Down The Rabbit Hole of Research

by Terri Benson

This post was originally published on September 9, 2013

Just about any form of writing requires research, some more than others. Being a historic romance and cozy mystery writer, I do my fair share of research on a wide variety of topics. And that’s a lot of the reason I write – I love history and digging out tidbits of fact I can use in my fiction.

When I wrote An Unsinkable Love, I found literally hundreds of websites dedicated to the Titanic. I was like a kid in a candy store, flitting from one brightly colored jar to another. And that brings me to the Rabbit Hole.

It’s really easy to get caught up in research. With the WWW at our fingertips, everything is within reach from the comfort of our own homes, the local coffee shop, or a smart phone sitting on a park bench. The problem is, all that time spent researching, you’re not writing.

And almost as bad (or possibly worse), is there’s an awfully good chance those “facts” you’re gleaning, aren’t really. Facts, that is. Any Tom, Dick and Harriet can set up a website and populate it with keywords and whatever they want, and sit back knowing that someone, somewhere, will read it and take it as gospel.

Even with the Titanic, which has been written about adinfinitum for a hundred years, there is a huge amount of conflicting data.  What time the ship sank, even how many died. You can avoid that by finding multiple sources of the same information, taking even more time. Better yet, get around it by not using a specific – i.e. “in the dark moments before midnight” instead of at exactly 11:54 p.m. Readers won’t quibble. They’re reading a (hopefully) compelling story, not a dry press release. This issue leads into another quagmire:  too much research ending up in the story.

Research is a means to an end, not the end. While some of us are fascinated by Victorian architecture, our readers don’t care about every corbel, pilaster, Palladian detail, or intricate pattern in that Rocco furniture. So, unless your hero is a Victorian architect who is being pursued by a villainous building inspector, less is probably more.

I also have to fight the tendency to just keep gobbling more and more research.  Invariably the information I really need for my story is muddled with unnecessary stuff, and if I didn’t make notes of where I found it, I spend more time trying to find it again. Note to self:  start making a note of the sites you visit!

In a recent workshop put on by Cindi Myers, she talked about how she avoids getting sucked in to the Rabbit Hole.  She writes from start to finish before editing—which clearly works for her since she has more than 55 published books under her belt. When she finds a place that needs researched, she puts in a series of asterisks. I use a long blank line. This works wonderfully to remind you to check a date, or maybe include a description of clothing, a vehicle, a location, etc.  It can even be a space-holder for an entire scene, but it keeps you moving.

If you use an outline, story board, or bible, you probably have an idea of the types of research you’ll need—an untraceable poison, the latest in DNA identification, what kind of airplanes flew in 1914, the titles of officers in the British military in 1830, or who ruled in Bulgaria in 1620. Spend a specifically allotted amount time before you start writing getting needed details lined out, then keep yourself from going back and forth to research small tidbits as you’re writing. You’ll have a lot more words on the page at the end of the day.

One downfall of doing end-of-story research is that finding some really great piece of research might change the direction of your story just when you think you’re finished, but that’s part of the fun and interest in writing. I don’t know about you, but my characters often decide to go off on their own tangents.

And don’t become a hermit who never leaves the house to do research. Remember libraries and museums? They have vintage photographs, actual items you can look at up close and personal, and knowledgeable staff who can get you “just the facts, ma’am” in less time than it takes you to boot up your computer. If your story takes place in a fictional home town, local desert or mountains strangely similar to your own, get in the car and drive around. Chances are, you’ll see things that make your story more real.

So unless Alice is your name and Rabbits your game, stay out of the Rabbit Hole and keep on writing!


Terri Benson was born and raised in the Grand Valley of western Colorado.  Married for nearly 35 years and counting to the same very unromantic man, and having raised 2 sons, she enjoys reading and writing historic romance and mystery to get away from the day-to-day realities of life.  In addition to writing dozens of published articles in local, regional and on-line newspapers and magazines, and award winning short stories, she enjoys camping, boating, hiking and gardening.  She doesn’t enjoy housework.  Find more about her at  Member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of American, and a great critique group.