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Story research: How to escape the research black hole

A key part of writing, especially if you’re working on a historical or science fiction tale is getting in a good amount of story research before hand. But it can be difficult to know how to research for a story if you’ve never tried. Even the most experienced writer can feel overwhelmed looking at a long list of topics, never mind the act of actually diving headfirst into a research session.

the story research black hole

The story research black hole

You love the subject you’re researching. You must do, otherwise you wouldn’t have committed to such a plan. But loving your subject can become a double edged sword. The characters and the detail of the subject can draw you in, making it difficult to know when you’re not just wasting time. A simple click on the Wikepedia page of the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984 can lead you down rabbit holes of British interment of IRA prisoners,  the lives of the victims, and mortar attacks on Downing Street (those are all real examples from that one page, and they’re all pretty interesting reads, even to those not interested.

The detail of a historical event is a fantastic place to find new, interesting stories that have yet to be told. It is easy to get caught in this process of constant research. Before you know it you have to step away from the keyboard and you don’t have anything written. It can feel like a bottomless pit. Or as I like to call it, a black hole.

Get out of the black hole

I’ve been stuck in the black hole before, when I was researching a short film script based on the Jonestown massacre. I was immediately drawn into the story thanks to the huge amount of information available, including videos and conspiracy theories.  The affect that one man had is heart-breaking and it’s almost impossible to not get drawn in.

It was a long time before I resurfaced, armed with dozens of indigestible books, bookmarked webpages that I’d never be able to read and links to videos that I’d never have time to watch.

So how did I get out of the black hole and become a functioning, productive writer again? I developed a few simple ideas.

Decide on the story

How are you researching? Are you driving headlong into something, never quite understanding what or why you’re going after? A strong interest in a subject can make it easy to get dragged into a pit of interesting titbits that you think you might useful at some point in the future. So think about your story before you start to research. There will be certain points that need more scrutiny than others, and these are the ones that you need to focus on. This links well with my tweet it/rewrite it post. The more definition you have about your story and where you want to go with it, the easier and more specific your research can be.

Track your time

If you do nothing more than dive headlong into research, with no idea about how long you’re planning to research for, you’re likely to end up looking at the clock after three hours wondering what just happened in the last three hours.

Try setting a timer for your story research. There’s about a million timer apps out there, so have a look at your app store and download one. Then decide how long you want to research for and how long you want to write for, and time yourself.  For everyone, the amount of time that they will research for is different. It really depends on your writing style.

Personally I like to take a little and often approach to story research. I make sure that I only spend 10 minutes at the start of each half hour looking for something. Then the rest of the 20 minutes is pure writing time!

Writers with a time limit are more focused with their approach. If you try it, you’ll find that you are less likely to start flipping back and forth between information sources. You have to get it right, quickly. With only ten minutes (and you’ll be surprised how quickly that will go) you will have to be surgical. In, fact, out.

Set targets

Setting targets is another great way of limiting how much time you spend researching. Decide what you need to get. This might be technical details, events or dates. Get a list before you get going. You can then tick off various objectives surprisingly quickly, making sure you get back to writing.

Research is a difficult task, and one you shouldn’t take lightly. Readers appreciate a story that has the right amount of well-researched detail. It’ll be even harder for them to put down.

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