“You can observe a lot,” said baseball great Yogi Berra, “just by watching.”
To that I add, “and by listening.”
This weekend in Denver I attended the annual convention of a group that collects books and memorabilia linked to adventure writer Clive Cussler. (The group's president, whom I met at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, asked me to call a square dance at the end of their Friday evening session.)
I had read at least a dozen novels by the evening's speaker, veteran writer Justin Scott, so I looked forward to his talk. I expected I'd hear about his experience co-writing with Cussler—especially his latest, “The Race,” about a 1910 cross-country airplane competition.
But I didn't expect to receive practical help on one of my own projects. Good thing I was listening.
Someone asked Scott about his research, as he'd never before written about aviation. I wasn't surprised when he spoke of visiting the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a living history museum for early aviation. Then Scott mentioned a book “Stick and Rudder,” that, while written in 1941, had educated him about the basics of flight and piloting. Though his book was set thirty years earlier, the aviators in his novel needed to apply and be able to talk about those principles.
I wasn't prepared to take notes, but I found a napkin and jotted the title. Just what I needed for a story I'm writing that's set in the mid twenties and involves an aviator.
Then someone asked about Scott's writing practices, which enable him to create two novels a year: one for Clive Cussler and another (using his pseudonym Paul Garrison) for the estate of Robert Ludlum.
Not surprisingly, Scott said he gets up early and goes straight to his office so he can put in six hours of work by lunchtime. During those hours he doesn't take phone calls, check email, or succumb to other popular distractions.
Then he added a detail I've never heard an author mention: He uses two computer screens. One always shows his work in progress. The other displays resource material: his outline and notes, a dictionary, a search engine, and such. Reserving a second screen for those tools means his project always remains before him, open.
Maybe this technique can help you work more efficiently on your own big, research-dependent project.
Over the years I've observed that successful writers are always learning. Once when I was on staff at a writers conference, I rode in a car for some twenty minutes with two of the keynoters, novelists Jack Cavanaugh and Francine Rivers. Rather than discuss the North Carolina scenery, they took advantage of the time together to talk shop: How did they each approach a certain aspect of the craft?
After all, you can observe a lot by listening.