You know the feeling. You’re out with friends, having a great time, when someone breaks into your revelry with the mind-altering question:
“Do you guys remember the name of that actress who starred in that obscure indie flick seven years ago?”
It follows a formula, whether it’s about the name of a person, a place, or a thing. Someone poses the question, and everyone suddenly finds themselves wracking their brains. Years ago, it might have been hotly debated over drinks, or pondered over later that night, until the eureka moment: someone remembered her name! And no, it didn’t start with a B or a D, like you were so sure it did.
Conversely, in this age where everyone has the internet at their fingertips, the answer is just a Google search away. This instant gratification has cooled many a discussion before it really gets going. Is the internet doing the same for writers?
When I first started writing, our family internet was so notoriously slow that it would have taken half an hour to conjure up articles or photos online. And so I turned to a vast collection of encyclopedias that my parents kept on our shelves. This was how I researched, and how I got ideas for books. I still remember the first time I found an image of a 19th century tall ship, and the accompanying text. I immediately had tens of ideas running through my head. So I sat down and wrote for five months, using filler places and things when I couldn’t come up with the right word, just so that I wouldn’t break my flow. It forced me to think, really think, about what I wanted my story to be, and how the characters would interact. I read books for historical facts, of course, but a majority of the words flowed from solid hours of just writing as fast as my little fingers could clumsily type. Fortune’s Flight was born out of all that free-writing.
These days, more often than not, I realize after an hour of Wikipedia searches and forays into Youtube that I am no closer to writing a story than when I first started with a blank page. The distraction of having an entire world at my fingertips on the computer has impeded the creation of the world I create through writing.
Don’t get me wrong. The internet is a powerful research tool, and we are fortunate as writers to have almost unlimited access to this information that can help us form and shape an idea we already have. Seeing a news article about an unspoiled island in the Pacific or a young girl surviving an earthquake can inspire a writer to create a new, wonderful story. And it can give you an answer to a conundrum that is inhibiting the continuance of your writing, so that you can shape the story once again. And yet, procrastination happens. Sometimes I don’t write because I get lost in a world of cat videos and music and cooking demonstrations.
My solution to my own struggles with this sensory overload is to disconnect from time to time. I will sit outside in the sun, sans phone or iPad or computer. I won’t even listen to music.I will just THINK. I’ll consider my characters, their motivations, their emotions. I will try to feel where their story might take them, pondering what ifs about a character’s history and sometimes puzzling over whether the number of petticoats matter in a Regency ball. And I don’t look up the answer, not right away. I let these questions stew and swirl around my brain. These questions help me build a better foundation for what I really need to know when I do start my research. I’ll jot down only the questions I really need the answers to, in order to direct myself when I place my cursor into that search bar.
When I do go on my computer to write, and don’t have any particular questions or research I need, I turn off the Wifi connection on my computer. It doesn’t stop me if I am determined, but it will slow me down. All I have open is my word document and occasionally my thesaurus. And when the inevitable happens, and I start to open the browser, I note the time, and give myself only fifteen minutes. If I can’t find what I am looking for in that time, I exit out and try writing through it.
Because sometimes, the unknown is the best part of being a writer.