Using Research to Get Past Writer’s Block

I love telling stories that sweep around the world to exotic locations.  I can indulge my fantasies about travel — an ancestor of mine traveled across the Sahara by car when she was a young woman, unmarried, and I’ve always envied her spirited zest for life.  Perhaps that’s why I became a writer.  I can invent people I’d like to meet and imagine experiences I’ll never have…like immortal beings and the idea of past lives.

In every story, though, the narrative can stall with the “what now” question, when everything grinds to a halt. Here are a few research tricks that I use to get my plot moving.

  1.  Where is the action taking place?  Why select this location in the first place?  Were you intrigued, or was it convenient? Research again as a tourist. Follow random points of interest.   Travel blogs are a great resource — I learned that a certain hotel in Europe was so close to the church, sleep became impossible — because the bells rang every fifteen minutes. And the location for book two in my Calata Series came from a friend on Facebook, who was continuously posting photos.
  2. What talents do your characters need?  My heroine needed to fight, but since she’s mortal, she couldn’t be slamming invisible powers against her enemies.  But neither did I want her relying on the usual “go-to styles” for my genre. The resulting research improved the story in an entertaining way, explaining a detail in the backstory on the warriors, was well.
  3. Read other genres. Read as research. It’s easier to see the technique in action when reading a genre you don’t love.  Explore ways to work with pacing, complications, and ask questions about the pinch points and plot structure.  Are you stalled because of a pinch point?  A motivation you haven’t fully explained?  So much backstory you fell asleep? I’ve made these mistakes and more, and fortunately my intuition halts me before I blunder on with another five thousand words.  We call it “writer’s block,” but it’s more like the Muse hiding the recharging cord for your laptop.  You have to find it before you can write again.
  4. Research the conventions of your genre. I like to write a genre blend of paranormal romance and action thriller.  It’s easy to lose sight of which genre should dominate at points within the story, but readers expect certain emotional cues and satisfactions.  If you don’t provide them, the story falls flat.  In a recent manuscript, my editor pointed out that two big events had happened off screen and she’d felt disappointed.  It was an easy fix, but I should have realized that both scenes were an important convention of the action theme and I’d been so focused on other elements I missed it.
  5. What are the rules of your world?  If you are writing paranormal stories, like I am, you get to make the rules, and sometimes just making those rules can be a stumbling block.  But do you know how many historically recorded origin myths there are out there?  Every culture has their unique world view.  You can find plenty of logical explanations for fantastical abilities, so why not borrow a few and use them to move your plot twists along?
  6. Just write. Writing is often a process to get closer to what you want to say.  I’m an avid researcher, and I have stacks of yellow legal pads, covered with hand-written notes, character descriptions, sections of dialogue, and notes to remind myself to review notes I made somewhere else.  But you can get stuck if you write to too many masters.  Take a breath.  Go outside at night and write by candlelight.  Imagine your story while you’re taking a shower.  Talk to your characters in the grocery store (this can earn you a few weird looks), then write until you know know what you want to say, and polish it up later.

Sue Wilder is the pen name for an author living in the Pacific Northwest.  She lives with her husband, and a yellow lab named Bella, both of whom listen to every idea without falling asleep.  Although, Bella is thirteen-years-old, now, so sometimes it’s hard to tell if she’s listening or sleeping.

The Darkness in Dreams, Calata Series Book One, is due out in 2018.

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Sue Wilder lives in the Pacific Northwest. She first discovered the power of story as a child living in California, when she was caught starting a grapefruit war in a neighboring orchard. Through an imaginative explanation, she managed to absolve all her cohorts from guilt, and has since moderated her behavior. She now writes romantic paranormal fiction for a more mature adult audience.

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