“Research is incredibly pleasurable and seductive and you have to be on your guard against it. It’s very easy to use it as an excuse not to write.”
Michael should know: he’s the author of a number of novels that are firmly rooted historically in time and place. His newest book, Telegraph Avenue, is about a small jazz-oriented music store in California. It’s a fictional place, but the setting he’s conjured up is real.
What interests me about Michael’s comment are the words “pleasurable” and “seductive” applied to research. While some writers find research burdensome, most authors who embrace it as a tool revel in it and can easily get lost in it.
Actually, as I write this, I am sitting next to a book whose author seems to have loved her research so much that she definitely got lost in it. In fact, the book took her more than two decades to write for a variety of reasons, some personal, some professional. While the book she produced was an immense undertaking worthy of admiration, as a reader, I’ve found it tough to get through because it seems to have no strong narrative thread.
The author was so enamored of the research process that she seems to have put every fact she unearthed into the book. I remember hearing a historian in an interview point out that only 20% or so of the research he did ever found its way into his books. The other 80% was background he needed in order to zero in on the 20% that he chose to weave into a coherent narrative — a story that his readers could follow and enjoy.
As Michael Chabon puts it, “There’s always one more fact that could help you and you probably shouldn’t start writing until you find out the boots worn by the German troops in World War II, and I just knew who made those boots, then I could write my chapter. So you have to be on guard about that.”
The Internet is especially seductive, Michael adds. It’s always luring you with “one more link, just one more link” and it “wants you not to get your work done.” So its both a fantastic tool and a treacherous one. The bottom line: don’t let your research overwhelm your writing. And write on.