Sarah Potter Writes

Pursued by the Muses of prose, poetry, and music.

Novel Writing Winter (NWW) 2013: using research as a trigger

At the beginning of this week, on Day 14 of Novel Writing Winter, I came up against the sort of blank wall that threatened to put an end  to my project. Why on earth was my writing proving such a chore, when once it overflowed with joy, energy, and boundless new  ideas? Rather than submit to despair, I came up with some possible culprits.

  • rejection fatigue
  • the harping inner editor
  • higher goals
  • declining youth
  • cynicism about the marketplace
  • economic pressure to succeed
  • the strictures of routine
  • shrinking time syndrome
  • insomnia
  • grey skies
  • the library

Yes, you read it right — the library. More specifically, the public library, rather than one attached to a university or school. Twenty years ago, when I started out learning my craft, libraries were filled with books and not computers. And they were staffed by real librarians consumed with passion for their work, who were enthusiastic to assist you in your research. If they didn’t have relevant material in their local  branch, they would bend over backwards to source books from across England.

In contrast, the last time I visited my local library (a year ago) and asked them to order a book for me, I might as well have asked them to fetch a lump of rock from Mars. This left me two options — to sit in a noisy library at a computer (and that’s another of my complaints, as libraries used to have “silence please” notices pinned up in them) — or sit in my quiet office at my computer with a cup of tea, which I’d try not to spill over the keyboard.

So how did I tackle this week’s blank wall from my desk? I’m writing an experimental minimalist novel, which doesn’t mean it should contain little of interest. Quite the opposite. It requires me to dip into a huge pool of information my brain can’t contain alone, and then strip down that information to the literary equivalent of a pencil  sketch. But I am not a person who enjoys weeks or months of research before embarking on a novel. I prefer to see what questions it throws up during the writing process, and answer or expand upon them during short research breaks, which, as you’ll already have gathered, used to involve trips to the library!

If a writer is to research on-line at home, it requires both focus and immense self-discipline. It means not allowing social networking, emailing, or irrelevant reading material to lure you from your path. The down side of this is that there’s a danger all your on-line contacts and friends forget about you, or think you’re neglecting them (fellow-bloggers, I haven’t forgotten you and will catch up with you soon).

On Monday and Tuesday, I found out everything I needed to know — and more — about the Renaissance castrati (ouch!), the ecology of oak trees, and how to climb high trees without ropes or safety harnesses. This research gave me such a buzz, it triggered off new ideas and I could see the light shining through that darned wall.

Has anyone else resorted to research this week, and if so, what form has this taken? Did you find out your information on-line, from books (borrowed, purchased, or already on your shelf), journals, magazines, by talking to people, or experiencing something firsthand?

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16 thoughts on “Novel Writing Winter (NWW) 2013: using research as a trigger

  1. I would offer advice on keeping to target but I have spent the week working on a story about a cat for my daughter. X

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    • I’ve decided my target does not relate to word count, otherwise the word failure comes to mind. It’s an admirable thing to pen a story for your daughter, so she feels a part of your writing life x

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  2. I had to flee my library the other night due to lots of noisy teenagers using the shelves and computer chairs as a adventure playground.

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    • That’s definitely another one to add to my list of reasons not to go to the library — children who don’t know the meaning of proper discipline.

      I say, bring back the scary librarians, along with the helpful ones.

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  3. I so enjoyed this post. And I bit shy to say that I live in a medium sized town with a fabulous library and old school librarians. What makes it better is that the young folks working there are these wonderful bookish nerd kids who love to chat about books and related topics. But I feel your pain, that situation would be wholly frustrating to me as I realize I’ve developed such a relationship with my library.

    Haven’t really had to research yet but am logging almost zero words. Not because I’m not into the Novel Writing Winter but because I am SO committed that I’m working on structuring and re-structuring the outline. I will allow myself the lucious break of writing in a day or two but am sticking to this plan as an adventure in moving this book and all future books forward.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the target not being the word count. That is usually what my inner lizard tells me (hehe, yours is a harping editor). The soft spot inside tells me that we are moving gently and purposefully toward our goal putting words, research, outlines together and healing and having fun with our pals in the meantime….what could be better?

    And again, thanks for the concept of Novel Writing Winter….the timing was spot on!

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    • Lucky you, with that library. It sounds great!

      I’m looking forward to your guest post. Perhaps when you written it, you could email it to me to the address on my profile, which you can access via my gravatar. No pressure, time-wise, as I’d hate to distract you from working on your novel outline. Lovely to have you as part of NWW, and your enthusiasm is much appreciated 🙂

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  4. I laughed when I saw the library within the list above. I could spend hours there!

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  5. Great article and lots to consider. Were I to go into a library however I’d probably get lost in all other areas apart from the one I’m researching or never sit at my desk and write.

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  6. Glad you got through the blank wall Sarah.
    I used to love libraries. In fact, wanted to become a librarian.
    Just as well I did not – libraries are not the hallowed spaces they once were.
    Would have broken my heart.

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  7. Great post, sweet Sarah, you write of things common to writers. So glad to know we don’t walk alone. This wasn’t a week for research for me but I’m sure it will be soon. When I do research, I luckily stumble across things in magazines in the Dr’s office or talking to a friend who mentions something coincidentally to get me started. Love the internet library of info … Glad the light came through for you 😀

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    • I went to an evening class years ago with a now extremely famous crime author, who in those days was a moderately well known horror writer. He said his ideas were often sparked off by an incident he’d read about in the Daily Mail (a British Tory tabloid, in case you haven’t heard of it where you live!). So you see you might come up with an idea from something you read in the Dr’s office that will be the trigger to great fame. 🙂

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      • lol yes, we just never know, do we… inspiration abounds… if we are just paying attention… thanks for being one of mine xo 🙂

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  8. AnElephantCant think of anything clever to say
    This happens time after time
    But he wants you to know
    That he likes you and so
    He says hello with this silly rhyme

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