“Accidents” of Research

dinosaur, dig, paleontology

(photo: wikimedia)

In the May issue of The Big Thrill, writer Gary Grossman discussed how he dug deep for the themes and jigsaw pieces of his new “geological thriller,” Old Earth. There are two kinds of research that I do. One is akin to fact-checking: Exactly how should a flash-bang be described, and how does it work? On what street corner in Rome is the Anglican church? What variation of baklava do Turks eat? This kind of research is essential, in order to keep readers convinced that their books’ narrators know what they are talking about. More about my research process is here.

Although that kind of research can be a springboard for ideas, the other type of research, which Grossman describes, is more wide-ranging, more generative. Old Earth begins some 400 years ago in Galileo’s time, thought the principal story concerns characters who are present-day paleontologists involved in an excavation. As Grossman wrote, he began to feel the need for a powerful inciting incident, one that would be “profound, believable, and grounded in truth.” So he expanded his research on Galileo and discovered some of the astronomer’s less famous inventions, which turned out to be authorial gold.

These facts provided a plausible jumping-off place for plot development, an opportunity to link the historical and modern-day portions of the novel, and an imaginative yet believable motivation. They were, he says, “A wonderful accident of research.” Such interconnections in a novel create a natural resonance for the reader and make the work more meaningful. Good storytellers who use such links–in fiction and non-fiction alike–make their work both more interesting and more universal.

He terms his discovery an accident, but it’s really a case of “chance favoring the prepared mind.” It’s the kind of thing that can happen when a writer stays open to possibilities and connections. In the process, the discovery became an adventure for Grossman, as well as for his subsequent readers.

Writers frequently talk usefully about the need for balance between research and writing, since many writers so love to do research they can get lost in the byways of investigation and neglect to even open up the most recently saved file of their novel-to-be. It’s a matter of figuring out how much detail—and in Grossman’s case, how much depth—is needed to craft a story that is both believable and memorable.