Early this year, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts launched its interview series, In Conversation, with Benedict Cumberbatch. (Good choice!) Something he said about how he researches a new role struck a chord with me:
[Research is] a security blanket. Not all of it — very little of it ends up on screen, often. And it’s just to take a little bit more possession of the extraordinariness of what I’m being asked to do. Because it’s so far removed from my experience. It just gets me a little bit more… It just gives me a little bit more courage to pretend to be something I’m so far from.
[Watch the quoted clip, or the whole interview, here. Video will play automatically in a new window.]
I literally couldn’t have said it better, because I’m not Benedict Cumberbatch! But I feel the same way about novel research. Obviously, before you start writing about something you don’t know much about, like say computer hacking — the topic of my next book, The Silence of Six — you have to find out more about it. But the tricky thing about research is you don’t necessarily know what information you will need before you start outlining or writing the book. The natural solution is to learn everything you can, just like Sherlock, but as Cumberbatch said so sexily: most of that isn’t going to end up on the page, and it shouldn’t.
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One of my favorite parts of writing happens when I’m not writing. You know, those moments during the day when you’re thinking about, maybe even dreaming about, the story or the characters in your work in progress. I love brainstorming, whether it’s my own book or someone else’s work, because there’s a sense of play to it; you aren’t committing anything to paper yet, so it doesn’t take much work. (It also may not feel like work, so you might worry you’re just procrastinating, but trust me, it’s useful.) You can feel free to be as goofy or wild as you want–you’re just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. And it’s cool because you’re working on your book anywhere and everywhere: in the shower, walking your dog, on line at the bank, riding the train, reading other books, watching TV, in meetings at work. A little part of my brain never stops thinking about my novel.
I can’t speak to every writer’s experience, but this is how my imagination works. The more I think about the story, the more ideas I have. Often, my subconscious mind makes connections that needed days, weeks, or months to develop. Initially, I avoided outlining because I wanted to give myself as much of that flexibility as possible to discover the story and let it develop organically, but I’ve since realized that outlining can also get you thinking about the whole thing much earlier, and there’s nothing limiting about it–it’s just one path, and you can take the story in different directions any time a better idea presents itself. I like research for the same reason; all that reading feeds me more ideas and opens up new possibilities.
So this book I’m working on… It started with a lot of brainstorming and outlining, then I started drafting it and inevitably veered off from the outline a bit. I got some great notes from my editors, and I just completed the first major revision—a few hours ago. As I tried to re-imagine the plot and characters and come up with a better ending, the whole process reminded me of something very old, something from my childhood: Choose Your Own Adventure.
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