Here’s a writing tip I have found immensely helpful.
All of my books have either an historical setting, deal with a non-Western culture, or both. As a result, there’s a lot of research that goes into my writing. Books and books of research. It is not uncommon for me to read five to eight tomes of anthropological or sociological non-fiction, and fill up several reporter’s notebooks before I even start to write.
But even with all this preparation, when I get down to writing, there always comes a moment when there’s something I do not know, some question comes up, or I cannot recall some detail. What was the phase of the moon on 17 Sept 1895? What sort of plow was in use during the 9th century? What does camel milk taste like? It doesn’t matter how much you know or have read about a topic, you simply don’t know everything. So, what to do?
Well, if you have been following this blog, you know that one of my guiding principles is Write, don’t Edit, so what’s a writer to do when I’m “in the zone” but can’t recall that one perfect detail? Do I leave it out? I can’t just stop and check my notes or look it up; that would ruin my rhythm, and bust my groove. Do you make something up? What if it’s wrong? And how would I know which details I’d fabricated and which came from research? How would I know which needed to be fixed in rewrite? So, how could I handle this?
As so often happens in cases like this, the solution just came to me in the heat of the moment, like a blue-bolt from heaven. I was writing along, needed a detail, didn’t have a clue what it was, and I just typed a placeholder:
Just like that. Simple. Bracket-Interrogative-Bracket.
I didn’t need to know the detail. I would get it later in rewrite. The unusual pattern would be a breeze to find. I could go through my entire manuscript in rewrite, search for <?>, and find all the things that needed further investigation.
I quickly found that this technique worked for anything. If I was writing a scene and realized I needed to add some setup in a previous chapter, I would put in <estab> to make sure I established the fact before I used it in this scene. I could put in a detail I wasn’t sure of and double-check it later, as in “He drove up in his <Mercedes-Benz>.” Or, if I wasn’t sure what I wrote a couple of chapters ago, I could write <cont> to remind myself to check for accurate continuity. Anything could go in those brackets, and I’d be sure to find it later.
It is a small thing, but it freed me up to write when I needed to write, and edit when I needed to edit, two of the hardest tasks to separate.
Give it a shot when you’re composing, and see if it doesn’t help you push through faster.