A post from a fellow writer on research got me to thinking about, well, research. Since I promised more content this week, I truncated the huge comment I was writing on her blog and figured I’d do my own post about it.
What I’ve come to conclude is that there are two types of research: fact-based and what I’ve decided to call knowledge-based.
Fact-based research is something you can look up with a Google or Wikipedia search. To use an example from my current project, which is more common: a tequila shot plus lime or a tequila shot plus lemon?¹ The most research of this kind I ever had to do was for Tea. And boy did I do a ton of it. One of my friends who was kind enough to read that script is now terrified to accept any sort of beverage from me because of it, in fact. This sort of research is nearly always project-specific.
Knowledge-based research requires study. It’s not just a collection of facts but a synthesis of ideas. It’s “I need to study Greek mythology” instead of “What were the twelve labors of Hercules?”² The key difference here is that, while often initiated by a specific project, this research is not necessarily project-specific. Knowledge-based research often teaches us how to think in a new way. It allows us to make connections we might not have been able to see before. It provides depth to our work that mere facts cannot.
It’s very easy to get caught up in fact-based research. It’s a great way to procrastinate while still feeling productive. With all of the research I did for Tea, I probably only used a quarter of it in the actual screenplay. Attention to detail is important, but we also get the benefit of a little dramatic license most of the time. There are some exceptions to this rule, but generally don’t be afraid to cut yourself a little slack on naming that part of the castle just right.³ Sometimes it’s easier just to describe what you’re trying to talk about rather than spending six hours finding the correct name for it. Chances are the description will mean more to your audience than the word will anyway.
As for knowledge-based research, I’m not sure a person can do enough of this. One of the first pieces of advice given to most writers is to read, read and read some more. Any time you read a book or watch a movie (or even read news articles and commentary), you’re increasing your knowledge on how to tell a story. Any time you tackle a subject beyond just the mere facts, you’re changing how your brain synthesizes material. And that will help you on your current, past and future projects. Beyond that, there’s a good chance it’ll help you outside of your writing life as well.
So, while fact-based research is obviously necessary and important, knowledge-based research has a much farther-reaching effect. Make sure you’re making time for both.
² Wiki says, “Slay the lion, slay the hydra, capture the stag, capture the boar, clean the stables, slay the birds, capture the bull, steal the mares, obtain the girdle, obtain the cattle, steal the apples, and capture Cerberus.”