Finding Stuff Out


Just about every story I’ve written, whether published or unpublished, has involved research. Lots and lots of research. Some examples: the life of Marcel Marceau, McCarthyism, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, John Ringling North, Modoc the elephant, Vera Zorina, the Atlantic telegraph cable, and recipes for borscht. I love finding stuff out, and the internet, with all its databases and countless other resources, has meant I don’t even have to leave Vermont most of the time. (I hate leaving home. I’ve only flown–on an airplane–once in the last eleven years and have no plans to do so again.)

In the early days of the internet, which I remember as if they were yesterday, the prevailing wisdom was that it was a mile wide and an inch deep. This has not been true for a long time. The danger for me is how very deep it is. Years go by and I am still finding stuff out, because it’s more fun than writing. It’s seductive. It calls to me, waking me from sleep. My long-suffering husband and I have dinner with the laptop on the table in case a question pops out of the salad or an idea bubbles up from the pasta. As recently as last night, while eating at a friend’s house, I demanded she retrieve her laptop so we could find out where Cormac McCarthy lives. It was a birthday dinner, too.

Eventually a very sad day arrives and I realize it’s time to figure out what the heck the story actually is. 99% of the research then disappears, never to surface again. Everything has to serve the story. What becomes fascinating—and frustrating—is the balancing act of what to include, how to include it, and what to leave out.

I’m planning to offer a workshop at VCFA this January around this very topic. In the meantime, what are some of your favorite examples of well-researched (and not necessarily non-fiction!) stories that achieve a perfect balance? And what kind of research are you yourself engaged in?




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9 responses to “Finding Stuff Out

  1. nhatch

    I have just begun a historical novel. I have never had to do extensive research before, and I am amazed at how it can suck you in. I love being able to find quick information on odd topics quickly via the Internet. It’s like magic. Of course deciding what to keep and what to let go is always a struggle. I want to use everything, but I’m not writing a textbook. I recently read Bill Bryson’s A short History of Practically Everything. The depth and uniqueness of his research was as impressive as his ability to engage the reader in the history of science. I highly recommend it.

  2. terrypierce

    I love Laurie Halse Anderson’s work, particularly CHAINS and FORGE. Her use of details demonstrates how well she researches. I love it when I have to stop reading a historical fiction novel to look something up and discover something new about the time period. What am I researching now? Do agents count? 🙂

  3. Julie Larios

    Leda, when I was in college(this is the 60’s, of course) I walked in to an undergraduate advisor one day and basically tried to pitch this approach as my new major – “Finding Stuff Out.” The advisor told me dream on. Which I guess I did, and have been trying to do, for the last four decades. I want so much to take your workshop that I might have to enroll as a student at the same time I’m teaching. Do they let us do that?

  4. Louise Hawes

    The research for THE VANISHING POINT, historical fiction set in Renaissance Italy, filled four years of my life. I was on fire, swept away, obsessed, and when it was over I told myself, never again! Now I’ve fallen for a character who lived in the first century CE, and I’m telling myself, Okay, maybe once more…seductive is right, Leda!

  5. Uma Krishnaswami

    This is so perfectly timed, Leda! While finding stuff out on the internet mostly suits me fine, sometimes there is no substitute for going to a place or meeting people connected with the story you’re after. I’m beyond excited right now, as I head out to Central California on a research trip, where I’ll look at photos, talk to museum curators, poke around in archives. But I’ll also meet people who can recall a time before my own, as well as the descendents of others who have passed away but have left their stories behind in memory and family lore.

  6. Anonymous

    Thanks for these wonderful comments, everybody. I’m relieved to know there are other obsessive sorts among my colleagues and friends! leda

  7. luciferadi

    Ooh, Jeremy Brett in the morning!

  8. sharrywright

    Right now, I’m reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, which feels like it’s struck the perfect balance between using well researched facts about the plagued period of history and a character driven plot.

    And I’m, for the first time ever, writing a historical YA set on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast in 1875. My research has turned up so many eccentric, wild and fascinating characters, that the temptation is to try and cram them all in, but I know that I need to stick to only what serves my story. My husband, a history buff of that time, keeps saying, but you have to include Oofty-Goofty, you have to include Emperor Norton, and I have to keep telling him, but they aren’t part of my story!

    On the other hand, I’m having a terrible time turning up more than a few lines about a historical figure who does play a big role in my story. So I’m making things up, but it makes me nervous that I might be getting her all wrong.

  9. Kathi Appelt

    I loved doing the research for my pack horse librarian book, which involved both feet on the ground and fingers on the keys. My feet took me to so many nice people, including a woman who lived in a “holler” in Kentucky, and who had over the years fostered 68 children. I loved scratching around in archives, looking for old WPA photos and rummaging through boxes of letters and records. My fingers took me to the Library of Congress where a very helpful archivist helped me locate some old transcripts of a PTA penny drive, and also led me to the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park where a librarian there found a beautiful old scrapbook that was presented by the pack horse librarians to Eleanor Roosevelt. It had a recipe in it for “Ash Cake,” cake that was baked by setting it in the ashes of a fire pit. I want to do it all again.

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