Ilana C. Myer: When Do You Stop Researching and Start Writing?
Everyone knows that in order to write what the industry calls “secondary world fantasy,” i.e., fantasy that takes place in an invented world, the author must do research. And what becomes clear to anyone serious about writing is that research can be endless. You can literally do research for the rest of your life—that’s what scholarship is. There will always be fascinating texts and articles to read, esoteric facts you can pull up to wow your audience like a magician’s sleight of hand. But if you’re looking to write a novel, eventually you will have to put down the research texts, sit down at the keyboard (or with a fancy fountain pen—whatever) and start writing your story.
I’ll give you the bad news first. The research doesn’t stop.
Okay, I’ll back up: I’m talking about my experience here. Other writers might say they don’t do research once they’ve started writing. But if you’re asking me, research is ongoing from the start of the book until the end. That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news: Once you accept that the research doesn’t stop, you can stop stressing about whether you’re ready to start writing. Because starting your novel doesn’t mean you will never get a glimpse of your research texts again, time’s up, pencils down. They will always be there, and you can always get more. Once you’ve let go of that stress, you can give yourself permission to find the story that’s inside you—and go back to the research when necessary.
My upcoming novel, Fire Dance (ed: out now!), took three years to research and write. I began by reading about Al Andalus and the medieval Arab world while expanding my knowledge of the Celtic Poets, since these elements were to figure prominently. I read poetry connected to both societies. This took many months. By the time I began the novel, I was armed with notes and ready. I had to be, after all. It had been so long.
But writing is a process of discovery. Just as we discover what is inside ourselves through writing, we also find through the writing what the story needs. So when, at a certain point in the story, I realized I wanted to know more about Middle Eastern magic, I searched for more source texts. Likewise when I realized I wanted more details about medieval Arab cities.
One point I want to come back to—we discover ourselves through our writing. We know more than we think. Anxiety or low self-confidence can hold us back from getting started. Often when we do get started, we find out two crucial facts: What the story is, and that we are equipped to handle it. Not all the source texts in the world can give you the heart of your story, even as paradoxically you need those texts to write something believable and rich.
It can be distressing, perhaps, that writing secondary world fantasy involves so much work. But what many people seem to find most intimidating is the idea of getting started—to ever feel ready enough to begin. So while it can be frustrating that the research never stops, it is also freeing. Once you have a foundation of research, just start. It’s okay if you have to pause and start again. All that matters, ultimately, is the story—one that is uniquely yours—unfolding under your hands.
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BIO: Ilana C. Myer has worked as a journalist in Jerusalem and a cultural critic for various publications. As Ilana Teitelbaum she has written book reviews and critical essays for The Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Last Song Before Night was her first novel, followed by Fire Dance. She lives in New York.
Palace intrigue, dark magic, and terrifying secrets drive the beautifully written standalone novel Fire Dance, set in the world of Last Song Before Night.
Espionage, diplomacy, conspiracy, passion, and power are the sensuously choreographed steps of the soaring new high fantasy novel by Ilana C. Myer, one woman’s epic mission to stop a magical conflagration.
Lin, newly initiated in the art of otherwordly enchantments, is sent to aid her homeland’s allies against vicious attacks from the Fire Dancers: mysterious practitioners of strange and deadly magic. Forced to step into a dangerous waltz of tradition, treachery, and palace secrets, Lin must also race the ticking clock of her own rapidly dwindling life to learn the truth of the Fire Dancers’ war, and how she might prevent death on a scale too terrifying to contemplate.
Myer’s novel is a symphony of secret towers, desert winds, burning sands, blood and dust. Her prose soars, and fluid movements of the politically charged plot carry the reader toward a shocking crescendo.