Researching research?

This time last year I started work on a rather epic novel based on Greek mythology. Well, I started the research for it. Research, as it turns out, is really hard, and incredibly addictive.

Before I started I thought I knew a lot about mythology. And compared to Joe Bloggs I guess I did. I knew all the famous stories, I knew the culture, the geography, the writing of the time, and, thanks to a first year humanities class in Ancient Greek, I knew a little of the language.

But when I actually sat down to work on the book I realised how much I didn’t know. There was only so much that could be gleaned from story books and Wikipedia. So it was back to work for me. Books, papers, journals, stories, other people theses and discussions. I talked to historians and scholars and I exhausted every library within a fifty mile radius. And the result? Well, I didn’t know as much about Greek mythology as I thought I did.

In total I spent three months researching that book, making complicated diagrams and charts showing the complex relationships between humans and gods. I had a white board chronicling the Titanomancy and detailing the new world order. I had profiles of gods and demi-gods, and pictures I scanned from text books pinned to the walls and I taught my three year old daughter to recite Homer.

I immersed myself in the research to the extent that I got lost in it.

And that’s where I spent three months of my life, floundering lost in something. It got to the stage where I knew the history inside out, I could answer any question you could throw at me, I knew all about the food, the weather, the clothes, the poems, the stories and the people.

But I forgot what MY story was.

The dangers of research come to life. I knew from my university days how easy it is to get caught up in research, but I had never before lost track of my story through researching. But there I was, it was almost April and I didn’t know why I wanted to write the story in the first place.

I couldn’t face going into the study, where Post-It notes covered my computer screen and the desk was littered with books and paper. I just wanted to curl up on the sofa with a copy of the Daily Mail and forget all about the book.

I had managed to sicken myself off the book.

What it took in the end was a break of a couple of weeks, and a ruthless stripping down of the plot I wanted to cover. The problem with Greek mythology is that the stories overlap so much that my hero turned out to be in three places at once, and I was never actually sure how old he really was.

So I made a list of all the plot points that were essential to his story, and then I wrote them out in a list. All 124 of them.

Already I could see a problem. It was just so…jumbled.

Never mind, I thought, and I sat down with a pair of craft scissors and some determination. One plot point per piece of paper and a lot of Blu Tack. I remember sitting at my parents dining room table, having carried all of my notes there to escape my own house, and sticking the pieces of paper down in something that looked like a sensible order.

It took all afternoon, half a jar of coffee and a fair bit of crying before I had something that looked like a plot. I painstakingly copied the list out by hand and promptly photocopied it. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing the list and perhaps having to start again. My folks weren’t too pleased with the state of the table, but I didn’t care. I had my list, and that was all that mattered.

After that I was able to sit down and, over the course of the next two weeks, write the book. The reason I was able to write it so quickly at that stage was down to the fact that I had done the research and knew what I wanted to cover, and once I had my plot figured out, it grew legs of it’s own.

It’s now a year on and I’m looking at that draft and trying to convince myself that I want to rewrite it before I start on the next one, but I’m afraid that I’ve forgotten most of the research I did. It’s been wiped from my brain in a wave of PNDS (Post-novel stress syndrome) and the thought of coming back to it again makes me feel physically sick.

But back to it I must go. This time, however, I’m going to go lighter on the research in an effort to save what is left of my sanity.


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