The dreaded curse of every writer—writer’s block! Though definitions of the term vary and its actual existence is at times hotly debated, the writing community agrees at some level that sometimes a writer is just plain stuck. Your stream of inspiration has run dry, your once-nimble fingers have grown rigid and unwieldy, the solid road along which your characters were walking has become obscured and hazy. So, what do you do?
Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike.
Berate yourself for losing your mojo.
Beg, bribe, and cajole your muse.
Fake it ‘til you make it.
Well, there are many positive ways of pushing through that rough patch that, for the sake of this post we’ll call writer’s block, but there’s one in particular that’s been immensely helpful for me. When I begin to feel uninspired, unsure, or just totally lost, I often turn to research for help. I know, that sounds boring and academic and not-at-all-inspiring. But stay with me, I’ll give you an example by way of explanation.
My novel is set in a Victorian-inspired fantasy world. Early in the process, I envisioned my protagonist and his love interest meeting in a library where he worked and she visited often (because what’s more romantic than the dusty, silent stacks, right? *sarcasm*) Anyway, I kept bumping into one wall after another until I was at a complete standstill. I just couldn’t see a way forward for these characters. I couldn’t find the right pieces of their backstory that led them to this place in time. In short, it was an unsustainable idea, propped up on a very shaky scaffolding.
And so I went back to the drawing board and did some research. I tried to find out what kinds of employment were available for men of the age and station of my protagonist in historical Victorian society. What educational background usually led up to those positions? Were they available in rural or urban areas? You get the idea. To my surprise and relief, my protagonist’s past, present, and (a portion of his) future magically opened up to me, because . . . drumroll . . . I suddenly KNEW what the possibilities were for a person like him. (The old adage “Write what you know,” turns out to be true in its most literal sense.)
Let me add a caveat: in fiction, fantasy especially, we have the privilege and responsibility of making stuff up!! At times, that’s an ingenious way of getting out of a tough narrative spot. But there are many times when the problem is that you can’t write your way forward in a story simply because you don’t know what is possible or likely or available to your characters. In this sense, knowledge truly is power.
This tool works in so many ways, both big and small, across genre lines and in all kinds of settings. A tiny seed of an idea is sometimes all you need for the character or the city or that piece of authentic dialog to open up for you. And in the age of the Internet, all the knowledge you could ever need is available at your fingertips. So dig deep, get creative, and put on your research cap. Before you know it, you’ll breeze right past that block that was looming so large in your view; it’ll look no bigger than a pebble as you pass by.
How has research helped you overcome writer’s block? What other tools do you use to confront similar challenges in your writing process?