Research, Outlining, and Writing

Research, Outlining, and Writing

It all starts with research. For me, research begets inspiration. I read dozens of books on the period and the people. Slowly, patterns emerge, obscure but fascinating relations between characters, events, symbolic imagery, and abstract ideas. Then I begin another round of research, focusing on these patterns, and I start sketching outlines and character notes.

I work on a number of outlines simultaneously. Some of them overlap. Some I discard. Some connect together in unforeseen ways. Eventually, again, a larger pattern emerges.

For me, trying to develop a perfect outline is futile. I inevitably find innumerable problems, as well as unsuspected opportunities, while transitioning from outline to first draft.

I need to have a map, but I also need to distrust it. If the road I’ve been traveling turns out to lead nowhere, I have to be willing to go back to the last intersection, rethink the geography, and try another route.

When I’m in the thick of it, I discover aspects of my characters’ psychology and narrative options that I couldn’t possibly envisage during the initial outlining phase. I revise the outline, sometimes drastically. The outline isn’t final until the story is finished – and then, of course, it is of no value. 

Although the outline is useful as a planning tool, I tend to think of it more as a way of stepping back from the canvas (if you’ll forgive my shifting metaphors) to take stock of the overall form, to make sure the parts still fit together properly, and to make sure I haven’t forgotten to follow through with the consequences of changes I’ve made.

I find myself constantly revising not only my outline, but also the words on the page. I change the order of words, cut words, search for different ways of phrasing a thought or a description, often for reasons I can’t quite explain that have to do with the melody and rhythms of language. I move sentences, pages, even chapters. I expand sections and delete sections.

As I go along, I check my narrative against historical records. After each draft, I show my work to specialists for comments. I prefer to alter the historical facts as little as possible. When I discover discrepancies, I fix them.

In part because of this OCD-like need to make everything as perfect as possible, I spent six years researching and writing By Fire, By Water. The entire work remained in a state of flux until it was finalized, which was the day before my publisher sent it to the printer. I tried my best not to drive my publisher, editor, and copy editor completely bonkers – but fear I failed.

The three activities, research, outlining, and writing, inform each other. A  creative tension arises between them. This tension is related to another concept I hold dear. A good story must have both an ego and an id. It should be carefully and methodically constructed, but it must not lack passion, mystery, even a touch of chaos. I try to hold the deliberate and the inspired portions of the writing process in balance.

For this reason, I write the first draft of every scene using a pen and a legal pad, lying down on my bed. Although I know the setting, the characters, and what I expect to happen, I try not to limit myself to these preconceptions. Sometimes the words and characters come alive and I become a mere transcriber.

When that happens, it’s a thrilling experience, but it doesn’t always result in a usable scene. Or it results in a scene that will be usable, but not in the way I envisaged.

The more you try to nail things down and limit your creative possibilities – by means of an inflexible outline, a failure to rethink every word, or any other way – the more likely you are to create a lifeless exercise as opposed to an engrossing story. Writers should not think of themselves as creators. Rather, they are seekers. The story, in its best possible form, is the distant shore they are attempting to discover.


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