It is perhaps ironic that after writing a novel set in the desert of northern India, I now liken the research process to learning to swim. But here it is: moving through the ocean of information with mastery is like being a scuba diver, aware of your depth and your air supply and the location of the shore, accepting the power of the water and the currents, but having the confidence to immerse yourself in observation, to follow an intriguing trail of bubbles to an unexpected coral head. There, in that fine balance of mastery and deference, of the planned and the unexpected, lies the pure joy of researching your setting. But from standing safely on the shore contemplating the allure of the water to reaching this almost magical moment of gliding with control involves many stages, some of them very difficult, all of them necessary.
After taking the plunge, you realize the power of the water, the immensity of the ocean, and your own insignificance. You flail, assailed with doubts. Even once you manage to tread water and keep your head clear you realize you are expending a lot of energy and going nowhere. This is the crucial moment. You can give up, holler for someone to haul you out, or you can give it your all. Once you manage an inelegant doggy paddle, propelling yourself with purpose, hope and self-confidence emerge and you can look forward to refining your stroke and, eventually, diving for details with the knowledge that you can and will resurface, perhaps not exactly where or when you expected, but always enriched by the experience.
Here are the stages, and recognizing them each can be helpful.
Contemplating the allure of the water from the safety of land: Little bits of a story idea, of a different world, have landed on you, like droplets of water, on a summer day, leaving you wanting more. The water shimmers, entices. It is hot out, prickly hot, and the surface calls to you. The clouds are reflected in it, undulating slightly; it doesn’t look that deep. How refreshing it would be to take a dip, to immerse yourself in this other world. You’ve heard there is a whole universe under there: coral and colorful fish and strange anemones with scarlet tentacles. A pelican dives in, head first, and emerges with a fish. Other people make it look so easy, gliding through, cutting the surface with their arms. And fun! Splashing around, laughing. Standing on their heads, their feet waving, and then toppling. Some of them wear snorkel masks, and you wonder what they see. You want to see it, too.
Realizing the power of the water: You take the plunge. You launch yourself into, say, nineteenth century India. Immediately, you are overwhelmed. There is such a vast immensity of information available. Gasping, coughing, you gulp some of it down. You reach out and try to grab at anything you can hold onto. You read everything, or try to. You jot down a lot of facts, many of which you know you’ll never use, but you don’t yet know which ones those are, and you suspect the ones you don’t bother to record are the ones that will be critical to your story. History, politics, journals and diaries, newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, books on daily life, architecture, food and customs, sweeping summaries and minute details alike. They all swirl around you. You enter search terms willy-nilly into Google and Google Books, Amazon, Wikipedia, local library catalogs. You feel hopeless, yet determined. You flail. The more you read, the less you feel you are qualified, authorized, to write this story. But you have to fight the pull of the current. This is a test. Will you give up, be knocked about by the waves, and emerge bruised and dejected, or will you find a foothold and prevail, strengthened by the understanding that you are not in full control?
Treading water: After a while, you get the hang of keeping your head above water. You maintain the shoreline in sight, remember what this is all about. You manage to control your arm and leg movements. Vague story elements start to form. Not just India, but the city of Lucknow. The courtesan and merchant quarters. Not just the nineteenth century, but the years just before and just after the Great Rebellion. You manage to look down into the water and catch sight of identifiable shapes: a clump of rock, a tuft of sea grass. Some of your characters start to come into focus, and this helps dictate the specific settings for your story. You don’t yet see the details, but you begin to imagine them. You go from “he’s an artist” to “he’s a musician” to “he’s a sarangi player.” You are able to eliminate some of the sources for being irrelevant, and to replace them with others, which you now know will be highly relevant. You organize the resources and the research and you make lists. Many lists.
Doggy paddle: Now you are actually making forward progress. The plot starts to form. Getting from Point A to Point B. This is the exciting part, where you realize you are not only staying afloat, but you are swimming! It may be a basic form of locomotion, low on the totem pole of swim strokes, with a silly name, but it is a bona fide style. And now the development of the story feeds the research, and vice versa. You have direction. Instead of researching all festivals and religious celebrations of the time and place, you zero in on the specific one that will feature in your story, the one during which the betrayal, or the discovery, or the moment of forgiveness will happen. Instead of researching all forms of architecture and buildings, you picture and describe the specific ones your characters inhabit. You study maps, learn the layout of the setting. Now you know that it would take a good thirty minutes to walk from your main character’s home to La Martinière, the boys’ school across the river. Now you know that the shore is not that far away, and that you can keep up this doggy paddle thing for quite a while.
Front crawl: You hit your stride. You control when you come up for air. You cut through the water with purpose. You outline your scenes, and start writing some. Now you get into serious specifics. Someone is growing flowers on the roof. You look up exactly the types of flowers likely to be growing there, and the birds that will peck at the seeds. You imagine a specific meal, the food on the dishes, how it smells. You picture what your characters are wearing, feel the fabric, choose the colors. You go from “some European shopkeepers in Lucknow took orders for frivolous objects for their customers” to “Monsieur Carnonge insisted that a cucumber slicer be acquired for him from the latest shipment of European goods that had arrived that morning from Cawnpore by hackery.”
Scuba diving: This is it. You have your tank of air strapped onto your back, and you immerse yourself in this new world. You are no longer overwhelmed by its vast immensity, by the multitudes of lives teeming below you. You know how to navigate it. Now you can take your time, float a while, seek out nuggets of fact or possibility that others unfamiliar with the terrain would miss. There, in that clump of rocks, there is a crevice that you now know is likely to hide an octopus. (What? An octopus in Lucknow?!) You dive down and hover, peering in, slowing your fins, controlling your bubbles, watching, and you are rewarded by a pulpy display of tentative tentacles. Hello, you say in your head, and you smile—insofar as you can do so with your lips stretched around the regulator—delighted with your discovery. Momentary euphoria.
Until you have your first draft critiqued.