Research Rabbit Holes


Phyllis Irene Radford

Research can be a wonderful tool for bringing a sense of veritas to fiction writing. I had to research why glass would be the most precious commodity in the epic fantasy world of The Glass Dragon, when silicon is one of the most abundant elements in the known universe.

Research can also be an end in itself.

We all know people who have researched a book for ten years or more but can’t write the book because they haven’t done enough research. They could write a doctoral dissertation, but there is more to research to do for the fiction book.

I have a feeling that research addicts have fallen into more than one rabbit hole.

Only one author of my acquaintance was able to pull herself out of the fascinating thrall of yet more research and finish the book.

ElizaBeth (Lace) Gilligan, may she rest in peace, had been researching the Romany for an alternate history fantasy series for ten years, but always had more to research. She tuned in to an afternoon talk show that featured guest Romany chieftains from two rival clans. About the time they resorted to chair throwing, they had left English behind and yelled curses at each other in their native language. Some of these elaborate curses are cultural and not translatable. Lace understood every word they said, and why.

It was time to write the book.

Back in 2000 I needed to know the name of the Bishop of Paris in 1558 for an historical fantasy Guardian of the Vision, Merlin’s Descendants #3.

A quick Google search provided me with a long list of names of every bishop of Paris since Rome appointed the first one back in the post Roman dark ages. Except there was an eight-year gap surrounding 1558. Blank. No name. Nothing.

Huh? The Catholics are noted for their record keeping. They keep everything. They may hide a piece of information they don’t like, or feel threatened by, so that no one can find it for a thousand years, but they keep it.

I did note that the names prior to the gap all came from the same du Bellay family. The position of Bishop of Paris seemed to be an inheritable legacy. Later research confirmed that this was common throughout Europe in the period.

Onto the Catholic Encyclopedia. Still a huge gap during my crucial period.

I needed to move on and finish writing the book. Deadlines will do that to you. So I left the name blank and continued writing, but I did place a call to the University of Portland (Oregon) research librarian.

I figured a Catholic college should be able to come up with something, even if it was a dispute in Rome that left the episcopal (meaning “of the bishop” not the modern Protestant church) throne empty. The wonderful ladies learned to giggle every time I called because they knew I’d send them off into research rabbit holes they’d not think of following otherwise. Research Librarians are the ultimate research addicts. I’d almost forgotten my quest for a name of a prominent historical character when they called back. It seems that Eustachius du Bellay resigned as Bishop of Paris in 1564. No explanation available unless I went to the Vatican Archives.

Cool! That worked nicely with the way the plot developed and why a new dynasty took over from him in the chain of succession.

I wrote the book, a 200,000 word monster, but the research didn’t stop there.

That family monopoly of high positions haunted me. Further reading took me into the “Nephew” culture. Every high ranking official in any corporation or government or agency needs an administrative assistant, one who is in training to take over for the boss when the time comes. In the Roman Catholic church of the time, this assistant was often referred to as the nephew of the reigning prince. From the chain of names, this looks logical. Except that further digging led to the conclusion that instead of a nephew, the assistant could be the son of an ordained and consecrated bishop who is therefore supposed to be celibate, or someone unrelated who took the family name so he could be called “nephew” when he was actually the lover of the prince.

One essay, which was badly researched if researched at all, claimed that these homosexual liaisons resulted from overpopulation and the anthropological need to reduce the population and conserve resources. Take what you want from that premise.

But the overpopulation in cities led me to the emergence of cities out of agrarian societies, and how settled farming came out of hunter-gatherer tribes.

This took me to Gobleki Tepe in Turkey, the oldest known human constructed temple.

These massive, artistically carved, and decorated standing stones are the subject of an ongoing archaeological study that reveals new things every season. Scientists have found hints of ancestor worship, evidence of feasting, and many 20 gallon, stone troughs with beer residue.

The picture painted by the evidence suggests that hundreds of hunter-gatherers came from up to one thousand miles away, with their livestock, for an annual ritual around the temple they’d come together to build, followed by festivities.

Now if you are going to throw a party for that many people you have to have an on-flowing supply of beer, much more than what each family could gather along the way and ferment once they arrived. No, this kind of annual party required fields and fields of carefully managed grain. The beginning of civilization.

This proves once again that beer saved the world.

Now where did this rabbit hole begin?


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Research Rabbit Holes — 9 Comments

  1. It’s interesting that, upon your mention of a world in which glass is the most precious of substances, my immediate thought was artificial world, or even artificial universe. The idea that, while we use computer simulations to model our theories, a Kardashev Type II or above civilization might well build actual physical models. For a Type II or Type III civilization, building an artificial planet and populating it might well be the accepted method of answering certain questions — and for the intelligent beings on such a world, those creators might be indistiguishable not just from mages, but from gods.

    SF is rich with stories of super-advanced beings who either are mistaken for gods or who present themselves as gods in order to better manipulate their lower-tech subjects. I’ve played with it a few times, although I’m not sure whether Vengeance Is Mine takes place in the same universe as “The Shadow of a Dead God” (published in Visions V: Milky Way).

    • In the case of “The Glass Dragon” I made the sand so full of impurities that only dragon fire is hot enough to burn them out. Otherwise the glass is so brittle it is nearly useless.

      In our world the impurities in sand are what make the most interesting colors. The glassmakers of Venice learned to coat the inside of their furnaces–the glory holes–with white clay to reflect the heat back into the fire and thus intensify it far beyond normal burning temperatures. We also have beaches with sand that is relatively “clean” in terms of impurities.

      • Which could make sense even with natural stellar evolution — their world belongs to a system that developed from a supernova remnant with a lot more elements that make problematic impurities, so more remain in the upper crust instead of sinking into the mantle and core.

  2. I think I had a comment disappear into the spam trap. Probably because I linked both of the items I was mentioning.

    Could you get someone to dig my comment back out?


    • Leigh, I see your comment right above this one, complete with links. It might have been put in pending and someone else approved it last night. There was nothing in the spam trap but the spammiest of spam.

      • Thanks. I’ve had comments at other blogs get spamtrapped for the weirdest reasons. Sometimes even a single link — or any use of HTML at all — is enough. Other times it’s a trigger word that is often associated with spam messages, but I happened to use in a setting where it seemed innocuous.

  3. Phyl, this was worth a rerun! I’m fascinated with the Turkey site, and now must add it to my list when Thor and I finally get to do our postponed Turkey trip. And, yes, beer saves the world again! A long-ago Anthropology professor explained that early agrarian cultures stored grain in clay-lined pits with water, which fermented into a “beery gruel.” So our ancestors “wandered around in a pink beer haze.” Could be worse tints right now!

  4. oy vey there now I’m buried in something I never expected to find 🙂 no I ain’t telling you’re going to have to wait for the book…