There are definitely plenty of things a writer needs to know before she starts to write her book. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum; they have occupations and homes and families and histories and nationalities and all number of things we need to know to make them three-dimensional and bring realism to the story.
My December book, Her Colorado Man, is set just outside a town I’ve used in a previous story. Once I’ve done all the work for a setting, it only makes sense to get some mileage out of it. Colorado is a common setting for me. I own picture books, reference books and maps as well as books on plants and animals. I had another reason for the location, other than its convenience, however: I made my heroine part of a large German family who own a brewery, so I had to select a location to support the operation. The cold-water streams that flow from the mountains were perfect.
And then I had to know enough about brewing beer to decide which method they used and why, and which year would be workable. I chose a year when bottling was first being introduced and also a year that there was a huge Exposition in Denver. So my actual location and the brewery are fabricated, but everything about the people and production and operation and the time period are factual. Keeping facts as close to real as possible makes the reader believe.
I also had to know something about my hero who comes to this town from Alaska, where he’s been delivering mail between tent towns and postal stations. That research was probably the most difficult, because all the facts easily found about Juneau and the Yukon pertain to the gold rush, which didn’t happen until after my time period. So that part of my education took more searching.
So besides looking up breweries, their operation and types of brewing methods before I started, I searched for information on sled dogs, Alaskan temperatures, modes of travel and traditional Bavarian foods. I ended up with a binder full of facts and pictures. Sometimes I have to make an additional folder on one subject, like say liveries or beer making. In my opinion, you can’t ever know too much about your location or your topic or the cultures of your people.
Confession: I’m a paper person. I’ve learned to use PBWiki, personal online storage, but even though I have that ability and I’ve bookmarker the online information, I still want to be able to flip through my binder and put my finger on that list of names I was going to use. I need to see the paragraph about the competitive advantages of lager brewing over ale. That’s just me. If you are a writer, maybe you’ve got a smarter way to store your research, and if so, I applaud you. The important thing is that your method works for you, and you’re not losing writing time searching for something you’ve lost.
Now just because I have all that info doesn’t mean I will ever need to or that I ever should use it all. A writer knows far more about her subjects than she should ever use in a story. But she needs to know it, because if she didn’t, she’d make mistakes. I have many writer friends who love the research part so much that it takes on a life of its own. Once they start, they can’t stop.
Here’s how to know when to quit researching: If your study is cutting into your production, you’re researching too much. If you get caught up in the fact-finding and aren’t tallying a page count, you’re doing too much research. If you’re not putting words on pages, you’re avoiding writing. Give your study a rest and write the story. You can learn the rest of the details as you need them. I learn enough to get started and then I begin. When I get to something I don’t know, I simply google the subject. If I’m on a roll and need to know something, I leave an asterisk and come back to it after the muse is burned out for the day.
So, yes there is a lot a writer needs to know, but the wise writer knows when to call a halt get down to business.