Research for Writing: Avoiding the Proverbial Rabbit Hole

By Claire Tucker

I’m terrible with dictionaries.

Don’t get me wrong — I love dictionaries, with all the different, wonderful and new words for me to discover. The problem is that when I grab a dictionary to look up one word, I get distracted. By other words. Ten new words later, I remind myself of which word I was looking for, start flipping through the pages, and another wonderful and strange word catches my eye …

In so many ways, this is what research feels like. A wonderland of information for me to discover. What should be a quick foray into the unknown for an answer becomes a time-sucking monster as I find so many new things that I just want to have one quick peek at.

Obviously, when writing, this is undesirable. After all, when you have time to write, that’s what you want to do. You want to get the words of the story down onto the page.

But at the same time, research is vital to your writing. Think about all the stories you’ve read that just seemed real, where the events and people lifted off the page and took vivid shape around you, drawing you into the story, making it come alive. I’m willing to bet that behind those stories and infusing life into them was research.

So how do we go about researching our stories without disappearing down the rabbit hole to wonderland?

By being specific in what we must research.

To illustrate, I was recently researching dictators. More specifically, I was researching the various processes that some dictators and tyrants used to come into power. Notice that the second sentence here is very specific. This meant that when I sat down to research, I could ignore everything that didn’t deal specifically with what I was looking for. It meant that I ignored Hitler’s career from the start of World War Two to his death. It meant that I ignored Benito Mussolini’s career from when he was first granted power in Italy. I was looking for the before, for how dictators gained power.

In researching this, there were plenty of rabbit holes I could have fallen down. One being the psychology of dictators. Here’s where being specific as to what you’re looking for helps. When these enticing options open up and try to lure you from your goal, you are more likely to spot them as the distractions they are and ignore them if you have a clearly stated goal for your research session.

Now, when researching, you are going to uncover some gems that are more than just a passing distraction. You are going to come across some little-known fact that will grab your attention and birth a story in your mind. Characters will leap into view, with conflict and action that drives what could be the next best-selling novel, if you just quickly divert and do a little research so that you can write it …

When this happens, stop. Have a notebook dedicated solely to these amazing facts that spontaneously birth stories in your mind. Grab that notebook and write that wonderful idea down. Then return to your original project and continue researching that very-specific thing that you were.

Lastly, don’t feel that you need every detail ready before you start writing. There will always be some random detail that you failed to research, and you will only realize you need it while writing the first (or second or third) draft. When you come across those missing facts, you have a choice: stop writing and quickly pop onto the Internet to find an answer (and hope that you don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole at the same time), or note down that you need that detail and carry on writing. Personally, I am in favor of the latter. I avoid the rabbit-hole of wonderful new facts, the story gets written, and I can add the details that bring a tale to life into the story when I edit.

Claire Tucker is a Christian fantasy writer who enjoys creating stories that tackle questions of life and faith. She lives in South Africa, and enjoys spending time outdoors, reading books of any genre, and doing a variety of crafts and needlework. You can find her on Instagram @clairetucker_writer.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: a novel of the patriarchs. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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