Outlander and the research process


I finished reading Outlander 3 recently. (Formally titled Voyager, but I’m not great a remembering titles in series, and especially not when I read them on Kindle, which is how I read this 1000 page monster.) In the back there’s quite a bit of supplementary material, including an interview with the author, Diana Gabaldon, reproduced almost entirely here, where she talks about her research process.

Her process is extremely non-linear, and in fact her writing process is no more linear that the research process. Typically, she writes scenes non-sequentially until she has about a book’s worth, and then she starts to move them around until things fall into place. I assume there’s a significant editing process where she smoothes out the logic, plot, and prose, but the point is, her process is a true inquiry into character, historic setting, and plot possibility with a hefty dose of tapping into the creative place where ideas come from (or, possibly where ideas come to you, if you follow Elizabeth Gilbert). It is not a “research process” (or, frankly, “writing process”) that we in the research+writing world would necessarily advocate for but it works marvelously well for her. She says:

Hearing about this process does, btw, infuriate people who write linearly. I once had a woman sitting on a panel on writing processes with me inform me that I couldn’t possibly do this, because “you have to have a logical foundation! You can’t put the roof on your building unless you’ve built solid walls to hold it up, can you?”

“Of course I can,” I replied. “There’s no gravity in the mind, after all. I can make the roof and just leave it hanging there until I have time to build walls under it. You don’t have to write a book from beginning to end, just because that’s how people will read it.” She Wasn’t Pleased, but the point here is that people’s minds are wired up differently, and a good deal of writing successfully lies in figuring out how your own mind works best, and using it that way. There is no “right” way to write a book. Anything that lets you get words on the page is the right thing to do.

I love the idea of DOING until you need to figure something out, FIGURING IT OUT, and then keeping on DOING until the process repeats. Most of the time when I’ve taught myself something it has followed this pattern. I also like how she relates that people don’t really like to hear this. I’m assuming that’s because she doesn’t follow a typically taught process.

It got me thinking about what we teach, its strengths (linearity, repeatability, confidence) and shortcomings (linearity, rigidity, time-bound). I’m not sure how education can replicate a more organic process at scale, and at the same time I’d much rather work with students who come to me and say, “I’ve been DOING and now I’ve got to FIGURE THIS OUT. Can you help me?” than students who are married to a prescribed process.

I don’t have answers. I’m still thinking. What would it look like, research-wise, to make a roof and leave it hanging until you can build the walls?

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