When should you stop researching and start putting together that all-important first draft? Researching your family history can be fascinating and enjoyable, but at some point you will need to weave it all together into a coherent story.
In January, I set myself the task of finishing a first draft by the end of the year. By September, I hadn’t really started. I kept thinking that I didn’t know enough ‘facts’ to start writing, and that there were still too many significant gaps in the story. I had become one of those people who talks a lot about writing, but never actually does any (though I could tell myself that I was working towards starting writing …).
So after one of our regular group meetings at which I again reported having done no writing at all, I decided enough was enough.
Looking through the notes from our Writing Family History course, I see that our tutor, Andrea Stuart, advised us to have a ‘military campaign’ to organise and order our material before we started to write. This is good advice. But I didn’t follow it. I decided that spending a long time organising my notes and newly acquired filing cabinet would be just another form of procrastination.
I had to just jump in there and write. I have much of the material for the first section of the book, and I usually remember where most of it is. I have my various notebooks, reference books and documents spread out on the floor and often have to rummage amongst them to find the relevant information. Sometimes I dream about the well-ordered filing cabinet advocated by Andrea and have to resist the urge to take a trip to the nearest stationery store.
I’m working to an outline, but it’s a loose one. I find that the writing is developing more organically and following its own path. At the start of the writing day, I review what I’ve done so far (without getting bogged down in editing or rewriting) and think ‘Where do I need to go next?’
It’s very much what I’ve recently heard the writer Josh Swiller describe as a ‘kitchen sink draft’. His advice is to ‘Throw every damn thing in there. If you aren’t sure something belongs, if you aren’t even remotely clear what the point of a certain tangent is, in it goes.’ (Read more of his writing tips at http://www.glimmertrain.com/b69swiller.html). Josh is talking about writing fiction, but I think the ‘kitchen sink draft’ advice may work as an approach for me. It’s easy to become so absorbed in perfecting our outline (or organising our filing cabinet, or tracking down that elusive but possibly non-essential ‘fact’) that we never actually put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Throwing everything I know about my great-grandfather into the first section of my draft is helping me to see how much research I’ve actually done and where the serious gaps are. I’m shaping my material into something coherent, and while it is very far from perfect, it is satisfying to get something on the page.
It’s a start. It will give me something to work with. As Swiller goes on to say: ‘The goal with the next drafts is just to be a little better each time … This takes patience because some of the drafts will make you aghast. But if there is a kernel in there that excites you, trust that it will bloom in time.’
Amen to that.