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  • Writer's pictureDonna Norman Carbone

What Writing is Like: Research and Metacognition

For any given writing project, I start with the bones of the story. For me that means a rough outline of the major events and a few very fleshed-out characters with extensive bios right down to visual images of how I imagine them. The next steps are research and metacognition.


First, I make a list of all the topics I need to research.

At the very basic level, I take to Google to research the settings of the story I’m writing, especially locales I haven’t personally visited. I do a cursory search of “tourism in _____” to get a sense of the iconic destinations & a lay of the land. Then I go deeper which means looking at the housing market, reading a local newspaper, looking at a town calendar. I’ve even searched Google Earth for any visual images that lead to further keywords to explore further.

I always search “hot topics” in my stories whether or not I feel I have basic handle on them. For example, my 2nd novel consisted of research of Debutante society in 1960’s Georgia, black market adoption in the 1960s, homes for “wayward” girls, miscarriages, surrogacy, and the real estate business. For the novel I’m currently working on, I’ve searched topics such as domestic abuse, child custody laws, hypnosis, past life regressions, spas, inns, life in the late 1800s, domestic arrangements at that time, common diseases and patriarchal society, #Me Too movement, and the 2017 Women’s March. Both lists appear rather disconnected, eclectic even, but I assure you, my job is to connect them. And more importantly, when I’m writing I want to do justice to events and themes in my novels–to make them as realistic as possible.

I consult my go-to craft books regularly. I never know how what I’ve previously read will resonate with a current project until I peruse the pages again. Tried and true sources are always The Emotional Wound Thesaurus and The Conflict Thesaurus, both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They hold a wealth of psychological information that I must consider in order to write believable characters. These, too, will sometimes lead to a keyword that I need to dig into deeper, thus returning back to Google or online databases.

I have, on occasion, read full books for research or resort back to those I earlier read for consultation. This was the case with my latest work-in-progress (WIP). In it, my main character suffers from domestic abuse and tries to escape. She soon realizes she can’t escape until she deals with the abuse by getting to the root of it. Little does she know that getting to the root cause means going deep into her past; in fact, back to another lifetime. She does so through regression therapy, something I learned about at a workshop I attended years ago–many years before conceiving of the plot of this book. The host of the workshop was Brian Weiss, a psychiatrist. I was so fascinated by his work that I bought and read his book Many Lives, Many Masters. It stayed with me all this time and I revisited it recently to collect facts to use or adapt to my story.

The last level of research is simply living and observing. I have all of these ideas in my head, at this point: the story, the dimensions of character and the information I’ve acquired. There is nothing more valuable than the power of observation, of connecting my thoughts and ideas, and becoming aware of situations like those in my story. For instance, I happened to be reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave during the “prep phase” for my most recent WIP. In it, there exists abuse, not of the same nature that occurs in my book but similar enough. I found myself marking passages, paying attention to the way Cleave handled the writing of such scenes. I did a fair amount of studying this book as I read–not only what was written but HOW it was written. Similarly, I watched the short film All To Well, Taylor Swift, around this time. In it a couple who used to be in love fall out of love; impassioned fights ensue. I found myself watching them, really studying them, in order to infuse some of the nuances of facial expression and body language into the fight scenes I was about to write.

So, now, I have an outline, dynamic main characters and a body of information. What’s next? Getting it all down on paper?


For me, thinking time is just as essential as research. Metacognition means thinking about thinking. During this phase, I merge the bones of the story, still very much in my head, and the information I’ve found. I think about how it all fits. I rethink, layering thoughts, rearranging them. What is of primary importance and of lesser importance? What do I use and what do I scrap? How does what I uncovered alter or enrich my original goals? I take copious notes, jot them in the margins of my original outline or put them on post-it notes. Getting every thought down is essential for me at this stage. Those I discard during the drafting phase, I may reconsider during revision.

And, now, it’s time to write.


Research and metacognition doesn’t stop when I begin writing. It continues through the entire process (drafting, revising, editing…). This is what writing is like: getting it just right.


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