Falling Down the Research Rabbit Hole

Research is good. Research keeps us from making terrible, horrible, no-good mistakes that result in readers throwing our books across the room. Research is often necessary – especially because, the more fantastic the world, the more you have to have verisimilitude in the things true to life in the here and now for readers to suspend their disbelieve for the fantastical and the future. On the other hand, too much research can be a terrible waste of time.

On the gripping hand, there’s the advice, when stuck or out of ideas, to thoroughly research something that you had no interest in before, until you find out what makes it cool and interesting that you never knew. Exploring something in-depth is also a great way to find other cool details you didn’t know that reinforce the realness of the first thing you were researching.

Back to the other hand, a friend related the tale of being stuck for weeks until she could find the speed of flight of mosquitoes vs. wasps, and therefore could calculate the maximum rate of movement for swarms of each. All that was only relevant for 3 paragraphs of one chapter.

This hit me recently: I had one simple question: “The shakedown hike is going to be on land lifted straight out of the southern end of the Appalachians. When hiking with a geologist, who’s testing magnetotelluric gear, what rock formations / strata would she notice, and what minerals / ore bodies would the sensor gear likely find?”

Oh, not a simple answer. So not a simple answer. 6 hours later, I realized I’d slipped over the edge of the research event horizon when I was in trade industry sites for silica industrial sand vs. olivine in foundry casting, and casual searches of ores and terms went from “Here’s a website with pretty jewelry or tumbled stones” to the first page being entirely full of abstracts for scientific articles.

Oh, and street food in Poland.

When was the last time you lost mass amounts of time to a research rabbit hole, and down what dark paths did it lead you?

30 comments

  1. When was the last time I got carried away with research? Never. But I am beginning to understand why I love your writing.

    On a completely different topic, don’t ever research flashlights. And as an additional indicator, since sometimes you don’t notice how much time you are spending on research, if your friends start warning others not to ask you about a topic you know something about, you may be getting obsessive.

    1. Oh, yes, there’s so much more to them than merely being a tube to hold dead batteries! (Sorry, that’s the standard pilot definition of a flashlight.) I love the revolution in LED lighting for the sheer reduction in mass and extension in battery life, not to mention the additional lumens brought to bear. Although there is such a thing as too many lumens to be useful…

      I will not start gleefully infodumping on the advances in low-light and night-vision and infrared scopes either, or the debate on best wavelengths to maintain night vision inside and outside of the cockpit, and….

      1. The five D-cell Maglights made excellent weapons. I’m thinking a couple of AAs to power the LEDs and four dead D-cells (or just a solid metal handle) for weight.

        Does anyone else remember the 6 volt lantern batteries and those flashlights? Very bright – for about 30 minutes until the battery drained.

  2. I’m not a writer, & it’s never really counted as “research”, but I think it’s going on 10 years since I had to swear off following hyperlinks on TVTropes pages (I tried to swear off links to them, but that lasted less than two months IIRC).

  3. Full disclosure, as a kid I could get lost for hours in a good dictionary, learning the provenance and meanings of all those lovely new words.
    Bit of a fan of Westerns, and a friend clued me in to Ralph Compton, more or less a contemporary of Louis L’Amour. Been binge reading his Trail Drive series and enjoying immensely the stories.
    But I keep getting pushed out of the experience on one, to me, significant detail. You see, these tales of the first cattle drives are set in the 1840s, yet old Ralph waxes poetic about the cowboys and their cartridge Colt revolvers.
    Bit of esoteric gun trivia: Samuel Colt invented the first practical revolvers utilizing a separate cylinder with loaded chambers containing the powder, bullets, and percussion cap. But those components were loaded separately from the front of the cylinder, after which the caps were installed on nipples screwed into the back of the cylinder, a practice so slow and painful that gunmen often carried extra cylinders to swap out and that was much faster to get the gun back into action.
    Cartridge firearms first became somewhat common during and immediately after the American Civil War, 1861-1865, but because Smith and Wesson owned the patent rights to a bored through cylinder, necessary for cartridge use, Colt’s first cartridge handgun was not released until that patent ran out. Their first cartridge revolver was the famous Single Action Army.
    And should your significant other happen to read this I expect that he will appreciate my pain and share it as well as he obviously did do his research for his series of Old West stories.

    1. For several years, I had access to an unabridged OED, with full etymology for each word. It was glorious. It was massive, with its own stand. It was… the original wikiwander, before wikis existed. It either did very good things or very bad things to my vocabulary: good at knowing the exquisitely correct word for the connotation, but when nobody else knows it, the denotation is “huh? what was that again?”

      And yes, Peter feels your pain on some of the westerns. There are mutters about wildly improbable this, anachronistic that, and blood and thunder drek, and most of the stack gets rejected before it’s ten pages in.

  4. Oh, heck – I fall down them all the time; this latest was regarding the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, and the war in the Southwestern Pacific, which led to collections of escape narratives, of captivity narratives, and then post-war trials for war crimes.
    Fascinating trivia – those English professionals in Malaya involved in the rubber industry were considered to be in a vital war industry and so weren’t accepted when they tried to volunteer for the British forces. So – many of them went to local Volunteer companies, which were entirely interracial – Brits, Malay, Chinese, Indian etc – which when war began in earnest in the far east, were activated to serve along side the British forces.
    And there was a Ghurka soldier who got separated from his fellows early in 1942 because he was sick with malaria – he hid out in the jungle and lived on hunting and farming, and wasn’t found and told the war was over … until the Emergency, seven years later.

  5. Salt production in late antiquity, especially salt made from brine springs vs. mined salt, and what was needed to purify it, and how was it transported, and how much fuel was needed to concentrate the brine into a marketable salt, and what sort of impurities it might have had, and what were the uses for salt besides food preservation, and . . . Hey, at least the entire book centers on salt workers, so I have a good excuse! We won’t talk about Romanian/ Transylvanian folk lore and history and what’s up with basil anyway, or water from springs that light never touches, or . . .

    1. I am curious about the basil. But then, on the urban fantasy that got stuck, I ended up spending literal days on Russian / Slavic folklore and mythology, including the many, many incarnations of Bab Yaga.

      It did yield that a Rusalka would happily live in the swamp at the base of the mountains that drains into the sea, but probably not in a dammed glacier valley turned into a lake (Eklutna). Which is good to know before you go jogging down the trail alongside it, out of sight and hearing of anyone else for miles…

        1. Water’s too cloudy with rock flour, deep and cold. Rusalka prefer swamps full of living things or free-flowing clear rivers.

          Haven’t found anything yet that likes to lurk in rock-flour heavy glacial melt waters… which, to be fair, is true of most non-mythological life, too!

          1. Makes sense.

            I was wondering if something else lived in those lakes and didn’t want competition. 😉

          2. Oooh! Oooh! You could team up with Cedar Sanderson and design a mythological species that *would* want to live there.

            And then, next Ninktober, we could draw them!!!

            1. …Well, Cedar just released her research fruits (The East Witch) today. Me, I’m stuck 14K in on that one, and working on something completely different right now, but I do want to take another stab at finishing it. Might come up with something before the end….

              If I get mine out as wel, between us and Alma’s Ivan the texting cat (Alexander Soldier’s Son) that’ll be quite the Slate of Slavic beasties to draw!

  6. The nice part about research is that if you don’t use it in one project, you can always use it for another.

    1. I’m actually doing that right now. The contemporary thriller researched 8 months ago with geologists didn’t go far because I couldn’t help but contemplate contemporary political problems… and I really don’t want to write true cartel brutality.

      But all the magneto-telluric gear is back in the scifi WIP, on a hunt for crude oil on a hydrocarbon-poor colony world. (Or they will be on the hunt for same, if they survive the shakedown hike.)

  7. I tend to dig into stuff far too easily, but the last time I can remember getting to where I thought I was excessive was researching the size of GI Joe dolls during the 80s vs the size of the characters they portray.

    See, I knew that the “big” fairy (think Michael Clarke Duncan sized dude… but for fairies) was the size of a GI Joe doll in the hand of a normal human female….

    Main thing I concluded was that it was a very, very good thing that my world’s idea of precise measurement involves literal body parts, not standard ones.

  8. I spent quite a while looking up the details on how a Taser works, to find out if one would fire while inside a field that suppressed electricity.

    Turns out it won’t. The darts are fired by compressed gas which is released when high voltage is applied to the base of the Taser cartridge. No high voltage, no shoot, so the cops in my story had to resort to using their sidearms. Which were also ineffective, because they were shooting at somebody inside a force shield…

    I read up on Japanese history to compose an account written by someone living in 17th century Japan. She met a youkai who turned out to be a man from another world, with strange devices that did magical things.

  9. Originally, no clear answer.

    I can easily think of research projects I’ve yet to properly start, and of ones where I’ve in hindsight clearly misspent resources. Right now I’m not together enough to sort out the memories of the research I’ve gotten lost in.

    Just now, I was looking through notes, and noticed that I had a fairly long list related to brainstorming a response (which was never written) to Foxfier’s comments on ATH about a hypothetical American Garak being similar to Steve Rogers, Clark Kent, and The Question. (Mainly, I like Walter Kovacs more than I like The Question, and it also feels like an American Garak would be difficult to justify coming from a normal American cultural background.)

    I’m certain it is not the most recent example, but it seems to qualify as a recent example.

      1. Yeah, though that approach wouldn’t work for me. When DS9 was airing, I was too young to absorb much, and so I do not have a solid grasp of Garak or Cardassia. I would probably need to carefully watch the whole series, carefully, before I could do that. *Puts DS9 DVDs on the to purchase, depending on budget, list*

        So I focused on America. How do I get an American who is fanatic for America, and so fundamentally immersed in an alien culture or cultures that his reasoning and priorities are a wee bit unusual?

        I eventually worked out that a rancher who dealt in weird west/Appalachian cunning man incidents could have been drafted for WWII as an MIB for an occult OSS/SOE. After the war, the rancher could have adopted a young extraterrestrial boy, ala Hellboy or Superman. If the boy had weird psychometric powers, then he could have gotten some very strange cultural imprinting off of the rancher’s collection of artifacts of diverse origins. Boy obviously volunteered for Vietnam, fought there, and could well wind up in modern times with a Captain America style time jump.

  10. Sigh… We had that discussion… The madam in Georgetown, CO in the 1870s… And period correct guns… hours and hours… for ONE sentence in the story.

  11. I don’t know if it qualifies as research, precisely, but when my characters eat out, I have a habit of googling the restaurants in the area, perusing their menus, and figuring out exactly what the character would order. Yes, a large part of my brain is screaming, “IT DOESN’T MATTER! JUST WRITE THE $#@! SCENE!” However, the rest of me is thinking, “Ooo. Would Lisa take advantage of this situation and order the lobster street tacos…”

  12. Late Victorian pruning all shears. (The inquisitors) What *did* the supper boxes at Vauxhall look like, anyway? (This site has been such a treat: regencyhistory.net)

    But mostly I get paid to Run and Find out. Sweet deal! (“How to I get this pile of photos and notes turned into a “real” bound book.?” That was yesterday.) It helps to have catholic interests.

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