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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