On the Magpie Mind and the (Mis)Uses of Research

This evening I had the weekly write-club session with my writing buddy Peter M. Ball (the man who committed the novella Horn). I went back over the novel, which I’ve not touched for about a month for a multitude of reasons (PhD, proofing short story collections and stories for various anthologies, fear, laziness, etcetera). I re-read the last chapter I’d written just to get a feel for it, to put myself back into the story (so I can distinguish the pseudo-fairytale German-like setting from the pseudo-Arabian Nights Damascus-like setting, and get my tone straight).

Everything was flowing rather well; I was happy with the state of the writing as I’d left it. It needs work, of course, it’s a bit skeletal in parts and needs a good hamburger of plot, but on the whole I was happy with the first draft. And then I came across one of those gems that a writer finds her/himself heir to … the things you insert into the text when you’ve not yet done enough research about a particular topic, so you put in square brackets, type in CAPS a note-to-self and highlight it in yellow. Or that’s my normal habit, at least. On this occasion I seem to have been a little laissez-faire and so what I actually found in the middle of a paragraph was this little beauty:

“She thought she recognized the workmanship and the design of the holey thingy in the whatsit”.

Shocker, ain’t it?

After we stopped laughing, I started to ponder the requirement of research. Fiction, even speculative fiction – in fact, especially speculative fiction – works best, convinces best, when it’s inflected by authorial authority. Your reader needs to believe you know what you’re writing about. A little bit of research told me that the holey thingy in a lute is actually called a “rose” – a reader is going to be more accepting of my authority if I refer to it as such (amusement value of holey thingy notwithstanding).

I absolutely don’t need to write into my novel everything I learn about lute making – for that would be boring. It would also be a treatise on lute making, not a novel called Well of Souls. But I need to know enough and transmit enough to be able to sound as though I know what I’m talking about. It’s that assurance of voice that will carry a reader along with me.

A writer should always know to do some research, but sometimes we only come to realize it’s time when we find crackers like the above in the middle of our paragraphs.

Broad reading is often your friend, and so: the magpie mind. We pick things up, we writers, bits and pieces of interesting, but otherwise useless knowledge – oh, sure, it’s stuff that could be deployed by the water cooler to combat those who insist upon discussing why the Good Wife is crying – but it’s not necessarily useful in other areas of life. But in writing, it can be the gold in the river of brown. I need to be able to pick the useful pieces, the relevant things, the shiny bits out of my research and use that to round out my story, to make it seem real and convincing for a reader.

I write in a genre in which people are happy to believe that there are flying donkeys. This is a willing audience, but my part of the bargain as the writer is to convince readers that I know all about flying donkeys – that I have researched them until I know all about the required wind speed for launching a flying donkey, best fuel for donkey-flight, whether a high ethanol fuel will increase the donkey’s carbon footprint and, should the donkey stall in mid-air, what its are chances of resuming flight before a nasty crash ensues.

Of course, there is also the point where you need to know to when to stop.            Research can be addictive: I know far too much about the life of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem because I was not writing about her; I got side-tracked by her because she appealed to my interests. I was supposed to be doing broad reading to soak in color and atmosphere … yet I got caught up for weeks going down the rabbit hole of research, becoming a specialist on a tiny subject, instead of a generalist over a wide spectrum of ‘stuff’. For instance, Melisende’s husband, Fulk, was killed while out hunting when a rabbit scared his horse – see? Useless, except to warn us about the inherent dangers of rabbits.

I found myself up to my eyeballs in journal articles and obscure books, printouts of translations of William of Tyre’s Histoire dOutremer (and eventually, I must admit, originals of the same, trying out my atrophied Old French and bad Latin), shouting at anyone who enquired after my mental health that I could “Stop at any time!”

Eventually, I had to stop because I wasn’t writing. And some tiny watchdog part of my mind said “Ah, yeah, you’re supposed to be writing. You know enough now. Step away from the research.” And, reluctantly as a chocoholic turning away from the Lindt Factory, I turned away from the research and started with the writing.

Sometimes research is also an excuse not to write. You tell yourself you can’t possibly put pen to paper until you know absolutely everything. It’s a perfect excuse not to write; not to start writing, not to keep writing, not to finish.

It is late at night. I have worked all day and been writing for five hours. I am tired. I might be wrong about all this (although I am certain this will be my last guest blog here, for Jeff wants his memory cathedral back and I need to clean up a little before he and Ann get home). My logic might be as firm as a bowl of jelly. But I still think there is a fine line between researching too little and researching too much. Everyone’s different, but basically it comes down to this: don’t let either be the cause of you not writing. Or Evil Monkey will mock you (just as soon as he finishes reading William of Tyre’s Histoire dOutremer).


 Thanks for reading, y’all. Slatter out.



  1. says

    You know what? I totally agree. I love researching stuff. I do far too much of it and I’m having to train myself to do less and put more story into things. I mean, people want to read stories, right? Not research… But I do now know the modern ‘stylized’ tube map was first introduced by London Transport in 1933 and was the work of an independent individual, not an employee of LT.

  2. says

    I laughed at that sentence you wrote, Angela.

    “She thought she recognized the workmanship and the design of the holey thingy in the whatsit”.

    It’s something I’ve been guilty of doing more than once. When your writing is flowing but that damn word will not come to you. You know what it looks like. It’s not even a specialist word. I can’t remember that word now. So I couldn’t have my character standing under that thing that covers the outside of the shop and shelters people from the rain while I tried to grasp that word that wouldn’t come. So I write it and I make a note to go back to that page and change it later.

    The frustrating thing is they’re the simple words that shouldn’t really require research.

    Unlike Dylan and yourself, I’m not a lover of research. That’s why I thought I’d write science fiction and fantasy. But you’re right, even the flying donkey or evil monkey has to be fleshed out.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. says

    yet I got caught up for weeks going down the rabbit hole of research, But that rabbit hole is just so fascinating. I mean, all those twists and turns, and those tunnels that lead into yet other tunnels. . .

  4. Angela Slatter says

    It was easily the worst one I’ve found in my work :-), but hey, presumably there are still years ahead of me to make new and exciting messes!