Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
― Carl Sagan
A lot of writers I know do research, by which they mean (I think they mean) they have an idea for their book or story and go look for materials relevant to that.
I do some of that when I need to make sure my story isn’t full of howlers.
But my own actual research forays when I’m writing fiction are pretty specific: Do I have that date right? Is there any science that supports this flight of fancy? I generally do this after I’ve started writing and found something I need to know more about.
I get the impression that a lot of novelists I know go down much deeper rabbit holes doing this kind of research than I do.
I do get obsessed with subjects or with author, but this obsession is rarely related to research for a particular story or book. It has to do more with coming across an idea or an approach that strikes me as fascinating, regardless of whether I have any practical use for it.
Most of the time, I read widely (or as I put it in a recent senryu, wildly) because I’m interested in an immense variety of things, including things I don’t know interest me until I stumble across them.
My biggest FOMO is of not discovering something I want to know about. Carl Sagan put it more elegantly in the quote at the beginning of this post.
But I also read widely/wildly because this is the backbone of my writing. I don’t know in advance what I need to know.
One of my talents (or perhaps it’s a curse) is the ability to make connections among things that seem to be very different. Sometimes I can make others see those connections. Other times, my ideas drive people crazy.
I am always greedy for ideas, different approaches, a brilliant take on an old subject. I get these things from a vast variety of written works, but I also get them from movement, from looking at plants, from talking to strangers on the street, not to mention from paintings, sculptures, movies, plays, music.
I also find it almost impossible to narrow things down to a specific subject. For example, I’ve been obsessed for more than twenty years by the way we learn through our whole bodies. I came at that originally from training in Aikido, but it’s led me down paths in neuroscience, feminism and gender issues, movement studies, philosophy, self defense, and even the importance of storytelling.
I’ve come across any number of things that weren’t directly on point and found myself incorporating them.
I’ve got multiple essays on the subject, including several academic papers presented at WisCon. I keep putting together book proposals, but the subjects I want to cover keep expanding.
In my mind (which includes my body, of course, because the mind is not just the gray matter of the brain), all these things are connected.
I don’t know if it will all come together or not, but at least I have the pieces of it.
I suspect if I were a physicist, I’d be one of those people searching for the theory of everything. Of course, I’d probably be bringing biology, anthropology, and most certainly Aikido into my physics.
But here’s an interesting twist: I don’t have that problem of narrowing things down when I’m writing fiction. I write everything from flash fiction to novels — and my novels are relatively short — and I don’t have much problem deciding what belongs there and what doesn’t.
Learning to write flash fiction was a great way to figure that out. You can’t put an extraneous word in flash fiction, much less an extraneous idea.
I do, of course, use the ideas I glean from all my wide/wild reading in my fiction, but I mostly use them indirectly. That is, because I have integrated those ideas into how I think about the world, they inform my characters and setting.
My fiction usually comes from an image or a “what if” sort of idea, which is to say it involves imagination.
Apparently imagination allows me to narrow my ideas, while thinking about them as ideas just makes me go looking for more ideas.
It is pretty clear to me that my mind is inefficient, but deep in my heart I believe if I tried to be more efficient, I’d miss something.
If this is a problem, it’s not one I want to fix.