WRITING CHRONICLES #06: Drowning In Data

Via: Daily Prompt – Craft

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Image: Wikimedia

I started writing my first novel while waiting for my ‘O’ level results. The four-month leisure period was ample time for story ideas to formulate in my head so I picked one and ran with it. I had nothing to guide me back then apart from the novels I was reading. This was a time before blogs were popular and MOOCs even existed. Unlike today, there were no resources available – without registering into a paid course – to train me for the craft I loved so much. I was winging it all the way through. Halfway into my prologue, I realized I had a plot but needed backstories for my main characters. Their sizes and shapes were clear but who they were as individuals still obscure. Hence, the research began. 

The Internet is a plethora of information and Google always very accommodating. It was easy to get lost in the land of the plenty. Moreover, a longtime history student, I was as much to blame for getting carried away. While the novel was meant to be a contemporary romance (set between the mid-90 and the early millennium), I remember accumulating data as far back as the 19th century North American Gold Rush simply to build a premise for my heroine’s family wealth. I did the same to create the ancestors of the hero and various supporting characters. Almost none of it went into the first draft but it gave me a sense of direction while forming the character profiles. At least, I knew who my characters’ “people” were.

I added to the story all through my ‘A’ levels. I would say my novel was 60% complete when I became preoccupied with undergrads studies and set it aside. Years and years later, when I picked up the novel again, I realized that, regardless of all the character profiling I had done, my story had a gaping hole in it. I had forced the source of my protagonist’s personality flaws to fit the plot conflict. And all because I guided my research in the direction that fit my agenda. Lesson learned? Research requires freedom from the author’s impositions to draw any material of value to the novel.

Unfortunately, I had to set aside that novel until I could figure out where I wanted to go with it. It is very important to get facts correct while writing novels. While fiction does allow us the advantage of a suspension of disbelief, even the most fantastic stories require a level of relatability and a parallel to the world we live in. There needs to be a certain degree of accuracy when describing the setting just as the actions of the characters need to be plausible. The easiest part in all this is that the resources are all out there on the Internet today for our consumption.

Yet, it is also important to know how much of the research to keep out of the final novel. While writing gives us the relishable opportunity to find out more about our world (past and present), not everything we come across while researching needs to be conveyed to the readers. We don’t want to bore them with facts and nor do we want for them to lose sight of the main events and messages of our stories. The key here is to approach telling the story in the way the reader might want to hear it.

I came to a solution to curb my research overkill when I accepted the fact that I was just using the process as another means to procrastinate. Instead of jumping right away into research, I started first outlining my plot chapter-wise. I broke down the first draft by noting where each chapter would start and end as well as bulleting the necessary elements and themes required for the middle, and then would select my research topics around those set objectives. It allowed me to remain moderate while researching for the first draft and not go looking for information irrelevant to my story. Once my first draft was written, I would take out chunks of content during the editing process and correct other information as necessary.

I have found, pacing oneself while researching is also a key strategy. My stories always focus a lot on the psychology of the characters. I feel it is essential to understanding why a character does what he/she does. The challenge surfaces when I know too much about a character before I begin my first draft – in knowing how much not to reveal because, after all, readers need to journey through the character arcs with the characters. That is, again, where editing comes in. While in the first draft I allow myself the freedom to write all I know and want to, during the editing process, I shuffle a lot of the materials around and tweak prose or add more actions/dialogues to fall back on the old writing adage to show rather than say.

Writing, I have come to learn, is greatly about cheque and balance. Adding details to bring your characters and settings to life only to edit more than half of it out by the final manuscript; making sure you research thorough enough to be accurate but not give readers a lecture on a history or give away the end. It is about asking yourself when enough is enough and too much too much? And they asked when I quit my job to concentrate on writing novels what I’d do with my days…

In fact, the most difficult part I find about the researching aspect of writing is ensuring the information I discover and incorporate is accurately dated to the period of the literature I’m composing. Especially in contemporary times when technology and society are changing so rapidly. Add to that the possibility that it is so easy to propagate wrong information and has been done so purposefully throughout history. Charlotte Bronte once called Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.” But I think Austen had the right idea. Leave out the real world as much as your story allows you because, at the end of the day, what is real anyway? It is your drawing, that novel, and you are the master of your art.

 

 

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