Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I'm working on a novel that involves a lot of research. So far, I've researched extensively but written very little. At what point in my research should I really start writing?

Research can be crucial to some novels. Not only can it help you craft authentic details in every area from setting to plot, it can also develop and shape the characterization and story line. As a result, many writers feel that they should put off the writing until they have all the information they can find. With that approach, you might never get around to actually writing the novel. At some point you have to find your way to the page. Writers go about this process in different ways. One approach is to research just long enough to get a comfortable grasp on the subject and a basic shape of the character and story. Then, begin writing and continue to research at the same time.

Of course, there’s room for interpretation in this advice. What does it mean to have a “comfortable grasp” on the subject? This is where your own process and sensibilities come into play. Once you can use the research to begin to develop essential elements about character, plot, or setting, begin writing and see where that goes. Expect to run into some questions as you do this. Jot down notes for yourself about details you want to fill in later.

The subject matter you’re researching will also help you decide how long to spend on research before writing. If you’re working on a novel set in the eighteen hundreds you will have much more to research than if you are writing about a character set in today’s world, and your topic of research is the character’s occupation. With the latter, your character is bound to be in situations you already know about, while with the former, even the simple act of preparing a meal may require investigation.

Once you start writing, continue researching. Not only does this get you moving forward on your novel, it will also help you focus your research. For example, when you come to a juncture where you don’t have sufficient understanding of something that occurs in the story, research that particular thing.

Revision, as always, is important in this process. By the time you get to the end of the work, you will have a deeper understanding of your topic. You can apply that knowledge to the earlier sections that you wrote by filling in details and fixing errors in logic or authenticity. Sometimes you will have to revise at a more fundamental level. You might discover something during research that changes the character in a significant way, or inspires an action you may not have known was possible. (This isn’t, though, an argument to put off writing until you’re entirely done with research. When you write and research at the same time, you’re thinking about the connections between the information and your specific characters and circumstances in a more intimate way than if you isolate the research from the writing.)