Monday, June 17, 2019

Research and Rabbit Holes

By Yolanda Smith

Inspiration is running hot. Words are coming to you faster than you can capture them on the keyboard. Your main character, having heard an intruder in the kitchen, digs through the closet for her handgun. But it’s important to use specifics. What kind of gun does she have?

Google to the rescue. A quick search for “women and handguns” reveals women are choosing Glocks these days, dispelling myths that females need a smaller caliber, or prefer revolvers, or any number of other stereotypes. Wait. There are myths about women and guns? What’s that all about? You’ve got to know more.

You type “myths about women and guns” in the search bar, and your first thought is, “Holy mackerel, there are myths on both sides of the gun control issue.” And then you wonder how “holy mackerel” popped into your head, since it’s not a term you’re fond of using. Where did that phrase even originate?

The internet provides answers yet again. You learn it was probably a substitution for an unacceptable expletive, thereby making it less offensive. The website makes a comparison to the phrase jumping Jehosophat. Wait a minute. He’s a character in the Bible, right? And you thought his name was spelled differently. Wikipedia reveals his name as Jehoshaphat (yay, you were right) and says the phrase “Jumpin’ Geehosofat” is first recorded in the 1865-1866 novel The Headless Horseman by Thomas Mayne Reid.[1]

But you thought Washington Irving wrote that story. Another search reveals Irving’s work is a short story and bears the title The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. You envision the cartoon version you watched as a kid and get the willies. Will nightmares plague you tonight?

Your eyes drift back to the computer screen—and—UGH!!! WHAT HAPPENED?

Dear friend, you fell down the rabbit hole.

For half an hour.

 It’s time for lunch, and your red-hot inspiration has burned to a pile of powdery ashes.
Please tell me I’m not the only writer who has experienced this. When I began the rough draft of my novel, I’d already conducted a ton of research. It never dawned on me that in the throes of scene-writing I would need further research on less-significant items. I fell down rabbit holes more than a few times before I realized something had to change. Otherwise, I’d never get my book written.

I devised a solution. Then I found out other, wiser writers employed similar methods. I only wish someone had told me about it before I got bruised, dirty, and lost. But now I’m telling you, in case you’re one of the three people in the world that didn’t already know.

These days, when I come to a spot of writing that needs research, I give myself a bracketed placeholder. Here are a couple of examples:

The flames licked the south side of the barn. Celia screamed for help before she grabbed the [bracket—what materials were buckets made of in the 1830s?] bucket and ran for the river.

The smell of fall was in the air, and the [bracket—ask hubby which trees change colors first] trees were showing the first hint of orange [bracket—or red or yellow] across the hills.

Why do I write the word bracket when I’ve placed actual brackets around the things I need to explore?  Later, when I follow up at the end of the scene, chapter, or even the entire manuscript, I use the Find function in Word, type in the word bracket, and my placeholders all show up at once. I’m able to address them when I’m in research mode, rather than losing momentum during a creative streak.

Research isn’t the only writing hole we tumble down, but it can be a big one. What other things tend to get you off track? What practical solutions would you offer for staying on task?

[1] Wikipedia contributors. "Jehoshaphat." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Jun. 2019. Web. 14 Jun. 2019.

(Photos courtesy of, Stuart Miles, and Sira Anamwong.) 


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