Monday, August 24, 2015

The Research Rabbit Hole

I’ve spent a lot of time lately down the research rabbit hole where it’s easy to get distracted and drawn on seductively until you realize that whole days, maybe whole years, have passed while you were just trying to ascertain a few facts. My family sees it as just another feature of my “Scorpio-ing,” so called from my horoscope sign. They mean that I might get focused on something and become a trifle obsessed and forgetful of things such as night and day and meals and sleep. This trait of mine is a real gift for a writer of novels. It helped me write and rewrite a whole novel from scratch in 2 ½ months not long ago. However, when it comes to research, such a trait is a catastrophe.

I often recommend to my students that they do only the bare minimum of research they need for a book ahead of time and, as they write it and discover some item of information they need, that they simply put a notation in bold lettering right in the manuscript—NEED WHATEVER INFO IT IS. Then when they finish the first draft, they can search for bold font and make a list of the exact information they actually need and search the libraries or internet for that specific data. It’s what I try to do myself for novels. Its primary advantages are that it keeps the writer going without interruptions while the first draft is flowing and it keeps the writer out of the research rabbit hole.

I have two projects that require research right now. The first is the big novel I’m writing. A part of it takes place in the distant past, so I must research the clothing, town, and landscape at that time in order to make my account ring true. The second project is an essay for a literary anthology I’m co-editing that has major grant funding. It’s a literary opinion piece with political aspects. I know what I’m basically going to say. I said it over dinner one evening in heated conversation with the other editor and the publisher, and the other editor said, “Yes, that’s it. Exactly, Linda. You must write an essay for the book saying that.” But, of course, dinner-table conversation is not the same thing as a serious literary essay, and since it deals with political issues, I want to be sure I’ve got it right and haven’t missed some crucial point. But researching this background means covering a period from post-World War Il to the present.

I have been doing pinpoint research for the novel, looking for specific details that I know I’m going to need, but now I’m about to write about a disaster that actually happened, in which my fictional characters will be involved, and that’s going to lead me down the rabbit hole, I know. I have just poked my head up above the earth again after an extended time in the rabbit hole for the essay, having returned with long articles, policy papers, and official reports that I’ll be dallying with for some time yet. I’m afraid that, if I plunge back into the rabbit hole too quickly, I may never again see the sunlight, but shall simply wander lost forever in those winding tunnels.

“Oh. A first-person account of the earthquakes at New Madrid.” “Over there, an overview of the creation of Tecumseh’s Ohio Valley Confederacy and its impact on the War of 1812.” “Look. Here’s a timeline on U.S. involvement in the Middle East since World War II that I missed before.” “Oh, wow! A history of the Cherokees who were living at New Madrid in 1811 and 1812. Who knew?” “Wait, I can’t leave yet. Here’s a long list of all the dictators the U.S. has backed and supported, and it’s linked to a list of covert actions U.S. agencies have taken in those countries since World War II.” “And there’s more, here… and here… and here… and here…”

What are your ways of handling necessary research?


Warren Bull said...

I feel your pain. I have been in those seductive but endless tunnels. I once needed information about a particular weapon. Upon finishing a first draft I found that I had so much information about the weapon in my writing that a reader could build one. I have no particular escape route. Deadlines help a great deal

Jim Jackson said...

Research can be, and for me often is, fascinating. Doing the research has its own rewards, which is what makes it tough to say "enough" and return to the original reason for the research, writing.

~ Jim

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I'm writing the first draft of book #2, a chapter a day. While I'm making dinner, I do superficial internet research on things like what prairie wildflowers are still in bloom in October, the glancing details that make a book authentic. I need to research a component of adolescent behavior that manifests itself by violence which will be more complicated. Just identifying what the behavior is called might be difficult. So tempting, but I'm putting off that research until I finish the first draft.

Shari Randall said...

Even with a novel set in modern day, I find myself doing research. What phase of the moon is occurring that night? What would my character wear? Where would she get it? And that's how I find myself internet shopping while trying to "research"! Computers make that too easy.
How funny that you blame your Scorpio tendencies for your down-the-rabbit-hole research. I blame my Pisces drifting in two directions at the same time for mine!

Kait said...

Good Linda, those rabbit holes are so tempting. Part of my day job is legal research, the rabbit hole and I are old friends. I have learned the time comes to say "stop." I know I have hit that point when I realize I am finding all the same information but phrased differently. Once that happens in three consecutive searches - I'm done and out of there. It's hard sometimes, especially researching for novels, because I am so interested that I keep hoping for that one nugget that I hadn't found before, but, as my mother used to say, "When it is enough, stop."

Kara Cerise said...

Thank you for the good advice, Linda. I'm an over-researcher and will take your suggestions to heart. With the internet at our fingertips it's entirely too easy to look up one more historical event or interesting fact. I need to stop...but it's all so fascinating.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Oh, Warren, I love it. I hope you didn't put plans for it in your book. The ATF might not be happy with you.

Yes, Jim. Can you believe that there are people who hate to research? So odd.

Margaret, I envy you. You can research while doing something else. Wow! And I think you made the right decision on putting off that research on teen psychology until after you've finished the draft.

Linda Rodriguez said...

But you see, Shari, I'd never end up shopping while researching. Too focused on the research. The difference between Pisces and Scorpio.

Kait, exactly. When it starts coming up the same stuff over and over, I should stop, but I always keep on with, "But there might be one more thing to be found if I wade through all of this." And sometimes, to be truthful, there is and it's important--but not very often.

Kara, it is, isn't it? I used to love to go researching in libraries, especially university libraries. After finding where the books or documents I needed were kept, I'd often look over the surrounding volumes and find excellent stuff just by serendipity. Sadly, no longer, as most university libraries are moving or have moved to closed stacks.

KM Rockwood said...

I understand what it's like to look up five hours later, after reading a fascinating but irrelevant passage, and realize trying to check a simple fact has led me astray once again.

I do love having the internet available for immediate research though. I'm pretty familiar with most of the stuff I write, but I often want to make sure I don't make a dumb mistake in an manuscript. At least not if I can help it!

Linda Rodriguez said...

Isn't it amazing how the time flies by, KM? But none of us want to be that author who gets something important wrong in the book.

Gloria Alden said...

Linda, because my books take place in present time in the area I've lived all my life, I don't do much research for them, however it's an entirely different story for my blogs, especially since I'm writing one every week. I hear about something on NPR, and I need to go there and start researching for a blog. I read some small piece in the newspaper about something else, and there I am. I go through reams of paper printing out what I've found. My only problem is that my blogs aren't able to be long enough to write a full story.

One of the main reasons I went on to get my masters in a field that didn't have anything to
do with elementary education, is because I loved literature and writing classes, and yes the research needed to write long papers.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, oh yes, the lit papers and masters thesis. Research black holes that eat your life during those years.