Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Research and rabbit holes

I've suspected for a while that the FBI is keeping a file on me based upon my Google search history.

This, I suspect, is something that plagues a lot of writers, but it's really hit home apropos of my murder mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries, the research for which has resulted in some searches that would look seriously sketchy to anyone who didn't know I'm a writer.  These have included:
  • What anesthetic available to a veterinarian would kill a human the most quickly?
  • How fast does a bubble of air injected into an artery kill someone?
  • Would the remains of a person poisoned to death twenty years ago still show traces of the poison?
  • The behavior of psychopathic individuals
  • The physiology of drowning
  • How hard does a person need to be hit in the back of the head to knock them unconscious?
To anyone would-be Sherlocks out there: allow me to assure you that I have never killed, nor am I planning on killing, anyone.

Writing takes you down some interesting rabbit holes, and I'm not just talking about writing mysteries.  One of the reasons I love writing fiction is that I learn so much in the process -- it gives me a chance to stretch my own brain a little.  Here are a few things I had to research for books I've written:
  • Living conditions in 14th century Norway (Lock & Key)
  • Communications and surveillance technology (Kill Switch)
  • Eighteenth-century land grants in the northeastern U.S. (Descent into Ulthoa)
  • Ancient Greek timekeeping devices (Gears)
  • Medieval Jewish mystical traditions (Sephirot)
  • Creatures from Japanese mythology (The Fifth Day)
  • The effects of untreated type-1 diabetes (Whistling in the Dark)
  • Viking ship design (K├íri the Lucky)
  • The rate of spread of the Black Death in England (We All Fall Down)
  • The structure and furnishings in homes in nineteenth-century southern Louisiana (The Communion of Shadows)
  • How long hydropower electric plants would keep functioning if left unattended (In the Midst of Lions)
And that's just scratching the surface.

I was chatting with a friend and fellow author a couple of days ago, and commented that fiction should open up new worlds, that if my readers are the same when they close the book as they were when they opened it, I've failed as a writer.  However, writing also opens up new worlds for the writer, lets us explore topics we'd otherwise never look into.  (It's all too easy to get lost in research -- to intend to sit down and write, and suddenly three hours have gone by, and all you've done is jump from one abstruse website to another, as my friend and writing partner Cly Boehs would be happy to tell you.)

There are two things about learning: (1) it's fun. And (2) you're never done.  And when it comes to writing, there are always new areas to investigate, new worlds to create.

So many stories to tell, so little time.


Author and biochemist Camilla Pang was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age eight, and spent most of her childhood baffled by the complexities and subtleties of human interactions.  She once asked her mother if there was an instruction manual on being human that she could read to make it easier.

Her mom said no, there was no instruction manual.

So years later, Pang recalled the incident and decided to write one.

The result, Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Life, Love, and Relationships, is the best analysis of human behavior from a biological perspective since Desmond Morris's classic The Naked Ape.  If you're like me, you'll read Pang's book with a stunned smile on your face -- as she navigates through common, everyday behaviors we all engage in, but few of us stop to think about.

If you're interested in behavior or biology or simply agree with the Greek maxim "gnothi seauton" ("know yourself"), you need to put this book on your reading list.  It's absolutely outstanding.

[Note:  if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


  1. I had to laugh out loud at your comment about the FBI files. We are all in that same boat. If they ever looked at my search history, they'd be convinced I'm a criminal! Great post, Gordon. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Ah, the big challenge--how to integrate this research, once found, into the story being told. Why do we set up these challenges? exactly as Gordon has said--to find out for ourselves as well as for the reader. My current novel has a main character who is entering the world without a clue as to how it operates. Infants do this, of course, but most have guides (for better or worse) and they enter pretty much as blank slates (give or take gene or two). My character enters the world at large at age 15 and his guides are those he finds along his way as he ages from the mid-nineteen-thirties through the seventies. So not only are the research challenges the "whats" they are the "whens"! Take on the differences between farming and ranching in Oklahoma and Texas during the drought of the thirties! And as Gordon says, that's just scratching the surface. I sit before my computer some days and wonder what the?! I once had a professional researcher tells me, just google anything, anything. Heh, heh, try that and see what you get. I had another tell me to read fiction, the best non-fiction facts are there, but then exactly what fiction? Really? Research searches are an art and then there is the art of integrating the research into the story. Ah, the story fabrics we weave! So far I've read god-know how many sources, including a complete master's thesis on classifications in the military during WWII and part of dissertation on the foundation of knowledge! Thanks Gordon. A really fine thought-provoking entry today. And you do the weaving as well as any writer I know.