Overcoming the Research Roadblock

red stop sign

Research can either make or break a story, so we writers have to get it right.

Time periods, cultures, social/government systems, technology—anything in your story that ranges beyond your area of expertise is going to require some intensive research.

I learned this the hard way, but thankfully I learned it early. Since practically every story I’ve ever written takes place in a historical setting, I’ve grown used to the obligatory research process that precedes and continues throughout the writing process. If you’ve ever attempted to write something outside your range of experience, you know how overwhelming this can feel.

Where do I even begin?

How do I find out the scope of what I don’t know?

How much detail do I need before I can start writing?

This last question tends to plague me the most. I often think I need to know every detail of my story’s setting before I can start experimenting with characters and dialogue. My reasoning goes something like, “If I don’t know exactly how the world looked and sounded, how can I possibly write a successful scene?”

Can you relate?

Research is crucial—but research is not a one-time accomplishment. We can’t sit down in one session and immerse ourselves in everything we will ever need to know for developing our story’s world.

Research is not a tidy little box that we can check off at the very beginning.

Instead, it’s an ongoing process that takes shape as we write and discover the aspects of our story’s world that need more detail. If there is one thing I have learned in writing historical fiction and period dramas, it’s that I will learn as I go. Certainly, we need a general understanding of the setting before beginning. And certainly, spending immersive time in research before we start will get us off on the right foot. But we can’t expect to solve all our problems before we even come to them.

Nor should we let the fear of discovering unexpected problems create paralysis.

I can’t tell you how many times I have procrastinated working on a script or manuscript because I felt I “didn’t know enough to keep going.” Rather than freezing up in the face of some daunting research, we need to take each problem as it comes and tackle each topic as it arises. If writing about a Renaissance painter, you don’t need to know everything about your setting’s art and politics and economics and music and societal norms and clothes and food and housing before you write your first scene. All of those will become relevant, but don’t let your lack of universal expertise cripple your creativity. Start with what you do know, and fill in the gaps as you find the need to incorporate those other facets of Renaissance life.

This article is a sermon to myself as much as to you. Just this week I found myself staring down an intimidating research roadblock as I realized there is way more about 1640s England that I don’t know. So, one thing at a time. Each scene in my television script will no doubt throw some new hurdle at me, but as long as I address each research topic in stride, it remains manageable.

For my fellow writers who bravely sally forth into worlds and experiences unknown to them, my word of encouragement is simple. Write what you can, and only pause long enough to plug up the research holes that are immediately problematic. There will be a time for holistic and extensive revision, but not until you have a complete draft.

Remember: one thing at a time.

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2 Comments on “Overcoming the Research Roadblock

  1. Thankfully, the genres I usually dabble in do not require (much) research. I write based on experience and observation. However, when I think of research, I am reminded of uni years when I had to do so much of it. One page would link to another, and another, and soon enough I would find myself in a deep, deep hole, not having much time to write all of the things I’ve learned. This week, at work, I was faced with writing a couple of shorts on topics I had no idea about, so, I had to do some research. You’re right – it just feels weird when you don’t know EVERYTHING about it. I feared that experts in the field will read what I wrote and laugh. But, in the end, I let it go and wrote.

    The main take-away is – do some research if needed, but make sure you stop before you get too far down the rabbit hole. Come back to research once you NEED to.

    • Yes, very wise words– especially when it pertains to the workplace. It’s unrealistic for an employer to expect you, as a writer, to obtain an instant mastery over an entire subject for one or two articles… Hopefully this is not something they expect of any of us! But then there is always the nagging fear of getting something wrong, only to be “found out” by an expert… I can definitely relate to that feeling!

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