Finally…a name for it: RESEARCH RAPTURE!

Phrenology illustration from the 1800s
Phrenology illustration from the 1800s

There was an article in the Times last month that was so completely me that I blushed with embarrassment ….

I felt outed.

It was about a guy who says he suffers from “research rapture” when it comes to writing novels.  Oh boy.  My husband recognized my condition right away and cut the article out for me to read and put it on my desk.

My story goes a bit like this:

Nearly ten years ago, I hit upon this idea for a novel that started in my mind as a bit of joke but then I started trying to work out the plot.  It had to do with clones.  So I took a peek at material on clones and started to see ice and snow….I think there was some allusion to Frankenstein in my mind…I also felt there was something about a cult in there.

So this lead me to looking into cults and cloning but more crucial for me was thinking of Antarctica and trying to answer for myself the question “Can I set a novel in a place like this?”  I can’t go visit.  I’d have to depend on some research…..ahhhh…the magic word…research.

Research and I are old pals.  As an English major, I had to write a lot of essays so always some research was required and I rather enjoyed it.  Then in fiction workshops I would tend to favor writing stories that depended on a bit of research as well…maybe because I was in the habit of writing material dependent on it…it was a crutch…it felt safe…it gave a flair of authenticity…I didn’t trust my creative voice as much as I trusted throwing out factual details….So it worked well enough for a while…

Until the research became more than research…it became the only part of the work moving forward…

My first real encounter with true “research rapture” (as the Times article defines it, “exhaustive study of a topic or time period”) was with a short story featuring the Marquis de Sade.  I’d done a little research and churned out a story…but I felt like it could be so much better…if only I’d done more research…so I started doing a lot more research… I ended up with a horrible play and a horrible short story or two and one half way decent historical novel opening from my research…All of it hopefully never to see the light of day again….but I also ended up with a file four inches thick of essays/articles from libraries and online material ..and a long list of books to read (including his fiction).

I wanted to do a novel on Sade…a grand historical epic…but I reached a place of research overload…I’d somehow shifted away from Sade and was spending all my time reading about Phrenology simply because I’d read one little nibble of intriguing facts about it as it related to Sade…so I chased that white horse all the way and followed other threads here and there like the politics of France in the early 1800s….In the end (the full stop I decided on…not an actual end) I didn’t know how to use SO much material in my work.  I felt bogged down.  I felt somehow dumber from knowing so much….Instead of giving me more confidence in writing the novel, it gave me infinity less ….I assumed with all those details I just had to be in way over my head…maybe I needed a novel idea that wasn’t so out of my wheelhouse…..So I abandoned it.

A few years later I was neck deep in Antarctica and cloning.  Ummm…and WHAT would I know about either of THOSE?  Is THAT my wheelhouse? Um. No. But I could research right? I learned nothing from my first round of research rapture.

Ten years after I’d thought of clones in Antarctica I still had no novel.  I did have a very thorough outline for TWO related novels.  Both requiring (in my mind) a million hours of research.  You see…what happens when you start researching a topic is you come across other little interesting details and for me those become crucial, must-know-more, things….The “Antarctica” novel became “book two” with a preceding story set during the Civil War. I spent ten years amassing a bibliography of the history of psychiatry, the Civil War, Reconstruction, economics of the 1800s etc etc etc…..I read five or six books on the history of Psychology and Civil War history….I’d skimmed another thirty or forty on both topics ….I’d heard that Stanley Kubrick read at least 50 novels on the subject of each of his movies…so I’d need to read 100, seeing as how I’m not the genius he was….I even went to the South Carolina State Archives and looked at Psychiatric case books all day…And spent a day at the Library of Congress looking at journals from the 1800s.  I went to college libraries ….I had books collected on online library sites….I read diaries from the time period…websites from bloggers in Antarctica ….I even had to know what books were published and read by most people in the mid 1800s …what names were given to items….I wanted to know what they dreamed at night, worried over during the day….what time they ate…what they ate…what was their everyday language?

And every single detail led me to more questions and a greater hunger to know the answers.  It’s like an addiction.  I can’t stop researching.  I can’t stop thinking that I don’t have enough information yet.  I’ve tried writing the novel with the “just do it” approach…I’ll get a little ways with the opening chapters and then feel that maybe it’s all so false…someone will surely call me out for having a zipper instead of a button 20 years too soon in the novel….or using the wrong word for carriage ….So I tell myself I’ll allow just ONE more peek at a book I just KNOW will clarify things…and before long I’m back to reading and note taking and my One Note file grows and grows…..and the novel shrinks and shrinks….In fact, I’ve done no work on that novel in two or three years now.  I miss it.  I want so much to work on it. But I put it aside to take a break from research…I thought what I needed was to write a modern day novel and not allow myself to research anything…I don’t think that’s possible…but it’s a lot less research than historical novels.

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