  “What does that mean?” he asked.  “ ‘Not the outdoor lights sort of people.’ ?”

It means that we’re the sort of people whose blood pressure goes up with tangled lights cords.  It means that we’re the sort of people who don’t have enough extension cords.  It means we’re the sort of people who worry about fire hazards.

But…this year I felt pressured into giving it a go.  And it was exactly the sort of disorganized headache I thought it would be:

I went to Walmart (a headache in itself)

I got ten boxes of lights

That wasn’t enough lights.

My son and I put net lights on the bushes. They tangled.

When we plugged them in, we' found I’d gotten 2 different colors.

We discovered that we could only light the bushes on one side of the house.  I ran out and bought an extension cord at a hardware store.

I went back to Walmart and they were out of the kind of light we had most of.

I drove 30 minutes to another store. They were also out.

I decided to light only the bushes directly in front of the house.

I discovered that several of my usual decorating standbys, the Christmas candles, were broken.

The store I drove to didn’t have any left.

The second store I drove to had a different kind than the one I had.

I called the third store, across town.  They said they had them and I drove there…but the clerk had misunderstood. They didn’t have them.

I drove 35 minutes to another store that said they had them. They didn’t have enough of them—and they were way too expensive.  I bought them anyway.

They actually weren’t the right kind.

You can see why I told my children that we weren’t lights people.

For me, research is like lights.  I go to many different places, looking for a very specific, particular thing.  Sometimes I can’t find it, sometimes I think I’ve found the right information, but it’s actually not what I need.

And—it’s time-consuming.  And frustrating.

This is why, if at all possible, I put off research until after I’ve written my story.  I’ll put notes to myself in my margins in Word’s Track Changes that I need procedural information, etc.  Then I’ll rewrite those parts in the second draft.

I also have tried to find as many primary sources as possible.  Sort of like one-stop shopping.   If I can call and ask a source directly, then just verify that information, it does save a lot of time.

I’ve got a new project to work on and it requires a good deal of research.  I think, though, if I research while I’m writing the mystery, then I’m going to get that crazy, stressed-out, time-consumed  feeling that I got from driving all over town looking for Christmas lights. 

I know, though, that a lot of writers have made peace with research and like to research while working on their book—and some genres, like the historical genre, it would be hard to piece together even a basic plot without research.

What’s your research technique?  Save it until the first draft is over?  Research as you go?  If you do research as you go, how do you quickly find the information you need—without getting distracted or going off on tangents?