Did you know that The Countess of Lovelace was the mathematician responsible for the very first algorithm? She’s the one we can all blame when our books are foundering in the choppy rankings on Amazon. How do I know this? Because I was researching SOMETHING COMPLETELY UNRELATED!
Many writerly souls have been lost on the road to research. Like pilgrims seeking truth (and hopefully a large chunk of data we can copy and paste into our WIP to boost our wordcount for the day, without actually having to write anything) we set out innocently hoping to find the right answers to our questions. Like, what did people eat in the sixteenth century? Is a hurricane worse than a cyclone? When did indoor plumbing, like, happen? What were the best hotels in Paris before WWI? (asking for a friend). Did Victorian women mountaineers wear skirts? The answer is yes, by the way, they did in the mid 1800s and despite appearances, they weren’t hampered one bit. Check out the aptly named Lucy Walker. How do I know this? Again, I got A LOT distracted from my original quest, which was…. what was it again?
That’s the beauty and the beast that is the Internet. It’s a wonderful tool for research and even when you end up deep down a black hole of ‘Stuff That Will Never Make It To Your Novel,’ it’s still really interesting (albeit time-consuming). I would love if Google could accumulate some of the most common searches for each writing genre. I’m guessing crime writers would have the most gruesome results – like how many times and in what location you can stab someone before killing them? So much of a writer’s search history has been conveniently explained away as “research”.
Writing historical fiction doesn’t help. When people ask why it takes so long to write a book, they don’t mean how long you spent researching it (like spending half the day reading about how Joan of Arc was captured in a small town in Northern France, called Compiegne, only to vaguely refer to it in one sentence). They mean how long you spent putting words together. But if you’ve ever written a story, you learn pretty quick that everything needs to be researched – location, professions, dialect, clothing, customs and anything else that has a question mark over it, because as we all know, fiction needs to be factually correct or else it doesn’t work. Unless you plan on writing an autobiography, or a story that never mentions anything outside of your field of knowledge (which isn’t a bad idea, actually!)
But then there are those wonderful moments when the black hole of research leads you to your next story idea. Such was the case with The Story Collector; I was looking up information on a local hill, where it is said that the King of the Connacht fairies (that’s Finvarra to you) is buried. I found myself being swept slightly off course and in a couple of clicks, came face to face with a dapper-looking anthropologist who wrote a book about The Good People in Celtic countries. I made a note of it – lost the note – but never forgot his story and in a few years began researching in earnest for what would become my third novel, inspired by that man. So you never know! Books are certainly much more contained when it comes to research, and once I know what I’m looking for, I tend to use books more than the internet, but it’s the ‘lucky dip’ of searching online that makes it so exciting. Research can be a fun and interesting part of the writing journey, just don’t forget to book a return ticket.