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The Joys and Terrors of Research

It’s a funny thing, how the different selves we carry within us overlap.

Specific example: after 25-odd years as a student, the last 10 of those in a college/university setting (starting my 7th year of graduate school these days… yes, I’ve been in higher education that long…), I know how to do research. Now that I’ve buckled down to trying to write what one writing instructor whose lectures I heard called a “real fantasy world” (i.e., one where, despite the presence of magic, everything NON-fantastical (i.e., the economy, the cultural structures of the people, what aspects of biology you mean to have function the way they do in the real world) “works,” I find myself researching some really strange stuff.

Recent novel-related queries that have sent me down the research wormhole:

  • What is the average /necessary/ human calorie intake? (i.e., not what we in the overfed Global North might consider to be necessary, but what actively keeps you from being hungry all the time) And, relatedly, what are the approximate caloric counts for (in no particular order) potatoes, yams, turkey, pork, fish and kale? (note that none of these exists as a staple food in my world… but I figured hey, the improvising had to start somewhere ;))
  • What’s the quickest, surest way to kill someone with a knife? (This would’ve got me some strange looks if I’d been researching it in the public library… thank gods for the Internet…)
  • What were the most common building materials for peasant cottages in the Middle Ages?
  • What are the do’s and don’t’s of petting a bird, assuming one wanted to do such a thing?

I’ve also been collecting some weird books on my shelves lately, covering everything from big photo collections of Appalachia to analyses of Celtic language structure to discussions of the ways in which cultures with non-binary gender systems handle pronouns and social roles.

I always tell people who are looking to go to grad school that liking research is a necessary component of it (though not the only one). Seems that might be good advice for the writing life, too…

Leave a comment


  1. I am with you on this. Throughout writing my stories and books I’ve had similarly strange researching spurts! Like what kinds of minerals are found on the various asteroids and moons in our solar system…and I researched ancient Sumerian so that I could write a fake resurrection spell. Fun times!


  2. Matt

     /  August 30, 2012

    Etymology seems to be the thing I inadvertently spend the most time researching, for no apparent reason.


  3. apocalypseweather

     /  August 31, 2012

    So, what are the do’s and don’ts of petting a bird?


    • Couldn’t find any for birds of prey specifically (because, oddly, people don’t keep them as pets all that often), but what I did find — re: parrots — is that while social birds often do enjoy petting, you want to keep it pretty much to their head. Because most social grooming among birds is done between mates, and so if you pet your parrot’s body, it may interpret it as a sexual overture (or just become really really sexually frustrated and not really understand why).

      So I decided to go with that. More or less. Particularly silly considering the scene I needed the information for…


  4. Matt

     /  August 31, 2012

    oooh! want want!!



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