Swoon Author Tarun Shanker: The Three Stages of Research
Research can be overwhelming. If you’re an over-preparer like me, you might have an endless list of books that you feel you need to read and become an expert in before tackling a project. For These Vicious Masks, that involved everything from general Victorian England history, culture, science, clothing and architecture to all the famous Victorian literature and modern superhero comics/movies we were following in the tradition of. Trying to tackle something like that can take years (...which it kinda did considering how long we took to write the first book). And even if you’re writing something contemporary (unless it’s completely autobiographical) you’re going to have to dive into researching unfamiliar things to make your story work.
The problem is finding that line where you decide you’re ready. It’s a lot like fantasy world-building. There’s a part of you that feels like you need to know every little detail and intricacy to your world before you start writing, but that’s not going to be the most efficient use of your time. We had the luxury of moving at our own pace for the first book, but when we were on deadline for books two and three, we quickly had to break down our research into three distinct parts.
1. The Outline
Instead of treating this as a stressful phase where we had to learn absolutely everything imaginable about the Victorian Era, we went at it more like a guided exploration. We took our vague synopsis and the events we wanted to happen in our book and followed the research to whatever shiny interesting places it led us.
We knew we wanted an evil organization, but our research into boarding schools, gentlemen’s clubs, scientific societies and the military helped us develop that into something more specific. We went back to our outline every day because the story was the main priority, but a lot of our ideas were generated from going down rabbit holes in our research and finding fun tidbits. In some cases, like when we found out about the existence of a Victorian dagger-fan, or the Agony Column (the Victorian version of missed connections) we’d shift the story to incorporate the element and then find that it gave us a great new direction plotwise. We didn’t let the research keep us from writing—we used it to get us excited about writing.
Once our outline was finished and we started drafting, we shifted our research style to something that could best be described as “pick your battles.” The draft became the main priority and the best research that could be done was the kind of research that let us get back to drafting as quickly as possible.
I was pretty horrible at this. My low point was during a period where Kelly and I had agreed to a schedule of drafting a chapter every two days to meet our deadline and I went and messed it up on my very first assigned chapter by wasting an entire evening researching the development of train cars. After that, I quickly learned to just write through the anachronisms and save the heavy research for the period when our editor would be reading the draft. If the plausibility of an entire chapter set on a train was at risk, then it was maybe worth checking up on the date when trains were invented. But the smaller details (the layout of the cars, the station, the crowds) were better saved for later drafts, when we were absolutely sure we were even keeping a train chapter in the story.
The same thing can be done with beta readers. Instead of waiting impatiently for their feedback, the time might be better spent doing researching in preparation for the next round of edits.
3. Line Edits, Copy Edits and Pass Pages
With each successive draft, we narrowed our research down to nitty gritty details. It’s the same strategy we’d employ when we got edit letters. Fix the biggest changes first and then worry about specific sentences and words last. In the case of research for this stage, we focused on things like the descriptions of settings and clothing, the official titles and forms of address, and how historically accurate certain words were. This is probably when I should have spent that full day researching trains because the story was finalized enough that I knew the scene would not be cut. Sometimes the research here could take days even if the change amounted to a single word. But with the book being finalized, we had to make sure we fully examined every little detail that we had put off during the drafting stage.
Yeah, I know I said there are three stages, but there’s usually a bonus, horrible fourth stage, which occurs when I am just peacefully living my life and I come across historical information that seems to contradict something in the book… that has unfortunately already been published. I’ll open up the final copy and re-read the passage in question and try to loosely interpret it so it still sort of works maybe, and I’ll fume and kick myself and weep. But it happens, no matter how much research you do. So the best solution is to just remember it for motivation and try to do better next time!