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Amanda Marbais Asks Does Research Ever End?

Amanda Marbais is the author of short story collection Claiming a Body. This is her first post as a Blackbird Writer. You can find out more about her on her website, or by clicking here, and buy her book here.

In my current work-in-progress, a murder takes place on a small farm run by thirty-somethings looking to escape city life. As a longtime Chicago resident, my challenge has been to make a full scale, slightly gothic farm convincing. Right away, I had to dive into outside research.

This novel began during the pandemic when I indulged my mild obsession with watching channels hosted by YouTube farmers (or self-described homesteaders). Topics included the pitfalls of caring for hooved animals, the dangers of coyotes, and the horrors of sheep parasites. I combed through homesteader guides outlining the preferable size and color of duck eggs, the temperaments of chickens, and the goose breed that lends itself to the job of Guard Goose. Geese have a tendency to shriek at the sight of a nocturnal predator or even a stranger wandering the farm. 

Today, my research has moved to interviews with farmers. I’ve reached out to mushroom experts who offer advice on distinguishing between poisonous mushrooms and edible mushrooms.

But at what point will research begin to overshadow my process? I now have enough information for several stories. For me, it’s not just a question of time spent away from writing. It has become a question of clarity. I’ve found that too much research can muddle my process.

As a whole, I do feel a writer’s life is one of general curiosity. For example, while reading the news, an article about a dog that goes missing during a wildfire could intrigue me. I might file it away for later use. In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard expands on the idea of the fiction writer as a generalist.

“[…] the writer is interested in knowing the world in order to make real and honest sense of it. He worries the world and probes it; he collects the world and the world is his field.”

I agree that part of a creative life is searching and remembering. But for the sake of finishing a novel, I needed parameters. I had to limit my scope.

I’ve also been thinking about ways to include my research directly in my novel. Of course, a large info dump about sheep-shearing interests no one but me. Extraneous digressions can weigh down the plot and slow the action.

But, as writers, are there times we should focus on research, rather than letting it recede behind the character’s life? Occasionally, I think including straight-forward facts can contribute to aspects of craft like dramatic tension and characterization.

For example, in Abby Geni’s excellent novel The Wildlands, a tornado tears through the town of Mercy, Oklahoma, beginning a series of events that make up the novel’s spiraling plot. In the aftermath, Geni reveals the strength of the tornado in this passage:

“The tornado that struck the town of Mercy had been category five. Technically it was Category EF5: E for “Enhanced” and F for “Fujita,” the scale on which all tornadoes were measured. Everyone in Oklahoma–maybe the whole country–was aware of the extent of our town’s tragedy.”

The Fujita scale roots the fictional tornado in the real world before transitioning back to the story. It sets up recognizable stakes and adds to our dramatic tension.

Sometimes the inclusion of research can also add to characterization. In David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s riveting novel Winter Counts, a momentary pause to include research gives us a satisfying downbeat before preparing for this vigilante thriller to resume.

“Dennis was passionate about the Rockies and talked about the lack of respect the team got around the country. According to Dennis, people believed the high elevation and dry climate in Denver changed the nature of the game and made the ball travel farther when hit. He said the Rockies stored the balls in a cigar humidor to counter this effect and slow them down.”

This quiet moment between friends gives us a chance to draw closer to the characters. Our morally-complex protagonist, Virgil, even has time to reflect on how this bit of trivia distracts him from the search for his nephew. As readers, we join Virgil in taking a breath before launching back into the quest.

For now, I’ve limited research on my own homesteading novel. I know most of what I find will inform my writing and recede into the background. But I’m always looking for new ways to include research and have the reader share my obsession, if only for a short while.

Amanda Marbais

You can find out more about her on her website,

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    Great first post. It’s the everlasting question. There’s always more research to do/find!

  2. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    Well said! There are so many obstacles in our paths to finishing a novel – I especially enjoyed your references to other authors. Welcome to the Blackbirds!

  3. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    Definitely an everlasting challenge. It’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole and get lost in the warren when it’s something you’re interested in. Well done, Amanda.

  4. Avatar

    I understand your dilemma. I love doing research. I love learning new things and processing them to teach to others. Good research authenticates fiction and makes the story interesting, but there’s a fine line between just enough and too much. Thanks for posting about this fascinating topic, and welcome to Blackbird Writers!

  5. Colleen Winter
    Colleen Winter

    I’m with you on being infinitely curious. It often surprises me that not everyone is! Thanks for a great read.

  6. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Research is mighty fun! I love how research yields plots. As I work on my new novel I’m letting research show me the villain and how the crime happened. I’m writing “into” the big events and not pre-determining them. I’m trusting my research.

  7. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks for your great first post, Amanda! I write children’s mysteries, which also require careful research since as a retired teacher turned writer, I learned not to misinform kids. I have done some “info dumps” in my books, but they further my cause of bringing possible new information to children. I especially like what you wrote: “a momentary pause to include research gives us a satisfying downbeat before preparing for this vigilante thriller to resume.” Yes! I work to make my research inclusions deliver “momentary pauses” and “satisfying downbeats.” I hope I succeed in each book. Those labels will help me decide.

  8. Joy Ann Ribar
    Joy Ann Ribar

    I often go looking into panic holes, poking my nose further and further sometimes until I lose my writing process for the day. But I love research and I appreciate authors adding in facts because I’m a curious human like everyone else. I liked it that you noted the effects of bringing the real into fiction to further the plot, ease the tension, and provide satisfying downbeat.

    1. Tracey S. Phillips
      Tracey S. Phillips

      Panic holes? Joy! Sounds like the kind of thriller research I sometimes need to do. What are you writing these days?

      1. joyribar

        Tracey! A trad mystery series. Edgy. Crusty. Cover reveal about to go live!

  9. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Amanda — Oh, how I enjoyed reading your post. Like you, I’m a fan of the research aspect of writing. I look forward to reading your homesteading novel, where a murder takes place. Welcome to the Blackbird Writers!

  10. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    Great post, Amanda! I LOVE research – in person, in libraries, and the wonderful world wide web (although I’m probably on an FBI watchlist for my search history on poisons at this point). I just submitted a short story with a fictional hurricane, but I found footage of a similar storm that I referenced much like you did. It grounds the story in reality.

  11. Tracey S. Phillips
    Tracey S. Phillips

    Amanda I know what you mean about the never-ending aspect of research. I’m writing the third book in my romantic suspense series and I’m virtually traveling all over Greece. Nothing wrong with that! Today I found a website that fully explained subdermal GPS tracking devices. Now that’s something I hope I’ll be able to use in another book. Until the technology changes. Then it’s back to the search engine. I look forward to reading your WIP!

  12. Avatar
    Margaret Mizushima

    Great first post, Amanda! I need to know a lot more about a subject than I eventually weave into a book so I can write with some sort of confidence. It really helps! Great topic!

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