Writing Without Researching is NOT an Option — You Don’t Know As Much As You Think You Do
This is going to be Stupid Easy, I told myself. Anyone with a modicum of writing ability could compose a silly Harlequin Romance. I was a full-grown adult with a degree in English and Education. I had always achieved top writing grades in college. In the years following graduation, I had not only dabbled in teaching writing but was called upon by my work colleagues to edit the Special Education reports they were required to submit to Administration on each of their students. No one would submit a report without it passing by my editing pen first.
I was more than ready and able to write a book. Especially a simple little Harlequin Romance. Or so I thought. Until I learned some sorely needed lessons that knocked me off of my arrogant pedestal.
Besides being confident in my writing ability, I had always been a snob about reading. At 12 years old, when everyone my age was into Beverly Cleary and Nancy Drew (which I had finished off by the age of 9), I was reading Exodus by Leon Uris. The summer I turned 12, I took out every Agatha Christie mystery my local library stocked and spent my days sitting on my front porch devouring her “whodunit” novels, while the rest of the neighborhood kids pursued the more active endeavors of bike riding, roller skating, and backyard acrobatics.
It is therefore not surprising that I, the haughty little beast that I was in my mid-forties, turned my nose up at women who read Harlequin Romance novels. I considered such books to be insipid, mindless pieces of nonsense. And simple to write. Bear in mind that I had never read one, but that is the way of pretentious snobs such as I was.
For reasons that escape my now aging, muddled mind, I had taken a year off from working and had plenty of time on my hands to finally give this writing thing a serious try.
This is where the first part of Research comes into play. You cannot write anything in a genre about which you know nothing. At least I was not so full of myself that I thought I could write a Romance Novel without doing some research first.
Part One of Researching Before You Write :
1. I implore you to please find out about the genre in which you want to write. I have read questions on Vocal and Medium FB groups by would-be authors asking what they should name their characters or title their books, or what their plots should be, in, for example, Science Fiction, when they admit that they have never read a Science Fiction book. Or Fantasy, when they have never read a Fantasy book, and are not even sure what the Fantasy genre encompasses. This is not a one-time anomaly. I have read these queries often from writers.
In my case, I thankfully put aside my snobbery and arrogance and read everything I could about the elements of the Romance Novel. I found out that there are many sub-genres of Romance Novels, and each sub-genre has its own series of strict guidelines to follow. For example, the first sub-genre is the “Squeaky Clean” type in which the hero and heroine fall in love, share kisses, but never engage in sex until after marriage. The sexual permissiveness increases with each sub-genre.
2. Read as many books as you can in the genre in which you wish to write. Yes, I finally read about a dozen “modern” Romance Novels, as I was not interested in the historical, Regency Romances. I found some of the modern Harlequin Romances to be as silly and simple as I had thought they were going to be. But I also found many engaging, thoroughly researched, well-written stories, My mind was beginning to open a little. Chips were beginning to form in my preconceived biases.
3. Network with authors in your genre of choice. I joined the Romance Writers of America and found a chapter in my area, where I met regularly with wannabe’s like myself as well as published Romance authors. The advice, information, and instruction that I received were not only invaluable but were beginning to show me that Romance writing was more complex than I had thought.
Only after you have completed these first 3 research projects are you ready to take a stab at writing your novel. With confidence that I had done my due diligence research and with a bit of arrogance filtered out of me by then, I sat down to write the Great American Romance Novel.
This was the 1980’s. Modern times. My heroine needed a career; one captivating and interesting enough to keep the reader’s attention through the required 250+ pages.
Oooo, I know, I thought. An archeologist. Exotic locales, fascinating subjects, endless intriguing plot lines. Um, but I didn’t know anything about archeologists except that they dug in the desert and found 3000-year-old artifacts.
Okay, well, she could be a lawyer. A divorce lawyer. Her love interest could be her client seeking a divorce. Good. Sounds good. Um, but I didn’t know anything about being a divorce lawyer. Or any type of lawyer. At that time, I had never even used a lawyer’s services.
Not to despair. There were plenty more careers from which to choose. Doctor. She could be a doctor treating the hero/widower’s toddler who was a victim of a hit and run. Um, but I didn’t know anything about being a doctor.
By the time I had gone through real estate agent, FBI agent, private investigator, business entrepreneur, chef, and scores more career possibilities, I came to a shocking conclusion that knocked out any hubris or smugness I had left in me — I didn’t know anything about anything.
Part Two of Researching Before You Write :
#1. You are going to need to do serious, in-depth research. Not a cursory Google search. If you are going to do this properly, you are going to spend many weeks and months reading about the profession and locale about which you are writing. You should be interviewing members of the profession you are writing about, visiting your novel’s locale, even embedding yourself with members of that profession. Look in the back of any best-selling novel to the credits. You will find pages of lists of books and articles that were utilized in the author’s research. You will find pages of acknowledgments of thanks to real-life members of the profession in which the novel’s characters are employed. This is not research for the faint of heart.
#2. Patience is a virtue — The type of research explained above that is needed to write a detailed, accurate story about any profession or locale takes time. A lot of time. Sometimes years.
#3. It doesn’t hurt to already have an interesting career to draw upon for inspiration. John Grisham is a lawyer. Robin Cook is a doctor. Their research was already in personal experience, but most would-be authors do not have such backgrounds from which to glean information. Most of us have to put in the blood, sweat, and tears of extensive research to bring forth a quality product.
#4. If you are writing Science Fiction or Fantasy, obviously you cannot visit other universes or planets. You cannot converse with alien beings or vampires and shapeshifters. Most of the story has to come from your imagination, but you still must research the history of magic, legends, and science fiction.
By the time I realized that Romance Novel writing was no joke, certainly not “stupid easy”, but rather the result of extensive research and hard work, it was time for me to return to my own job in the world of Education. I never did write that Romance Novel, but I learned so much about writing and the importance of detailed research during that year. I gained a new respect for writers of all genres. The arrogant beast had been tamed.
Note — Even this little article required an entire day of research into Romance Writing, professions of successful authors, short biographical notes about Robin Cook and John Grisham, and researching previous Facebook/ posts.