Productivity: General versus Directed Research

I have noticed (and blogged before) about how people sometimes allow facts to get in their way when writing a story. So this post is specific to how I use resources to learn about certain subject matter, so I can write about it, because while I believe general research is a waste of time, I do believe directed research is important.

So let’s say I want to write an epic fantasy about a young girl in the faux middle ages who is going to buck tradition and go off and do X.

The non-writer who wants to write will say: we need to know what challenges she will face. Surprise! No you don’t. YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE WRITING FICTION!

Nothing evolves in a vacuum. Everyone old enough to write a novel should have seen enough television, movies, read other fantasy books to realize that in the middle ages there were jobs based solely on gender and society told women to be subservient to men. Okay, so we all have this idea, it is amazing how often I see people doing YEARS of research in order to verify this fact instead of writing their fantasy epic.

The first pitfall is not knowing what to research. So how do I know what to research?

I have made an outline of my story which includes 
1) The Hook: the main point of the story which will draw the reader in to the world you are creating. Let’s say in this fantasy epic, the protagonist wants her name to live on forever in stone and she imagines herself building castles.

2) The Plot: this sort of adventure will be coming of age story as the protagonist moves from starting point to being a master herself (or at least far enough in her journey that the story ends satisfactorily.) We know she will face:

  • disapproval from her parents (which will be shrugged off fairly quickly, since she is going to leave them and go build castles)
  • disapproval from the church establishment. (which may or may not be an issue depending on how large of a church presence you have at the building site.)
  • disapproval from established masters of Stone Masonry (but at least one person who will train the strange girl who will also be a protector of sorts until she can protect herself.)
  • Optional: disapproval from the other apprentices of Masonry

Find Your Topic. It’s okay to start large, then narrow it down.

For your historical research, you decide you want to write about the European dark ages. Awesome. But that’s over 1000 years, so how about focusing on a when and a where? Now that you’ve picked Wales during the Edwardian Castle Building Era. Why? Because you figure you need her working in a time when there was lots of castles being built.

Make sure your topic relates to back to what you are writing. So check out the Stone mason guilds of the Medieval times is probably a good idea, but looking up a woman’s place is irrelevant. Why?

Because you are supposed to be writing a story about a girl who is not going to stay in her prescribed place! She should leave it within the first few chapters if not the first chapter of her story. 

She might choose to dress like a boy, in fact, it is probably required since gowns would get stuck between the building materials. So once again, you are looking at the stone masons what they wore, how they behaved, etc. Were they cosseted by the gentry because of their skills or were they just educated peasants?

So with this probably won’t take me more than two weeks to do. Now to add a bit of the correct flavor I would do quick internet searches on: Welsh recipes of that era, Peasant houses

With those four topics, I should have enough to get started and even add a few details to my story.

And then if while in the course of writing the story another topic comes up–lets say the duties of a Household Priest–I can just do a search, spend a day or two researching it, and then move back to writing.

How do other people accomplish their research?

5 responses to this post.

  1. Good article, especially for me. I do tend to get hung up in research!


  2. […] for a manuscript then figuring out what I need to research. As I previously wrote about in this blog post back in ’12: I do not believe in general research, I believe in specific targeted […]


  3. […] The Light Side of the Moon rewrite took a lot out of me. Not only did I feel like I was able to make the characters more lifelike, I did more research in order to make the story sing with science and facts. Or at least so I don’t sound like an idiot. I’ve written before about how I believe in specific directed research. […]


  4. […] have blogged about how I believe in directed research rather than general research so I don’t fall down a rabbit hole of information. If you are […]


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