"Just in Time" research for writing

By Carol / February 8, 2013 /

Car ManufacturingAs a reader, historical fiction entices me because I learn about a different place and time. I admire the author’s ability to choose just the right details to transport me to another era without bogging me down in details that are nice but not necessary.

As a first-time writer of historical fiction, my dilemma has been knowing what details I’d need. At the outset of my writing, I knew my general story line and I made extensive lists of things I’d need to know about pre-WWI times – clothing styles, farming methods, camera types, medical remedies for the flu.  And I set about finding resources to learn about each of these – trips to the historical society, interviews with subject matter experts, Internet searches that went on for hours. The research became a passion. I loved it.

Eventually I realized that while endlessly fascinating, the research was keeping me from actually writing. The research was uncovering a wealth of information that while interesting, would mostly never make it into my novel.

As a career public relations professional, I always subscribed to the belief that I needed to know 10 times more about a subject than I finally wrote, yet the route I was on was becoming ridiculous. At that moment I fully subscribed to my belief that: Reading isn’t writing. Thinking isn’t writing. Research isn’t writing. Only writing is writing.

I determined that my first need was to write a good story. Once I knew the story, I could retrofit the just right details to bring the era to life. I didn’t need to know all types of cameras, a professional studio might use; I needed to know one. This led me to my “just in time” research approach.

“Just in time” manufacturing avoids excess inventory and carrying costs by making what a client needs in the moment the client needs it. In the same way I began to research details as I needed them. Folk remedies for headaches, for instance, at the moment my client suffers from a headache.

Though this has worked fairly well, it hasn’t been without its difficulties. I wrote a scene in which a photographer in Europe wants to send photos to a New York publisher only to find the technology available at the time didn’t support such an action in the time frame I needed. I had to rewrite that scene and adjust a couple of others. Ultimately the rewrite was minor even though I had to adjust the character’s motivation. Plus the rewrite took less time than researching photo transmission earlier when I wasn’t certain I’d need to know that.

At the moment, I have a raft of blanks in my manuscript waiting for the moment when I put my Just in Time research into gear.

What research approaches work best for you?  Regardless of genre, I’m sure there’s always some detail to fill in. I’d like to hear what you do. Share your comments.

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  1. Richard Sutton on February 8, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Great post, Carol. You just gave my own technique real cred! And, here… I thought I was just doing it that way because as I age, my file cabinets just won’t hold any more … stuff! Now I can proceed on a “need to know” basis!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 8, 2013 at 10:20 am

      Glad to be helpful, Richard! And I’m glad to hear there are others like me who at some point have to hold up a hand and yell, STOP!

  2. Joy Kidney on February 8, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Carol, this is just what I needed after a decade of fibromyalgia. I’m finally back to the WW II story with a filing cabinet full of documents and notes, and boxes of letters. Some of it got written before I couldn’t write, and the rest is sketched out. I just need to get with it! Thanks!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 8, 2013 at 10:21 am

      Joy, I’m glad this post provided some encouragement. Wishing you good health and success bringing your story to life.

  3. Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle) on February 9, 2013 at 9:09 am

    I approach historicals from the story side rather than history. To me, the history is the background or setting of the story. I just finished a fascinating love story billed as a historical. Had I not known the author, I would not have read the book due to the blurb talking about the Riel Rebellion of 1885. Huh? What drew me into the book was the intensely entrancing love story between Roberta, a independent minded woman who wanted to make it in the man’s world as a reporter, and Damien, a mixed-blood drifter who was dangerously unpredictable. The actual historical part was woven into the story so that I absorbed it without it becoming front and center recitation of dry facts. The author obviously knew 10x more than what she put into the book, but because she knew both her history AND the scenery/environment, and the Metis people so well, it all flowed naturally into the story.

    Keeping the story front and center puts research in perspective, and I think your approach is right on target. Oh, the book I’m talking about is Hawk’s Gift by Mary M. Forbes. To me, it’s not a historical, but a love story.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 9, 2013 at 10:14 am

      The story trumps the history for most readers. Thanks for the affirmation, Rachelle, and also for the tip on Forbes’ book. It sounds interesting. Your experience also reinforces how important the right book blurb can be!

  4. Flora Morris Brown on February 9, 2013 at 10:23 am


    You’ve touched on my biggest problem as a writer. I love research and with the endless availability of it on and offline, I often do what I call “fall into Alice’s hole” for too many hours.

    Thanks for saying “writing is writing.” I needed that reminder to save my researching for when I really need the information. I do get distracted and sidetracked.

    Once I start writing, and get in the zone, I can keep moving by just making a note within the manuscript that I need to research or confirm this or that fact. I draw an arrow in the margin pointing to that note, skip a few lines then move on. Sounds similar to what you do.

    I’ve heard of “just in time” in manufacturing, but never in writing. It’s a brilliant idea, and an efficient way for research-lovers to get to the end of her book in a timely manner. There will always be the need to fill in the gaps, as you mention, but since revision and sometimes rewriting are inevitable, your approach saves loads of time and troublesome sidetracks.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 9, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Flora, I love the visual of “falling into Alice’s hole” with the research. The Internet makes that so easy. Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one! I highlight with yellow the areas in my manuscript I need to return to for research. Can’t miss them on the rewrite.

  5. Mary Maddox on February 9, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Hi Carol. I’ve always felt like a slacker when it comes to research. It’s good to know how other writers do it, that there’s more than one effective way.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 9, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      I’m sure different genres require different levels of research. It’s reassuring though, isn’t it, that any approach can work as long as it gets what you need for your story. Thanks for commenting, Mary.

  6. David Lawlor on February 11, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    I try to get a basic grounding in an area that I know I’ll be writing about…just enough for me to get away with it. I feel that if I read a bit around the subject it often prompts scenes later on or helps me to develop the motivations and characteristics of certain players in the story. But it is the story that comes first. If I have a plot half formed in my head then I know what areas of research I’ll need in the pages that follow.I also use your Just in Time method, Carol, which I find effective.
    RIght now, I am itching to write another book. I have written 1800 words of my new novel and have a loose outline on the plot but I feel I am missing something so I am now reading up a little on the era in question in the hope that it will give me a spark to kick off the next section of the story. I sense that once that is ach8eved then I will be rolling and using your Just In TIme method after that.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on February 11, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      Research prompts scenes that make it into my writing, too, David. I often think that reality brings up actions that are even more interesting than I could dream up. As a non-fiction writer first, I find comfort in knowing what the reality was before I launch into fiction. So it works both ways for me.

      I read that Sara Gruen who wrote Water For Elephants did all kinds of reading about circuses of the era, took all the craziest things she read about and turned them into her best selling novel. But my guess is she had the over arching story in mind already – as you’re doing with your book.

      Good luck and be sure to let us know how it goes!

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