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Down The Rabbit Hole of Research

March 7, 2013 Fiction, Manuscript Prep/Submission, Research, Writing 7 Comments

By Bethanne Patrick

You probably know the feeling. You might be stuck on something in your manuscript, or you might be flying through a section, when you hit a place that needs…research. What do you do?

If you’re like me and many other writers, you open up a new tab on your browser and start furiously typing in search terms. Or you head to your reference books and start flipping pages. Woe be unto you if you actually decide to leave your desk and head to the library…that’s when you know you’ve truly gone down the rabbit hole of research.

Who knows when you might return? Rabbit holes lead to rabbit warrens, complicated places that sometimes connect but often do not, leaving you at a dead end after hours spent looking at documents, images, and more. I say “spent” and not “wasted,” because all of us have anecdotes about the time when what seemed like a fruitless search yielded the one nugget of information that made a scene sing or tied up an important plot point.

However, just as often, research done at the wrong time or to the wrong degree leads too far away from the page, which is where we truly want to be. I was reminded of this when my friend and fellow writer Michele Filgate posted on Facebook about a conversation she had with the novelist Matt Bell during an event. She told him that she was working on a novel but kept getting sidetracked by research. Bell urged her to avoid research entirely until she has finished half of her manuscript. Then, and only then, he said, should she start looking at details and information to fill out the pages.

That’s sound advice — if it works for you. I, for example, find that small bouts of research help spark new scenes, as long as I control the amount of time I spend on them. Out comes the faithful kitchen timer, set for ten or twenty minutes. Even if I’m in the middle of a juicy lead on something, I go back to my manuscript. Yes, it’s sprinkled liberally with “TKs” (the journalistic shorthand for “facts to come”), I just keep going. I’ve been following this routine since I began my latest work in progress, and I’m now at 50,000 words. Works—-for me.

Other novelists (the published kind) follow routines as individual as their writing. Dawn Tripp, whose latest release is Game of Secrets, says, “I find that how I manage research is integral to how I build a story. For me, I have to have a keen, visceral sense of the world of the story I am writing into, without allowing details of that world to clutter or slow down the drive of that story as I am drafting it onto the page.”

Tripp’s solution is to “read and read and read” for a few months before she begins writing, and to take notes. “Other than that, during this period of time, I do not write at all,” she says. “That immersion research is, for me, crucial to absorb the essence of a culture, place, and time.” After that, she puts all of her research books away and does not open them again until she’s finished a complete draft.

Other novelists have a more “pick and mix” approach. Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim, says that after she’s written a first draft she does the bulk of her research, calling and emailing and meeting people who might have answers, as well as using the Intenet. “I may not use 80 percent of the material I harvest, but it feels important to have this stuff available if I need it.” However, Keener also admits that research isn’t her particular rabbit hole: “My rabbit hole is usually around plotting.”

One of the toughest things that happens to all writers is not knowing which details will be important.

“That’s why I’m always researching as I write,” says best-selling novelist Caroline Leavitt. But Leavitt makes an important observation, which is that when you know that a particular detail will be crucial but you can’t find it, even after hours of research, hire help: “I recently did this for the first time because I needed to know what they used instead of crime tape in the 1950s,” she says. “The answer? Wooden sawhorses and rope. My best research tool for those kinds of questions was, believe it not, Facebook.”

Facebook as research tool? Don’t tell Zuckerberg. Or surely a premium will be put on our querying posts.



Currently there are "7 comments" on this Article:

  1. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Bethanne —
    Terrific post. I think I’m a little more on the Dawn Tripp rather than Matt Bell end of this discussion. Researching often brings great ideas for scenes, etc. and I hate trying to write about something without a decent grounding in the particulars.

  2. Erika Robuck says:

    I aspire to be like Dawn Tripp. I spend about 4 months researching my subject without writing a word, then *ideally* I start writing without allowing myself to get side-tracked. What often happens, however, is that I assign monumental importance to an insignificant detail, and end up crawling out of the rabbit hole hours later dazed, disoriented, and out of time. It is the great trap of the historical fiction writer. (And all writers.)

    Thank you for showing the different styles of research and inspiring me to not allow procrastination through research to devour my precious writing time. Great post.

  3. Joe W says:

    Loved reading this.

    And for my historical novel, I had an ENTIRELY different approach! :-)

  4. Great topic, Bethanne. I’m all over the map when it comes to research. I will look things up while I’m writing to make sure they’re possible (e.g. could battery acid burn your skin in seconds, or does it take a few minutes?). But for my current work-in-progress, I’ve left the bulk of the research to the end. That’s partly because I don’t know what information I need until I’ve gotten through a draft or two, and partly because the setting is one that’s very familiar to me.

    I think research is primarily about getting the details right, or looking for that rare detail that will make the piece sound original and authentic. So for me, the extent of my research is directly proportional to how unfamiliar the setting is.If I were to write an historical novel or a novel set in a place I’ve never been, I would probably do a lot more research up front. If I’m writing about a place that’s familiar to me, though, I feel that getting the story down is the most important task.

  5. Jo Anne Burgh says:

    A couple years ago, a speaker at a mystery writers’ convention recounted her experience in writing first and researching later. She’d built the entire plot around the idea that a body could be disposed of in a particular way that would speed decomposition and render any remains unidentifiable. Later, when she was revising, she had a question about one detail of the method. She consulted an expert and was informed that her premise was flawed and that if her murderer did as she had written, the remains would be intact and identifiable for a much longer period than the story required. So, she had to go back and rework the whole book.

    Ever since I heard that story, I’ve been a fan of identifying and researching the major issues up front. I’ll flag the lesser issues as they arise in the writing, but I need to know at the outset whether the essentials of the story are sound.

  6. Elissa Field says:

    Thanks for this, Bethanne. It’s interesting to hear the different approaches. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid any research until I had completed the storyline and characters in my head before, and found that helped me be true to my inner vision. My vision becomes the backbone and I fill out scenes, setting, dialogue or other details with the support of research, once that first draft is well underway.

  7. […]  ”I spend about 4 months researching my subject without writing a word,” Robuck wrote, “and then ideally I start writing without allowing myself to get side-tracked. I visited […]

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Bethanne Patrick

Bethanne Patrick
Bethanne Patrick recently committed to life as a full-time writer after nearly two decades in the publishing industry as a journalist, blogger, and consultant. Her resume includes stints as editor at large for PAGES magazine, editor of AOL Books and contributing editor at Publishers Weekly. She helped to launch Shelf Awareness for Readers and Book Riot and created the #fridayreads hashtag through which thousands of people share their current book choices each week on Twitter. Patrick is the author of two books from National Geographic: An Uncommon History of Common Things (with John Thompson) and An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, O the Oprah Magazine, AARP The Magazine, and many others. Patrick is a columnist for VQR, writing on feminism and culture; she also blogs for O’Reilly Tools of Change about books and publishing. She tweets about things bookish as @TheBookMaven and about things writerly as @JustBethanne. She is currently ... Read Full