I am a curious person by nature. I love to learn new things. But when I am working on a novel, I find that I don’t have a good sense of when to stop researching things that are either directly or marginally related to my story.
I’m not sure why I do this, exactly. I know that in at least one case, I was researching and researching because I didn’t want to move forward with my story. I found this out when I attended a writer’s retreat and shared my progress with a group of veteran authors. When I explained that I hadn’t done enough research and therefore could not move forward with my story, they called me on it. How much had I done? Well, I’d read three books, two doctoral theses about homeless teenagers, done a ton of poking about on the Internet, interviewed several homeless students from a school in San Diego. When I recounted the list of things I’d done, I realized that my excuse for not moving forward was not legit. I was stalling.
I’m in something of a similar situation right now, although I’m still not clear on whether I’ve done enough research or if I’m stalling, and that’s the tough part. Writing is so solitary that we can become prisoners of our own brains. When your mind is the thing that is tricking you into slowing your progress, and your mind needs to catch that subtle subterfuge, how can you trust it? That sounds like a verbal M.C. Escher print, I realize, but still…I believe it be an accurate representation, at least of my mental gymnastics.
I’m researching mind control, the kind used in prison and re-education camps. This is a fascinating topic, but since I’m writing a story about a fictional world that really couldn’t exist, the parameters are a bit different from when I was researching homeless teenagers who populated a real world. How much research do I need to do for this? There is no “real world” equivalent to what I’m doing. There are some elements of it in historical examples and in modern-day psychological studies, but I’m essentially building it all from the ground up.
Creating worlds, either fantastic or domestic, is difficult, and the consistency within those worlds is the glue that holds our fiction together. Because of this, I feel that I need as much research as I can find, but there will always be another resource, right? How do I know when it’s enough?
I think the answer lies in a place that is both our friend and foe: the mind again. Or, more accurately, in the gut. The gut of a writer is the silent space where you shut out the negative voice, the whining griper, the cookie addict who wants you to stop for a snack, the Facebook checker who needs to sneak a peak at someone’s status, the bathroom breaker who already went five minutes ago, the guilty mommy who should really go check on the kid.
The gut is where you go to really know.
Have I truly done enough research to make this work? Do I, in my gut, believe it?
I think I’m there. But then, when I think, those other voices pop out again, and the noisy chorus begins anew. It is hard working with all these disparate voices, but I am trying to go back to the gut and remember what I know: that I do really know best.