The Joy and Sorrow of Research

Wikipedia asked me for money today. I am happy to give what I can. It’s the best starting place for research—or maybe not the best but certainly the easiest.

I was going to write about chess, but I think I’ll shift to research and save chess for another Sunday blog.

Ah, research. I do love research, the kind where I am looking through references for an idea about something, or the truth about something I am utterly wrong about, or the surprise twist I was not expecting.

Before the Internet became the nebulous, stubborn, lying, petulant, habituating, astonishing thing it is, there was the public and school library.

I used to spend a great deal of time in the library. And I spent a lot of money in bookstores, accumulating affordable reference books, encyclopedias, histories, biographies. Many times I found a book in the library that I later bought, because the time limit on borrowing the book was a burden, a looming deadline that took the fun out of it. And then there was the hassle of taking the book back

Life has changed a great deal for all of us. I have embraced the ease of shipping. I can buy used books at Powell’s City of Books without leaving my sofa and having them shipped from Portland to Seattle. The library does not yet need nor want to start shipping borrowed books—Netflix can ship DVDs but public libraries have a very different mission. But I can borrow ebooks quite easily. Endless numbers of research ebooks can be sent to my iPad in seconds, borrowed or bought, depending on the week’s budget.

Nowadays, my research starts with Wikipedia. Some people give me a secret sneer when I tell them where I read something, but I am not a gullible type, at least not any more. When my sweet partner tells me about something he read or saw on Facebook, as much as I want what Occupy Democrats is saying about the president to be true, I am always the skeptic. Looking for verifiability. Seeking the source. What reference? When? Who?

And what I read on Wikipedia gets the same treatment.

The skeptics read Wikipedia, too. Verification of sources is flagged if there is something wonky about it. More than once I have read a paragraph that sounds familiar, words taken nearly verbatim from someone’s blog. Or maybe it’s the other way around. If I see too much of that I begin to pick it apart. Here is a name I will look up, or a place—I may recall another source on the same matter, and check that to see what is said.

I really know very little about chess, except that I know how to play it because my father taught me. So research into the history and culture of the game seemed both daunting and fun. And I’ll start with Wikipedia.

As a writer, I want to endow my characters with enough knowledge to make them real. What might a character know about chess—does she play it? Was she married to someone who was obsessed with the game? Does she want to compete? Does she feel love is like a giant game of chess—a power-struggle of enormous consequence, where the queen is the most agile and strong of all?

The Internet offers another treasure. The experts are there, too. They will find you if you get it wrong. They will provide their unshakable beliefs for you to sort through.

I like sorting. Bookmarking sites to refer to when I inevitably forget what I was thinking about. Sticking Post-its in pages for an item I need to get back to. Digging up newspaper articles, magazine stories, photographs.

It’s all there for the taking, sorting, browsing.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


The Joy and Sorrow of Research — 2 Comments

  1. There are times when research becomes the most fun part of writing a book. Then too there are times when research takes over the project. Who cares about actually writing the book when there are so many points of view to research and sort and think about. And then they become rabbit holes that must be dived into. And if I write the book now, next year there will be a new book out that will change some things…

  2. Wikipedia makes an excellent place to start looking for most things–often especially if it’s wrong in some instances. Because I need at lest three sources, and if they clash horribly, the paper chase for basic Truth begins.

    But there are two things to always remember about Wikipedia. One, it chronicles what can be found on the Internet. If your reviews, theses, successes are recorded off-line, you many not exist in Wikipedia. I am a Campbell-nominated cipher who wrote an Elfquest short story, according to Wikipedia.

    Two–anyone with an agenda can become an editor and start editing. And their agenda may or may not be recognized immediately.

    I will also use books designed for MG kids as a starting point with a new topic. Just an intro, so I am not hopelessly lost with even vocabulary when I dive into adult tomes.