Weekly Musing: Research Black Hole

One thing I never realized when I started writing was just how much research authors wind up doing regardless of genre. Well, I suspected historical fiction required a far bit of research. I just assumed authors knew what they were writing about and had great imaginations. Perhaps this is why I always thought authors had to be some of the smartest people on the planet. Why it never dawned on me a writer would have to educate themselves I have no clue. I can be naïve at times.

It’s easy to say “Write what you know” but if we all wrote only about what we are the most familiar with, literature would be greatly stifled. So many genres and characters wouldn’t exist if writers hadn’t been compelled to shake off or ignore this piece of advice. Whole worlds, both real and imagined, would be closed.

Once I began learning the craft of writing I quickly realized that writers have to do a lot of research even in subject areas they know about. This didn’t bother me as I was used to conducting research in school for papers and essays but exploring for a creative piece is different. In school there are defined parameters which I found easy enough to adhere to. But when it comes to your own imagination, which is wide open, things get a bit more complicated.

When making the transition from academic-based writing to creative writing, I had to readjust how I approached research. Before, there was a clear goal and therefore easy to find resources that would support that goal. My resources came from the library as well as reliable internet sources. Now, though, I have to teach myself. I have to identify gaps in my knowledge, of which there are a lot, and determine where I need to go to gain more information.

Below is a list of what has been helpful to me:

Library: Depending upon where you live, the library can be the easiest and cheapest place to start. They may have letters, diaries, and other kinds of documents you can take a look at. Whatever your local library doesn’t have then you may very well be able to get it from another library within the same system.

Internet: This can be very hit or miss. If I’m starting with a new subject area, I look it up on Wikipedia first mainly to get some background information taking it with a grain of salt as anyone can edit a Wikipedia article. However, I do pay attention to the sources cited as these are books and other websites I can take a look at.

Doing a general search on your favorite search engine can immensely get the ball rolling. Virtually every museum, historical society, every profession, anything you can think of has some kind of online presence. There’s Goggle Scholar that searches millions of all kinds of documents (even case law) to suck a writer in.

Google Earth: Don’t have the funds or can’t travel to a place you’re writing about? No problem. There’s Google Earth where you can see the terrain. In addition it’ll calculate how long it takes to get from place A to place B via walking, car, bus, etc. without having to engage in any kind of horrible word math problem. Granted, this may not be the best for if you are researching historical boundaries but it gives a good jumping off point.

Books: Good old fashion books. Whether purchased new, used, or from the Internet, can’t go wrong with cracking open a book. In addition to books on a variety of subject, I would argue that reading books by other authors in your genre counts as research. Sometimes an author will list the books they used when writing their book. Check out that list to see if you might be missing.

Interviews: Have a main character that is a pediatric surgeon? Unless you actually are one, probably a good idea to contact one and interview them about their profession as well as to make sure the information you’re presenting is accurate. You can also find interviews online.

No matter the genre, research is a vital component for most authors. Have a main character that is a pediatric surgeon but you have no medical background? Time to hit the books and contact an actual pediatric surgeon. Writing a story from the point of view of a child with Down’s syndrome? Unless you know someone with it, better do your research so that you can authentically the character’s voice. People will call an author out on errors; best to lessen your chances before publishing. That being said, even professional authors make mistakes.

While research is great, I find it can also be incredibly overwhelming as it is too easy to get sucked into a research black hole. From my own personal experience, after I’ve got an idea planted into my head, it’s easy for me to just wanting to learn more and more. It can also be frustrating because some plot point I was really keen on may not work either because it’s historically inaccurate or simply not possible. This is when as a writer I must remember friction = fiction. Sometimes liberties must be taken just as long as one does not stray too far. Other times research can be flat out boring.

Another disadvantage of these research black holes is I have yet to figure out when to stop. It’s easy to forget the original goal was to be researching for a work of fiction, not my own edification. I think, too, because I have a degree in history and am by natural inclination a perfectionist, I get into this habit of wanting to make sure it is absolutely 100% accurate but I have to remind myself I’m writing FICTION.