Research and Avoiding the Rabbit Hole

Research and Avoiding the Rabbit Hole

I absolutely love research. But reflecting back on how much time I spent on it for The Halting Problem, I now feel like I have a better sense of how much is enough to get the job done.

No question, research is an excellent inspiration for a novel, especially one set 30 years in the past, as mine is. I recall events from that moment, but it was useful to remind myself of what was in the news, what was current, and what technologies were new.

Thank god for online archives. I spent countless hours reading The Boston Globe from 1989 and 1990 to find out what was of concern at that moment. The TECH, MIT’s student newspaper and The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, also gave me great insights into what was happening on campus in Cambridge and what mattered to the students then. I spent time looking through old copies of Phrack, a hacker ‘zine, as well, getting into the heads of early computer explorers. In fact, I have a research folder full of ‘zines from that moment, and a long list of articles that provided me with ideas for characters, technologies, plot twists, you name it.

Research is fun, but there’s a risk: the “rabbit hole.” That’s what my wife and I call it when, at the end of the day, we chat about what we were writing that day over cocktails. The rabbit hole is that lost time when you produced zero new words but found all kinds of cool stuff in your research to distract you. And the rabbit hole is a very, very seductive place. After all, it is research for your book, so it’s productive, right? Certainly more fun than butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, staring at the blinking cursor.

The irony is that research can become the thing that gets you unstuck. Rather than a distraction, it can become a tool to bring focus. In James Patterson’s class on writing from, James Patterson Teaches Writing, one of his collaborators recounts Patterson’s advice to her: if you are blocked, you haven’t done enough research.

The difference between that perspective and the rabbit hole is that research to break a block is focused, not an escape, but a specific task, namely “what else do I need to know?” It’s a subtle difference, but one that served me well in completing my novel.

As I was letting The Halting Problem rest while my beta readers had it, I started thinking about the next few books in the series, doing some preliminary research. And the pull of the rabbit hole was as strong as ever. I’m not quite one of those people who has to turn off internet and email access when writing, but at least now I know my go-to “excuses for not writing.” And research? Absolutely number one.

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