When I was in college, I had a friend who wanted to be a fantasy writer. He had his career all planned out, and the first thing on his list was to acquire the skills and information he needed to write good fantasy. He had chosen his major and area of focus – medieval history – so that he could write about the Middle Ages accurately, and not just imitate imitations invented by other fantasy writers. At the time, I was really impressed by his planning and forethought.
A few years later, as I was going back to grad school, I ran into him again. He’d gotten a job in computers, because it paid well, and he was working long hours to save up a nest egg so he could quit for a year and write a novel. Again, I was impressed. I still wasn’t even sure what I wanted to be, and here he was, working hard to get where he wanted to go. I was embarrassed to show him my half-written first novel, since I was sure he could pick holes in it. So I didn’t.
Time passed: I graduated, got a job, and finished my novel. About the time I started submitting it, I ran into my friend again. He was in a night school creative writing program so he could get the skills he would need to create great prose. And somehow his nest egg wasn’t growing as fast as he’d expected, so it was going to be a while before he could take that sabbatical and write his novel. As I was halfway through my second manuscript by this time, without ever quitting my day job, I was slightly less impressed than I’d been before.
Another year or two went by. My first novel sold; so did my second. My would-be-writer friend decided he needed some psychology classes so his characters would be realistic and believable. I sold more novels and quit my day job to write. My friend started investigating advanced writing workshops.
You see where this is going, right? I haven’t run into him for a good while, but the last time I heard, he was working on writing the perfect computer program with which to write his book (since none of the available word processors or writing programs were suitable in his eyes). So far as I know, he still hasn’t written a word of fiction. He’s spent more than thirty years getting ready to be a writer, none of which has involved actually writing anything. And if he ever decides to take that first step, he is then going to have to spend more time getting ready to write whatever story he’s decided to tell.
Getting ready to write is an important step, and it can take longer than you think it will. I know writers whose modus operandi is to wander around, party, and reading/doing interesting things apparently at random for eight or ten months, at which point they vanish into their offices for three months and emerge with a finished manuscript. Their work style is a bit like the sports teams that spend six days practicing in order to have a perfect two-hour game on Sunday. Other folks go at it in an extremely organized fashion, allotting six months or a year or two to research and pre-writing work and then starting in on the actual manuscript at the end of that time. And some of us do the research and learning as we go on, muddling a bit farther, then looking some things up, revising, noticing how something could be better, revising again, and trying to improve all the time.
The thing is, all of us have a goal, and it’s not “to be a writer” or “to write a perfect story.” The goal is “to get this story finished so I can go on to the next one.” Getting this story finished can involve plenty of getting ready, whether that means research on the Middle Ages or figuring out how to make good use of a technique like flashbacks, or creating a richly detailed background and complex characters in advance.
All of that work, though, is aimed at something specific. When I am reading about the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, I’m sort of generally grazing through history, hoping something will spark an idea and knowing that even if it doesn’t, it’s all going into compost. I’m not pretending that it’s any better preparation for “being a fantasy writer” than reading mysteries set in modern Los Angeles. The part that is actually getting ready to write is the research I do on London in 1683, or Kent in 1814, or the development of the first railroad lines in England, because those are specific things I need to know about for ideas that I know I am making into a story any minute now.
How much preparation any given writer needs to do varies. Some take years; others take hours or days. It varies with the book, too; I did a good year of research for Snow White and Rose Red and none at all (or all my life to that point, depending on how you look at it) for Talking to Dragons. And my friend started off with the right idea – knowing how the real Middle Ages work is something that will be invaluable to him, if he ever gets around to writing anything.
But ultimately, it’s not about wanting to write, or having terrific skills at creating beautiful prose, or making up a complicated and fascinating setting. It’s about having a story to tell. And stories come from different places and different combinations of things for every writer. If researching the Middle Ages gives you stories to tell, do it and do lots of it. If it doesn’t, hunt up the thing that does. You can still read about the Middle Ages for fun, or for general background on the story you got from reading the book on weaving, or watching the video about dinosaurs, or eavesdropping on the next table at the coffee shop. Just don’t fool yourself by saying you’re “collecting material” when you don’t actually have a story you want to tell, because if you don’t have a story, you can pile material up to the moon and still not write.