First Draft and the Pitfalls of Research

Last night I fought with swords, drank beer, found anti-freeze for my doctor friend who had to drive back to Fife around midnight, and before all that, completed the first draft of Project A!

It’s only the first draft, alas. So the choreography is there, but there are arcs to fill out and minor research niggles to stamp on.

Where did the time go?

Looking back,the time has panned out thus:

  • 1 week research
  • 1 week chapter-level outlining and research to support the same.
  • 4 weeks writing

Since the draft now stands at 25K words, this gives me the rather abysmal daily average of 1.5K.

What went “wrong”?

Historical research!

Historical research is what went wrong – remember this is a historical adventure story.

Typical example; my hero had to infiltrate the enemy manor house. I needed both the (1) manor house, and a (2) sense of when he could do it.

The manor house I could have/should have done during Chapter-Level Outlining & Research. The timing for the infiltration, well we’ll come to that.

The way it went was thus: Sneak in during a feast, I thought. An hour into  drafting I had this nagging feeling that feasts didn’t necessarily happen at night, and I hit the books, and that took an hour or so and – guess what? – the main meal of the day in the Later Middle Ages kicked off around 11am.

So much for blundering around in the dark! So much for the atmospherics woven into the morning’s work! So much for a couple of hours of my time – because I acquired that knowledge in a profoundly inefficient way.

The Problem with ad hoc historical research

Though it’s true that the volume(?) of knowledge required to write any given Historical Adventure is a constant, ad hoc research is the worst way to acquire it.

Ad hoc – by which I mean, “when you drop everything and do it” – research sucks because it sucks up time. It’s profoundly inefficient.

There are three main reasons for this:

Zone Overhead

A long time ago, back when I cared about my career in IT, a good friend lent me a copy of “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams“. It’s one of those wise books written by grownups who aren’t just posturing or minting buzzwords. The most useful concept was that knowledge workers need to be “in the zone” in order to do what we do, and that it takes 15 minutes to get there.

So if you ring my doorbell, you just killed (time getting rid of you) + 15 minutes of my working day.

(Aside: I used to work for a company where the senior staff were always vanishing and wouldn’t carry phones or pagers.  The admin people would winkle them out by hitting a button that turned ALL our phones into a PA system:


Say the total cost of employment for the company is roughly the yearly rate with the K knocked off. The average engineer salary was probably £30K and about 40 engineers worked in the office at any one time. So each use of the PA system cost the company… 30 x 40 x 0.25… £300!!!

Given this happened about once a week, they could have hired an extra admin assistant  whose main job was to wear sneakers and be prepared to track down the managers in the warren of desks and gadgets.)

It follows that switching between writing prose and researching costs 15 minutes, and switching back, the same again. Right away, the research is costing 30 minutes per episode.

Do that twice that’s an hour down the toilet!

Practical Overhead

Hitting the books means actually locating the damn books in the first place, finding space to open them, and then to clear them away at the end. Add an average of 5 minutes.

Orientation Overhead

Plunging into an aspect of the Medieval World… it takes time to orientate yourself. Suddenly you’re reading about domestic live and you have to recall or assimilate basic knowledge, remember where stuff is.

Add 1o minutes.

So ad hoc research sucks!

It follows that switching to and from research has an overhead of 45 minutes not counting the actual research time. Forget advice like giving up social media or fighting “resistance”! Research is the problem!

Solution to the research problem?

To an extent, this is just the way things are if you write Historical Fiction.

However, two strategies suggest themselves:

  1. Be more thorough during the Outlining and Research phase – If there’s a manor house, damn well research it.
  2. Where the outline has changed, take time out to revisit research –  Good stories grow with the telling, and the undrafted portion of the outline flaps around like a dragon standard in the wind. When this happens, it’s probably worth taking time out to (re)outline the next couple of chapters in detail so as to nail the research in a single session.

What’s next?


What’s next?

I’ve got about two weeks to produce a readable draft. This means revisiting the character arcs and nailing them down in pleasing ways, incidentally adding 10K to the length. It also means putting in the atmospherics, which means fixing on a date and season, and specific locations.

Only once I’ve handed the readable draft to my editor will I then worry about final research niggles, e.g. correct modes of address (Master or Sir or Lord or Madam or  Lady?), correct costume for a given social class and so on.

Wish me good fortune!


Writer. Swordsman. CLICK TO SEE MY BOOKS !

Posted in Project A, Work In Progress, Writing Tagged with:
6 comments on “First Draft and the Pitfalls of Research
  1. Douglas says:

    Of course, all this is why so many authors produce more than one work set in the same period: you only need to find out once how a baron addresses their servant and what each of them would wear on a typical day, and so on. You will then only need to address things that you encounter for the first time in the story you are writing, like were any crops harvested in November?
    And you already have a head start – you already know a fair bit about what sort of weapons they used, and indeed what these weapons flet like and how people moved to use them.

    In other words, research may have hurt for this first book, but it should get easier!


  2. My thoughts are more like: When do you stop researching?

    When do you just go “Enough of that, nobody will care if I am a bit out” and get on with the plot?

    Bit different for a Fantasy as opposed to your Historical fiction I think.

    • mharoldpage says:

      Interesting question.

      The immediate practical reason is it’s more fun to get it approximately correct, and if I’m having fun the writing flows better. (Creativity is annoying because, thanks to brain architecture, it quite genuinely requires managing.)

      Beyond that…

      There’s the issue that everything you write is “cannon” for your story world. Take the timing of the feast – it’s trivial *this time*. However, I have a feeling a future book will be set in a garrison, and the rhythm of the day will become important. Similarly, if I get the accuracy and range of handguns or bows wrong this time, no worries. But then real actual recorded battles might make no sense. Worse, I’ll end up having to track divergences from reality!

      Finally, some people DO care. I’m writing in an era beloved of all kinds of history geeks and I would rather not be caught with my hose around my ankles.

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