Fiction places an unusual burden upon the writer: one has to appear to be an expert on every subject that is touched upon within the story. This grounds fiction in realism, and allows the reader to suspend disbelief in order to get lost in personal transport – which is what we hope to achieve. If any glaring inaccuracies are present, it serves to break the spell (these are often referred to as “shin busters”, because readers quite literally stumble over them). Inevitably, though, we come upon particular matters where our own knowledge is dim. We then need to do research to fill in the gaps of our own understanding and present a work that appears seamless.
Research is sometimes a daunting prospect, though. In this age of highly specialized knowledge, any subject can present a seemingly bottomless pool into which we’ll be obliged to plunge. Writing is our primary job, and if we devote too much time to reading up on related subject matter we run the risk of losing our way and forgetting what it was that we were originally searching for. It doesn’t need to be so complicated. The real trick to time-effective research is to understand, ahead of time, exactly what it is that we need to know. This not only will direct us to the proper source materials but also steer us clear of a lot of other enticing (i.e., excuse for procrastination) information that is most likely beside the point.
Though some writers argue that one should research everything in advance and get the task out of the way, I believe that this approach can lead to a lot of time spent gathering material that will largely go unused. A better way, I believe, is to write the first drafts of our stories drawing upon nothing but our own knowledge. Consider that much of a first draft doesn’t make it to the final version of a novel or short story anyway. So, assuming that everything can be revised later, we can simply fake our way through any sticky points. What’s important, though, is to make notes in these places (for example, in the margins; or using sticky notes) so that we know that they need to be fleshed out with research.
This greatly simplifies the task when we get to draft two. Instead of delving into various subjects at great length, we will understand exactly how much we need to know in order to give certain troublesome passages the semblance of realism. If we’re writing about a character who’s a stable lad, for example, we don’t need to research an exhaustive history of horse domestication and breeding; we will only need to know about these animals’ diet and what kinds of basic care they require, as well as gather some facts about their typical behavior and temperaments. Writing a first draft strictly on the basis of what we already know serves to highlight our areas of ignorance, and then we only have to study up on whatever facts we need to make the story feel real.