The most important thing you’ll do for your story is to get the details right. Spending time on research is every bit as important as writing the prose. Why? Because research is writing.
If you’re an independent author who creates your own deadlines, you may want to rethink some things…
Your daily word-count goal is killing you (AKA “An odd place to begin this article, but trust me…”)
I hear the collective gasp! coming from the peanut gallery, believe me. But, I’ve also seen you all on social media, constantly bemoaning that you’re not making your daily word-count quotas, as if something mystical happens when you reach 2000 words.
It doesn’t. The only thing that happens is the number that used to read “1999” in your document editor now reads “2000”.
I can tell you what happens when you fail to make that arbitrary quota, though.
You know who you are. I see you every Saturday on Facebook…on my timeline…in various writer groups…invariably getting so paralyzed from depression because you didn’t hit your quota that you begin to question whether you’re a real writer at all (whatever that is).
Don’t get me wrong. Word-count goals and quotas can help to keep us on track when they’re keeping us away from the things that distract us. If you’re missing your quota because you just got pulled into the pit of despair that is social media, then yeah…use that quota and the sense of urgency it provides to get you back on track.
But, if you think research is a distraction, you need to rethink your life.
Research IS writing
Writing fiction isn’t merely about getting words down on paper or screen. It’s about communicating a well-architected story. This doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes work. Work that doesn’t involve putting words on paper or screen. It involves reading. It involves thinking.
What it doesn’t involve is sweating over your missed word-count quota for that day!
When I was writing Necromancer Awakening, I came to a scene that hinged on Mujahid Lord Mukhtaar being more knowledgeable about how to dock a ship than the dock workers he was observing. When I wrote the first draft, I was going for speed, and I didn’t want anything to break my momentum. So, I merely summarized the bits involving his expertise in the most general terms possible, knowing I could fill in the blanks later. But, when it came time to revise that scene, I couldn’t simply leave it at that. I needed to make the reader feel that Mujahid had more expertise than these people.
But, here’s the problem. There’s no way Mujahid could know those things if I didn’t know them!
So, I spent hours one Saturday (back when Saturdays were literally my only available writing time) researching how to dock boats. That research translated into the following:
The ship came to rest and several dock workers secured the mooring lines, but they were clumsy for a port this busy. Mujahid wasn’t an expert, but the workers were making mistakes that an apprentice would have avoided. One of them struggled to untangle himself from a line, narrowly escaping the fate of that poor soul in Agera. Another pulled a breast rope tight to the point of snapping. He shook his head and wondered if any of them had ever spent time around water at all. – Necromancer Awakening
There are only two points in that paragraph that resulted from my several-hours-long research. But those additional details added an element of realism to the story that would have otherwise been lacking. I’m happy to say that even people familiar with the workings of boats have since reached out to me thanking me for the additional effort. I “spoke their language”, so to speak.
The result? It took my readers…even those who have far more knowledge and experience than I do on topics nautical…and brought them deeper into the fictive dream state. They could more easily empathize with Mujahid, because Mujahid was explaining in his own thoughts what he found wrong about the situation.
But that couldn’t have happened unless I stepped away from Scrivener for a few hours and read about boats.
I’m currently in the process of outlining Necromancer Ascending, the final book of The Mukhtaar Chronicles trilogy (you can find book 2, Necromancer Falling, here). When I set out to outline this book a year ago, I was immediately struck by one glaring fact: I was in no way prepared, personally, to tell the story that needed to be told. Nicolas, the main character, is embarking on a journey of becoming within a quasi-occult religious paradigm. It was obvious I needed to do some research. And not of the “this is going to take a few hours” variety. No. I spent nearly a year doing a deep-dive into occult practices as well as mainstream “Western” mysticism to arrive at the body of knowledge I needed to tell this story. Not only has it improved the story I’m going to write, it’s also improved me as a person.
Was that writing? You bet your ass it was.
Stop creating psychological blocks
Finishing a book is hard enough. If you’re the type of person who has a difficult time accomplishing goals because you’re very good at creating your own psychological blocks, be aware that setting a daily word-count quota can become yet another one of those blocks. Writing is so much more than simply getting the words down. You have to get the right words down. That’s where the work is.
And, it’s not just about research! Any time away from the keyboard spent thinking…really thinking…about the work is time spent writing the work. You may not believe that at first, but the more you begin to embrace the important role your subconscious plays in your craft, the more you’ll embrace those reflective moments.
So, stop crying over missed quotas. Unless you’re working a deadline on a signed contract, ease up on yourself if that pressure is doing nothing more than causing problems. This work we’re doing is hard enough on a good day. Stop making your life more difficult, and start writing. Really writing*.
*See literally all of the above for what I mean by “really writing”.
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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So this means that I was writing even when daydreaming about my book while doing other things (riding in a car, riding my bike, etc. etc.). 🙂
If what you were doing was contributing to your creative process, then yes. You were absolutely “writing”. I place “writing” in quotes because it involves so much more than putting words on paper. Those words have to come from somewhere, and everything we do that informs those words is part of our process.
I really appreciate this post. I hear all the time about how people who say they want to write need to just start and make it happen. While I do agree that some of us can use research as means of pushing off writing (mostly when we say we need to but then don’t), I don’t think it is fair for people to negate the research process as a whole. I have spent a very long time researching anything from symbolism, dreams, herbs, superstitions, and chemistry to old English and Irish currency systems to base a fantasy one off of, how religions are created and how they impact culture and law, magic systems, and folklore. For the longest time, I felt encouraged to rush this process and just get to the heart of writing, but each time I thought to sit down and ‘just start’ my brain would lock up with knowing that I needed core fundamentals down first. Symbolism and heftier, precise descriptions I could add later, but not understanding my own magic or religion would ultimately alter the path of writing since I’d naturally avoid those topics due to not fleshing them out. With feeling the need to research and develop more, I started to get frustrated with myself since it became a battle of what I “should” be doing versus what I felt was necessary. Reading that you took a year to research is incredibly encouraging and makes me consider that I am allowed to function at my own pace and that small steps toward progress is still progress.