How Not to Research – A Cautionary Tale

Sometimes (like right now) I wish my legs were longer, and bendier, just so I could kick my own backside.

Over the school holidays here in New Zealand I have done zero writing. Fair enough, I justified to myself, it is hard to get into the mental space to write when your days are filled with childcare, managing a home renovation, finalising a first book for publication, and obtaining consents and quotes for a community construction project. So instead of writing my novel, I wrote a post on why I wasn’t able to write (here), and let myself off the hook.

Two weeks ago, the school holidays rolled to an end and the kids went back to school. I sighed a big sigh of relief, savoured the silence for a second, then sat down at my computer and opened up my manuscript ready to get writing. Up popped the opening scene I had written before the holidays. The scene where my protagonist wakes from his cryogenic sleep in an abandoned cryogenic laboratory years after a cataclysmic event. I really like it, all 1500 words of it (not much to not like – if you know what I mean!). As I sat there, coffee in hand, ready to tap dance a frenzy on my keyboard, I realised that I could not continue writing.

Why? Because the upcoming scenes require knowledge that I don’t yet have. I want the setting to be plausible so I need to make a decision about exactly what cataclysmic event has decimated Earth in my story. Only then can I figure out the details of the setting (the climate; what infrastructure is left; how many survivors there are and how they survived; whether there are plants, animals and food, and where these are located). To some extent I have a picture in my mind of how I would ideally like the post-apocalyptic Earth of my story to be, so I am researching to find the circumstances that might give rise to it.

Secondly, before my protagonist can leave the cryogenic facility I need to decide where on the planet the facility is.

By now you are probably guessing why I am so cross with myself. I could easily have done this research over the holidays. For me, research doesn’t require the same level of concentration or emotional and mental investment that writing does.

Feeling very frustrated with myself, I closed my manuscript and pulled up my internet browser instead. I had already done some preliminary research online when I first had the idea for this story, but only just enough to convince me that I should be able to create a plausible (at least to non NASA scientist-types) post-apocolyptic setting.

After an hour or so of intensive googling, I hit a roadblock. After trawling through site after site, I had read the same sort of information over and over again; most of it superficial and none it in enough depth for me to figure out what life on Earth might be like after a massive solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME) had struck. I need details, like: how long would it take for people to die? How would the plants, machinery, and animals be affected? How long would the radiation take to dissipate? How much warning would Earth have of such an event arriving? How might people survive the event?

So I abandoned google, and started browsing the city library catalogue to see if they had any resources that might answer all the questions I had. It was easy to find books on my proposed location (Arizona). Why there? I have never been to Arizona, and I don’t remember consciously deciding on it. I suspect it’s because when I briefly researched cryogenics online, I found a useful website belonging to a cryogenic laboratory in Arizona. From what I have seen of Arizona in movies and on TV, it strikes me as being a excellent location to start my story. Finding books on what the world might be like after a big solar flare is not so easy. What do you type into the catalogue search?

Fortunately I lucked out when I tried searching on ‘Solar Flares’. The first book listed was non-fiction, and looked as though the subject matter was the effects of solar flares on ancient civilisations. Even better, it was available at the local library branch where I was planning to go anyway.

Forgotten Civilizations by Robert M. SchochFor the past two weeks I have been reading through the book I found, and making notes. It has been extremely fascinating reading, and the scenarios that the author outlines of how a large scale solar event could impact Earth are very scary, yet I am relieved to have scenarios I can use for my story. I think I’m close to having enough knowledge to create a plausible post-apocalyptic setting. Not all of my questions have been answered by this book, but I suspect that no one has all the answers I need – they simply aren’t known.

After I finished reading the book, I decided to email the author and ask for his help with my unanswered questions. I have to admit that I felt cringy doing it! I let him know how helpful his book was, and set out the questions that I still had. I also described the world I would ideally like my story to be set in, and asked him what event or chain of events he thinks might lead to it. I’m hoping that saying I am an author is enough justification for the shameless picking of his brains. Fingers crossed that he answers – with answers! I will let you know.

This post should serve as a lesson in how not to research. In hindsight I should have done a lot more research before I committed to my idea. The fact that I haven’t just shows my inexperience writing this type of book. I don’t have a roadmap – I’m making it up as I go. The one thing I do have is an (unfounded?) belief that I will be able to make it work, and this book will get written.

There are lots of resources out there on how you should research for your stories – you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I haven’t read any of them! So if you want to avoid my hap-hazard approach, click here to read a post from the 4am writer, Gwen Stevens on researching.


17 thoughts on “How Not to Research – A Cautionary Tale

  1. Ah, the delight of researching. I have found that a good library with an excellent librarian is a great asset. Librarians rule! However, on to the problem. I wonder why you are setting your novel in Arizona, when there could be cryogenic labs all over the world in the time your novel suggests. Why not your own country, where you know the area, the distances, and the topography. Otherwise, you could make up a new world, a new advanced planet, and then any scenario you want is more believable.

    The problem with using a setting you don’t know, is the knowledge others have of it. I read a book review of a very good novel some years ago. He had his people settle beside an idyllic lake in another US State. The locals knew that the lake was man-made and wasn’t there at all during the time the novel was set. In fact that piece of land was desert-like.

    I feel the thing about lack of knowledge in the area you are researching is that it doesn’t exist at all. Maybe you have to make it up. That’s what being a writer is often about, a plausible concept. Remember, if a fact doesn’t suit, alter it. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Have fun, and do what you are good at. Make some of it up.

  2. Wow – what a great post, and I’m sure your hindsight frustration is something many of your readers are able to relate to. It’s an intriguing premise, and I can easily picture Arizona as a post-apocalyptic setting. And what a fantastic idea to email the author of your resource. It’s one I never would have considered.

    I’m in the process of dismantling my incomplete novel manuscript piece by piece, currently in the infancy stages of re-outlining. I’m determined this time to do it right – to figure out all the important elements, fill in the plot holes, and have a very clear picture of the whole story before I write word one.

    I get the sense that you and I are similar in some personality traits, which may translate into comparable writing habits. Not sure why I feel this, just a hunch (takes one to know one, perhaps?) 😉 To that end, if I may recommend one more guide that has been infinitely helpful to me at this stage in the writing process: Outlining Your Novel, by KM Weiland. I suggest this only because you stated above that you are mapping as you go, and for me this method resulted in an underdeveloped, dead end plot and lots of frustration.

    Before you run for the hills screaming “No! I can’t bear the thought of outlining! It kills the creative process!” I’d say give it a chance. Check it out on Amazon or download the sample on your e-reader. Going through this book, I’ve found a detailed outline can be something of a first draft. The bugs are worked out ahead of time, so when all the hard background work is finally complete, I can sit down and do the fun part – write!

    Good luck, and thanks so much for the plug at the end of the post – it was a nice surprise 🙂

    • I think we might be similar too! Although I have previously said I don’t want to outline, I realised that I actually did do it in my first novel (I feel a post coming about this). I follow DM Weiland on Twitter, and she tweets out a writing question of the day #WQOTD that I sometimes try and answer – it’s a question about your novel for you to consider like what season is it set in? What major obstacle does your protagonist face? etc. I find them really useful, so I would love to have a look at her book and will do so. At the moment I think what is killing my creative process is my total lack of organisation!

      I am very curious to know what kind of novel you wrote, and did you get external feedback on it?

      • I’ve written a few incomplete drafts of a love triangle romance – a woman caught between the one she’s with versus the one she really wants.

        I got loads of external feedback on it through online courses, peer critique groups, and a critiquing website, where I’m a member. It’s the feedback from these sources, as well as my own gut feeling that the story just wasn’t working that convinced me to put it away last July. Just in the last month I decided to revisit it.

        I’ve been developing new ideas to give the plot and characters more depth, and the KM Weiland book I mentioned above has been tremendously helpful!

      • Yea! I hope it’s as helpful to you as it’s been to me. I’m anticipating I won’t be doing any writing for some months, but I will certainly update you once I do. 🙂

  3. Hi Suzanne – love your opening line to this blog, made me choke on my coffee. Your book sounds fascinating, terrifying but fascinating. I hope he replies with a stack of inspiring, helpful information – well done for emailing him, very gutsy. The setting from my novel is mainly from memory, although I did do a stack of research before I started on Welsh history but this was mainly for inspiration – I couldn’t have started without doing this to be honest. Thanks for the learning lesson, research is such an important beginning for an idea. Good luck!

    • Thanks. Hope you didn’t waste too much coffee! It’s always hard to know whether it is ok to approach complete strangers and ask for help. In the end I figured the worst that could happen is that he might tell me to go away in not too polite terms!

  4. I think both newbie and established writers struggle with how much to research and how much is ‘stream of conciousness’ writing. There is no reason you cannot do both.

    On my blog,’ I give my journey writing ‘Genome’, a techo/ghost story and writing ‘Arlo and Jake’, a humorous Space Opera series aimed at the YA and adult market.

    I outlined/chaptered most of ‘Arlo and Jake Enlist’, the first in the series. But I was constantly revising/changing the story. If your outline is skeletal, ‘just the facts, Ma’am’, then you are free to wheel=about to your heart’s content.

    FWIW, I have been outlining the first 10 books at the barest level as I wrote the first A&J and now that I’m working on the 2nd book ‘Arlo and Jake Galactic Bootcamp’.
    Some of the outlines are barely more than a few lines of general direction and new ideas/characters I’ve thought of. Several are very detailed and thought out.

    I think one of the keys to writing is to get out of the way of your Muse. When you are stuck or unsatisfied with a section, stop writing and go do some research.

    If you can move your story forward, get out of the way and write it.

    Put in placeholders for the if’s, like ‘the facilty at [Arizona??] was having trouble….’ and move on.

    For me a biggie is NEVER SAY YOU’LL REMEMBER SOMETHING’! If you have a cool idea or vision and it’s not where you are currently writing, GO WRITE IT DOWN!

    I keep mine is a single .txt file in the same directory as my .doc story file. I’m constantly referring to the summary and adding to it.

    I look forward to reading your stories. DON’T GIVE UP!


    • Thanks Gary – that is all really useful advice. I was just wondering to myself the other day why I have chosen to write stories with space elements when I know so little about it! For my first book, I spent hours researching black holes, even though they only featured briefly (it’s a children’s novel with aliens, so it isn’t in too much depth – out in April). This week I’ve been reading a book called ‘Death from the Skies! The Science Behind the End of the World’, and despite the terrifying subject, have been loving learning about astronomy – seems I have been harbouring a latent interest in astronomy (rather than ways to die!). Meanwhile I have been trying to write on, but until my end of world scenario is decided and I know what the implications are, I keep getting stuck. For example, I’ve written as far as my protagonist reaching ground floor of the cryo lab after escaping his cryo pod but now I wonder if the inside of my building would be affected and how! Got more books on order from Book Depository that I hope will give me the information I need. However I may just write on as you suggest, until I get the end of world stuff sorted out in detail. Then I will make my apocolypse fit the setting I write, rather than tailoring my setting to the apocolypse.

  5. Ah, I loved this post, reading it reminded me of myself, a few years ago, with the same general theme, and the same lack of research knowledge. I must say anything that delves into the sciences is so tricky because the reader is so well-read. Back up twenty years ago, with the first Star Trek series, the themes were much simpler, fast-forward to the Next Generation and the writers didn’t have it so easy. There are ways around it. Good for you for writing to that author, I hope he helps.
    As for myself, I’m not sure I’ll ever learn, I’m always scattered all over the place, no matter how much I try to get organized, it always ends up on post-it notes, or scribbles of paper here and there … and then my 4 and 2 year old muck up any system I didn’t have. AH alas the joys of writing.
    I’m glad to see you’ve not given up hope, and still pursue your project. Thank you for checking out my blog, and I look forward to reading more about you and your endeavours.
    Yours truly
    Ps; I’m also trying to create a little book club, please feel free to comment at , and add your thoughts. You can find the link on mouthfulofwords
    Talk to you soon.

    • Will check out the book club. And good on you for managing to write with a 2 and 4 year old. My kids are older now and in school, and it is a little easier (I didn’t start writing until a few years ago so never tried to write with youngies around but I can certainly imagine how difficult that must get!)

  6. Great place you have here! I have had similar experiences with research. Good luck with your source. Also, thanks for stopping by The Brass Rag. Come back and see us again soon.

  7. I know exactly what you mean. It does pay to do the research before letting rip with the writing of the story.Once I’m into a story, I have to let myself go wherever it takes me.

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