Pantsing the Research

I am a pantser. This is not to say that I gleefully jerk the shorts off my story leaving it standing there confused and vulnerable to the giggles of the crowd. No, instead that refers to flying by the seat of one’s pants, the point of contact between pilot and plane, the fundamental sensation of vibrations that will mean life and death to correct interpretation and translation to movement of the plane of travel. Over a mountain rather than into it, shall we say.

When writing, the corrections are not nearly as vital to me, but if I play them wrong, they can kill the story. So I have to constantly be aware of where I’ve been, and trying to figure out where I’m going. With the current work in progress this has been a slow journey, and the result is going to be a work that needs a LOT of editing. For instance, when I started it, I had a nebulous idea, which evolved into another idea, which in turn became… what it is now. I’m hoping, that at half-through the book, it doesn’t morph on me again. I have a pretty good idea of the plot from here to an end, which isn’t the originally planned end.

Last night, as I started writing again after a vacation break (4 days, 1800 miles, no real internet while driving), I asked my First Reader to take a look at the last chapter or two I’d done, because he’s often helpful in catching my ‘mental shorthand’ where I haven’t fully unpacked an idea onto the page. I took the laptop into the backyard to write, and he came wandering out soon after, to sit down and tell me that I was going to have to go back a chapter and make some major edits.

The gist of the story that I’m working on is a young man (age unknown) on a trading ship, sailing through the stars from planets or stations, and selling goods to them. His ship is large enough he can actually transport livestock, and one cargo hold has been permanently transformed into a garden. Last night, the First Reader pointed out that it’s like a South Sea schooner, in that he’s locked into this route, and to deviate from it would be essentially to sail against the wind. I looked up at him and said ‘I’m going to need to read more about that…”

So here I am, looking at researching while pantsing. I’d done some as I was working on the beginning of the book, but as I didn’t really know what was coming, I couldn’t do a lot… and I’m going to have to stop and do some reading now. Or keep writing ahead on what I know about the story, while reading so I can go back and fix the mess I made of the last bit. See, I have the young captain – who has been sailing alone, except for his dog – mildly incapacitated and in a gesture of thankfulness for his services in a search and rescue, the station he was on came aboard and cleaned and refurbished his ship. The First Reader pointed out that not only was that like his private home and place of business being invaded, but it could have legal repercussions, too. We discussed what I need to do to fix it (and I was writing in mental shorthand, so I didn’t put enough of the young captain’s outrage of feelings on paper to begin with).

Would having left this miscalculation in have killed the story? I’m not sure. I suspect many readers would simply have thought ‘how nice’ when they read the scene. But some would have winced over the invasion of the ship by even well-meaning helpful sorts. Now that I’m aware of it, I cannot simply leave it in place. I try to be a better writer than that. Actually, going back and fixing it will foreshadow the next development in my captain’s life: the need for a crew. The mental shorthand I have the (very bad) habit of doing tends to get in the way of foreshadowing properly, so this is a good thing. Even though I find myself annoyed at the need to go back and edit, it will make it a better story in the long run.

I’m very conscious of hard deadlines with this book. Since I depend on my writing income, I must finish, send to editors, and publish this novel as soon as humanly possible. Which means that I’m going to research, keep writing, and resign myself to backtracking and inserting when needed.  I’ve always written clean manuscripts that needed relatively little to make them ready for public consumption, and this one being so messy feels like a step backward. I’m trying to persuade myself it’s part of my learning curve as an author. I have a long way to go yet, and I’ll probably always be learning as I do so. But I can’t let it stop me from writing!

If you’re curious and want to read snippets, you can find Tanager’s Fledglings on my site, here. It is my first real attempt to write science fiction at novel length since The Eternity Symbiote, which was my first written novel (Vulcan’s Kittens was the first published). I am hopeful that I’ve become a better writer since that. My first love for writing was science fiction, the fantasy was sort of an accident, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the reactions are to this series.

Anyone know any good books on South Sea Traders?




51 responses to “Pantsing the Research

  1. Not about the South Sea traders per se. Dad’s the sail buff (grew up sailing). I’m . . . I’m waiting for the corrections to hit after the next two Colplatschki books.

    I do feel your pain about researching while pantsing. I’m wading through a book about slavery in Muscovy (Russia between 1300ish and 1760 or so) that I had never intended to look at. But I need it so readers can make sense of something, and to build a more cohesive world. I can see series readers getting to the book and SCREEECH thump. “Wait, slaves on Colplatschki? Among the followers of Godown?!?” Yeah, and there’s a reason, but the author had better explain that reason or . . .

    • Yes, I’ve done that in a book and insufficiently explained what I was doing… LOL. Found out about that recently.

      It slows down the process but I think it makes a better story in the end. And the book sounds interesting (although I really don’t think I *need* to read it!).

    • You’ve probably seen it but this is a good one for Russia in the middle 1500s. It’s not specific to slavery, but it mentions how they ‘should’ be integrated into the household and what duties the owner has to the slave. (Such as if you do not find a suitable spouse for your slave you are to set them free because you have failed them.) I’ve got both the Russian and the English versions and that translation is good.

  2. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Thanks to a prod from a friend, I find myself in unfamiliar territory: writing a Young Adult fairy story. I’m pantsing it, dictating morning and night. A few days in, I discovered that the protagonist’s elderly neighbor is a Polish immigrant who is steeped in fairy lore. POLISH fairy lore. Of which I know none. So off to Amazon I go, buying eBooks of Polish folk tales.

    What I love about this is the research usually redirects the story. I learn something that can’t be ignored, and so I have to explore how it changes the outcome.

    • I’ve done this – most recently with Russian Fairy Tales, which I thought I knew fairly well until I started digging into Andrew Lang’s books. And I need to finish the book of Ainu tales. But those are for the book I’ll write after this one! Polish tales might be very interesting…

  3. Draven

    Meanwhile, my simple ‘file the serial numbers off’ has me rereading the papers on Alcubierre warp drives and designing TO&E for a fleet and her marine complement…

      • Draven

        was simple when i started!

        • Always is… I got back to “THE NOVEL” after almost two months on finally getting everything else started up – and I really, truly thought I was much further along on the background. Ugh. This is going to be clean up week for where I “just dropped stuff wherever I was” (kind of like the family with their belongings in the house). I’m definitely not a “pantser,” but seem to end up going backwards half the time, too.

          At least the first chapter doesn’t need much more since I halfway promised a snippet this week (yes, only two followers on my blog so far, so what?). Plus the rocket fuel cookie recipe and blog roll maintenance that keeps rolling forward with the daily list.

          Aaargh! Didn’t mean to whine all over the clubhouse. I really AM mostly enjoying this…

  4. So . . .

    If I’m not thinking things through, am I underpantsing?

    And if I’m pantsing a legal novel, am I dealing with briefs?


  5. Took me a while to find it, I had the PDF version squirreled away somewhere, I knew.

    I’m not remembering how much it really has about south seas traders, but I read this many, many years ago. Kindled version free at Amazon:

    Yes, the author of Treasure Island. Might at least provide some “color.”

  6. The think about discovery writing (I hate the term “pantsing”) is that it allows me to incorporate the serendipitous.

    Many of the locations and characters in my books have been inspired by day trips that my roommate and I have taken to obscure local attractions. (We share a passion for weird little museums like the Vacuum Cleaner Museum and the Independent Telephone Operators Museum–both real places within a few hours of St. Louis.)

    I begin a novel with two endpoints in mind (although the end often drifts during the course of writing the story) and what I call the rhythm of the story. I am much more concerned with the structure of the book than the events that occur during it.

    So, for example, in “Cannibal Hearts” I knew that the book’s structure would be about the characters building a community while being attacked from the outside by an increasing series of threats. (Think one of those “Tower Defense” style RTS games where the focus is on managing resources in order to stop waves of enemies.)

    However, I didn’t know what they would be building in a physical sense until my roommate and I took a trip and I spent some time checking out the nuts and bolts of a local riverboat casino. (No doubt security was checking me out since I wasn’t gambling and looking around at the fire sprinklers and such.)

    Once I had that piece, the rest of the book fell into place around it. But I don’t think I could have used the central conceit of a riverboat until I was comfortable with the initial grounding of the character’s relationships.

    I tend to do the plotting and the writing and the editing all at once. I start at the beginning and go straight through to the end and I don’t do drafts–when I get to the end I’ve already done all the rewriting that I am going to do. It makes for a very slow process (each of my novels took right around a year to write) but when it’s done, it’s done.

  7. Christopher M. Chupik

    Serendipity is very useful. With the story I sold to James Reasoner — “Graveyard Orbit” — the title was a piece of terminology I discovered while revisiting my research during the revision process. And I’m always squirreling away tidbits for use in other projects.

  8. Max

    Even if your pantsing a book, every author should be humble enough when reaching a topic to know “I don’t know what I’m talking about” and go do some research.

    And not just a quick google search summary read. I read a story the other day that had done just that, talking about the protagonist playing Megaman 2 on their gameboy and struggling to beat Skull Man’s stage with a friend. Except …

    —There was a Game Boy version of Mega Man 2, but it didn’t have Skull Man (that was a boss from later in the series), and worst of all …
    —There IS NO CO-OP in the series! Especially not on Game Boy.

    The author had done no real research. The story, which was going downhill already, shattered with that.

    I’ve run into this again and again. I recall a writing group I was in where one writer was attempting to write a story that revolved around military sci-fi conquest and had done no research into the subject matter. As a result, a sci-fi army was using tactics out of pre-middle ages war strategy (which no longer works with guns, much less spaceships) and, to top it off, the elite shock troops of their empire wore solid black body armor with only one bit of color: A red circle logo over the center of their chest and in the center of their foreheads. That author was very upset when I pointed out that he’d basically given them a target mark in the center of their mass and ignored the basics of camouflage, and spent the rest of the time their sulking because “we just didn’t understand.”

    Pantsing or planning, no author should ever assume that just because they know some passing information on a topic, they know enough to write a book on it. Always, always do the research. Even authors who have worked a career their entire life can make an error when writing about it—forgetting a small part of an everyday menial task that was second-nature, or glossing over something less exciting but no less vital in favor of the exciting moments.

    Always do the research. Always. Or risk being that author that anyone with a passing knowledge of the topic drops.

    • I suspect that some authors don’t care if anyone with a passing knowledge of particular topics drops them, because they have no intention of selling books to anyone who knows such things. They don’t know anyone who has ever fired a gun, or rewired a building, or been in the US Central Time Zone longer than it takes to change planes in DFW or O’Hare. The important people, the “right” people will swallow whatever nonsense they foist on them, as long as they get names of the streets in Fire or Lido Island right.

      I remember giving notes to one author who had a scene set in St. Louis and I explained that the St. Louis is not a small town on a prairie, but is actually a fairly large metropolitan area built around the confluence of two major rivers. I was told that I was nitpicking, and that “people don’t care about those kinds of details.”

      Well, maybe except for the people who have lived in that town.

      • Max

        Wow. That is deliberate ignorance raising its ugly head. I hope the reviews smeared that book for it.

        There’s an element of fiction to all we do, but that doesn’t mean we can just make up whatever we want. Fake street names or places are one thing, but to completely rewrite a real place when pretending to be authentic? That’s a failure on the author’s part.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          Well, it’s possible that the idiot didn’t know anything about St. Louis and didn’t care about what St. Louis was like.

          • In this particular case I don’t think the book will ever be published, for a lot of reasons. But his attitude was clear–LA and New York are real places. Everywhere else is an unimportant detail. He had an image of “the Midwest” and picked a town at random of the map.

            Everyone in circle of friends had the same idea of the middle of the country being a big flat place full of dumb people, so they validated his work. It fit their preconceptions.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Who was the author (so I can avoid his books).

      • LOL! I never lived in St Louis, but I did go there once. On the east you have farmland surrounding occasional oil wells, and once you drove through the city and the adjacent towns, you had more fields and even a casino by the Missouri. Corn and soybeans were the crops that trip, and one morning there were tractors coming along the roads. And if you crossed the Missouri into St. Charles, you found a section of the town that looked like it was lifted from France.

        Oddly though, those adjacent towns can have a smallish town feel. We found a shopping center in one that wouldn’t have been out of place in a smaller town, and we ended up taking our meals at the restaurants there.

        I think if I read a book describing St. Louis as small and set in the plains, I would have laughed and set it aside, the suspension of disbelief completely broken. Especially if it was set near the Gateway Arch and didn’t mention some of the run-down areas nearby.

        • St. Louis is an oddity as a metro area. It started as a number of small towns which then grew until they combined, rather than starting with a central city expanding outward. Consequently there are 80-something principalities. At one point I remember hearing that there were 88 separate police departments in St. Louis County. (Since then, many of the townships have dissolved their police forces and pay the County PD for coverage.)

          To make things more interesting, St. Louis City is not part of St. Louis County. In a lot of ways the area still operates as whole bunch of small towns smooshed together. Which I enjoy–I have the comfort and quiet of small town life while being a 15 minute drive from the city proper.

          But every place is going to have its own peculiarities. I think that “write what you know” applies more to locations than maybe anything else. Stephen King has written about 800 books set in rural New England and his setting is very real, even to those of us who have never been there. The same with John Grisham’s Memphis and Dave Barry’s Miami.

          I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to set a story in a place you’ve never lived (I mean, a lot of us write Science Fiction and I don’t think any of us have lived on Mars) but a sense of place is important in so many ways, many of which are not immediately obvious.

      • Alan

        For “people” substitute “editors” – that author obviously doesn’t much care about the readers.

    • Mary

      The profound problem is that for just about everything in your work, there is someone who cares. Whether you put buttons on clothes too early. Whether you have them plowing at the right time. Whether you overestimate how accurately people worked with time when they didn’t have accurate clocks. Etc.

      And worse, there are those who KNOW, and are wrong, and will drop you for getting it right.

      You can only do your best.

      • Max

        Well, yes. You can’t get everything right. But there is a difference between doing your best and not trying at all, the latter of which I see far too commonly among young writers.

        I agree that it’s nigh-impossible to be 100% right. But at the same time, we can strive for getting pretty close, and a lot of young writers don’t even try, which makes for poor fiction.

      • And sometimes you can do the research and then run across people who think you’re wrong anyway. I remember reading William Goldman talking about getting complaints that the line from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, “I’ve got vision and the rest of the world is wearing bifocals” was an anachronism. He pointed out that bifocals were actually common in 19th Century America–and even earlier. Ben Franklin wore bifocals. But still people thought the line sounded wrong.

    • Research can be problematic in that you may find a reference with errors. One on the Middle Ages had enough glaring errors that it wasn’t worth finishing. Had I not been aware of contrary accounts, including archeology – and this is just passing familiarity and not in-depth study – I would have swallowed it. The other day I found a conflicting statement: first that medieval soldiers who became clergy could not perform most rites, and then it noted the military religious orders. I don’t know what to think of this, even with one of the popes elected while fighting in the crusades. This is crucial, because I have two former soldiers who became Christian priests, and one of those was a pagan assassin before he was converted.

      Well, all of it’s crucial. Such as battle scenes, which I discovered I got wrong, and here we get into the source issue again. A few minutes ago I found – and bookmarked – a source I had lost that told how what was taken as a given about warfare in the Middle Ages doesn’t hold up.

      I confess to having an error as bad as armor with targets painted on it in that one character could have has possibly carried a particular weapon as I imagined. Fortunately this leaped out at me on a reread but I completely missed it up until then.

      • The big problem with medieval canon law is that there were differences in different times and places. There were also differences in what kind of indult (exception to the rule) that you could get, and in how much people actually cared about enforcing the laws. Finally, there was the whole concept of there being priests who were fully licensed as preachers and could celebrate all the Sacraments celebrated by priests, vs priests simplex who were just barely authorized to hear Confessions.

        In general, the idea was that any priest who was going to ordained to celebrate Mass had to be at least as good a candidate for the Lord’s service as your OT-time sacrificial animal. (Just like OT Jewish priests.) So you wanted them to be whole of body (including not being a eunuch, which was a very fraught clause in the Eastern Roman Empire) and clean of hands (including a lot of local prohibitions against priests going hunting). (And if you were in an area with married priests, Father had to abstain from sex before offering Mass, as well as following all the usual sexual fasting schedules for all married people. In areas with clerical celibacy, there was an increasing feeling that a virgin priest had an easier time living up to it. Monasteries often felt this way about monks, too, but they usually didn’t discourage non-virgins taking on the monastic life.)

        So there was a lot of discussion as to whether you should ordain a guy who had ever had human blood on his hands (as opposed to hunting, which was totally normal for a layperson). And the answers that bishops came up with were quite different in different times and places, and sometimes they just ordained whoever they wanted and ignored local synods or even the body of canon law.

        So the usual game is to find out what range of things were done in your character’s home, and then pick the one you like. And if you don’t find the one you like, you can always invent That Wacky Bishop Taking a Precedent from St. Whoosis (which is the sort of thing wacky medieval bishops did do), and unleash the precedent from a totally different time and place as something in the legend of St. Whoosis.

        • Thanks. It’s toward the start of the 14th Century in a fictional kingdom, and one is a village priest who was a former soldier and who married before becoming a priest. The marriage part was unusual enough to the protagonist that they had a momentary shock, but not that he had been a soldier.

          The other was higher up in the church hierarchy, and was traveling to a specific church to become the bishop. He is unwed, a former pagan who converted to Christianity, and is ultra-observant and doesn’t like some of the things he discovers. He also is fluent in Latin and the local language, and a character is surprised to learn of his history. He also happened to have been an assassin before his conversion. It’s not a Medieval Die Hard but his past is a point of friction with the bishop he’s replacing.

          Both characters would have the issue of blood on their hands, something that did not occur to me at the time. This is falling into the trap of assuming things in the past were much the same as now, when you can have ministers who were soldiers and no one bats an eye.

    • I would say especially when it is a field in which you’re an expert, or close to one. You tend to gloss over what “everyone knows.”

      (OK, not on the little things, like Glock safeties – but I think you know what I mean…)

      • Max

        I actually screwed up on that specific one, actually. I did a bunch of research on Glocks for one of my books … only to never realize that they didn’t have a conventional safety simply because all the info I was reading considered it standard knowledge.

        Oops. It’s in line to get fixed in a later edition.

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          Anybody can make a mistake. Not everybody fixes them.

        • Almost busted my MA defense when one of the committee smiled and said, “What is the legal precedent for all this?” Oops! Dear Adviser and I both completely missed including that wee, tiny, minor detail in a thesis that depended in part on distinctions between state water laws, because we had been living and breathing the topic so much we took them for granted. Lucky for me I knew them and could cite them when asked, and you bet they got added in to the final edition. Not fiction, but another good reason for care.

  9. When I have the next set of scenes mentally mapped out but not on the page yet, I usually write down a two or three line summary of what I had in mind, so that when I come back I can either cringe in horror or pick up where I left off.

  10. I have a friend who is a musician and writes music. He told me not to be afraid of a messy manuscript, it just means you’re pushing yourself to learn new things and grow as an artist.