DROWNING IN DETAIL! Managing Research in your stories

Roy Lichtenstein – DROWNING GIRL

Whether you’re researching historical details for your fiction, or using your own journals for a memoir, there’s a danger that your story will be swallowed by all the information that you’ve uncovered. 

It’s exciting to discover or remember the world you’re writing about, but our job as writers is to figure out which of the multitudinous details we find are the perfect fit for our story.

Researching a place or a period of time can be fascinating, I know. I’ve fallen into that rabbit hole many a time. Hours, days, weeks of writing time can be lost as the lure of ever more information tempts us on until we have a mountain of facts that obscure the shape of our story. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to do this research (though maybe not quite to the extent I’ve done sometimes). We need to understand the world our characters live in. However, we really don’t need to include every little thing we’ve learnt about that world in the story. 

Instead, the knowledge we’ve gathered acts as an informed backdrop to the actions and choices of our characters. If we fall too much in love with all the quirky facts, they can drown out the voices of our characters and kill our story.

The discovery of long forgotten diaries, either your own or a relative’s, is indeed a treasure trove for a writer. But again, fascinating as it all is, not all of those day-to-day details are worthy of being included in a memoir or fiction piece based on them. We really don’t need to know what time you woke up or what you had for breakfast or what you did at work. Unless that workday or breakfast includes a major event that has emotional import, most of this daily grind can be omitted without doing a disservice to your ancestor, or your previous self.

My best advice with managing research, whether personal, historical or geographical, is to spend a week or two reading everything you can get your hands on, immersing yourself in the world you want to write about. But then –

Put that research aside. You can make notes about big moments or life/historical events that will help to shape your story, but apart from that rely only upon your memory once you start writing. Your brain will have absorbed the world and the feeling of the story world, but not all those facts that are irrelevant. Focus on your plot and characters and write your heart out, all the way to the end. 

If you hit a section where you just HAVE to check an historical detail, resist as much as you can. Highlight the sentence or make a note for yourself on the manuscript about the question but be strong and keep focused on the story. Otherwise, you run the risk of being sucked into the vortex of research and losing your momentum.

KEEP WRITING until you type “The End.” Then during your second draft you can check on all those bits you weren’t sure about and find interesting specific details that enhance your story perfectly without overwhelming the reader with an overload of unnecessary facts. 

Research is there to provide a backdrop, not take centre stage. Don’t let it hijack your story!

Hope that helps! Have you been sucked into a vortex of research? 

Let me know if you have any questions.

Lots of love

Edwina xxx

EXPERIENCE – A WRITER’S FRIEND

Henry Handel Richardson – Ethel Robertson author of The Getting of Wisdom, Maurice Guest and The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney

I’ve just finished reading Henry Handel (or as I like to call her Ettie) Richardson’s memoir, Myself When Young.

I’ve been a fussy reader recently, picking up the latest literary best sellers, then putting them down again, unfinished. This though, I read all the way to the end.

Even though H.H. died before she’d completed the manuscript, her notes and her husband’s jottings were used to flesh out the final section. I found it a fascinating read. Not only because it gave us a woman’s perspective of Australia in the late 19th century, but also because her writing is such a pleasure. Clean and clear. Her voice carried me through, even without a plot driving the story forward. Even though she was writing almost one hundred years ago.

Her life wasn’t easy. Her father died young and the family struggled, despite their middle-class privilege. But she knew this:

“To a writer, experience was the only thing that really mattered. Hard and bitter as it might seem, it was to be welcomed rather than shrunk from, reckoned as a gain and not a loss.”

H. H. Richardson

I’ve been telling myself and my writing students the same thing for a long time now. As creative artists, all the shitty stuff that happens to us has value. It is the gold we mine for our stories. And a wonderful way to begin to be grateful for the traumas in our life.

EVERYTHING IS MATERIAL!

Every experience is be relished. Treasured even. No matter how painful. Because everything we endure increases our depth of understanding of the human experience and that is what writers need, more than any fancy turn of phrase, or fast-paced plot. Because we write to make sense of what it is to live in the world, of what is is to live a human life.

The more we live, in all the pain and muck and glory, the better our writing will be.

Thank you, dear Ettie, for your words and for your wisdom.

Ethel with her mother and younger sister, Lil.

Books are classics for a reason.

With lots of love

Edwina xx