The Dangerous Pleasures of Research

Iva Polansky

The Dangerous Pleasures of Research

by Iva Polansky

Like it or not, if you write about something outside your personal experience, you need to research. What do you feel when you hear the word “research”? Ah, you’d rather dye your hair in rainbow hues than go that way. And why would you research, if you can write a fantasy story instead? Your world, your rules, no annoying searching. A bliss.

Research is not as hard as you think. Not anymore. Twelve years ago, when I began to write my first novel Fame and Infamy, set in the 1870s Paris, I was new at the game and I learned the hard way. I made a trip to Paris to scout for the locations of my story and to shop for books published in the 19th century. The physical effort of getting the books on the flight home also needs to be mentioned along with the cost of overweight luggage. More old, out-of-print books kept coming via the mail. The expenses grew and my husband began to grumble. I don’t blame him.

Today, I could do the same research from home without spending a red cent. For locations, I’d use Google Maps where I can indulge in a virtual visit of Paris, ambling along this street and that one, looking for details that could be there in the 1870s. The e-copies of books I paid hard-earned money for are available free at the Gallica (French National Library) website. Not that I did not enjoy my Paris trip. The tastes, smells, and sounds of the city are sadly missing in electronic searching. What I’m saying here is that research needs not to eat your time and money.

In my current work, I'm visiting the late nineteenth century Paris again—and why not since I had made all that effort to get there?—and I need to create a new character: a world-famous hypnotist. Let me show you how it is done in a fast and easy way.

I decided, for reasons I need not explain here, that the hypnotist will be an Austrian. He is a large man who needs a substantial name. Googling German names, I came up with Beckenheimer. My celebrated hypnotist will be professionally known as the Great Beckenheimer.

Next, I need to learn hypnosis. My only experience happened years ago when I saw an entertaining show in which a hypnotist made buffoons of a dozen volunteers. They remained hypnotized during the intermission when they mingled with the rest of the audience. What impressed me then was their genuine confusion when asked questions about their stage experience and I’ll never forget the peculiar glassy expression in their eyes. Since then, I’ve held hypnosis in awe.

On we go in search of a course in hypnosis. The American School of Hypnosis website offers a 446-page hypnosis manual as a free download. I snap it up (not that I will read all of it now). Better yet, YouTube provides free live courses in hypnosis, including a technique called Instant Induction. The instant induction is exactly what I need and it takes only ten minutes to learn. Perfect.

The Great Beckenheimer needs a home. He is comfortably retired in a Paris suburb called Marnes-la-Coquette. I selected this location because I like the coquettish name. I go to Google maps and key Marnes-la-Coquette to choose a 19th-century villa to describe. This can take some time as I enjoy looking at the local architecture that favors the Norman style: mostly stone with a brick and white wood trimming. There is a quaint railway station too.

As a hobby, Beckenheimer grows orchids in his small hothouse (I google orchids for gardening tips). Career nostalgia fills the old man’s living room. Here, I google 19th-century hypnosis and go directly to the images. The 19th-century advertising language is loud and shameless. I pick up several posters and click the links to the corresponding web pages. They lead to interesting articles and more images. At one time, I end up on a Russian website. No problem there. I click on the little black and white icon that appears close to the bookmark star and the text is instantly translated into English. I’m glad for the Russian detour as I find a very interesting tidbit there about the hypnotic attacks crime. (Wow, what a trick to have up my sleeve for a future story!) If an image has no link to a website, I right-click on it and choose Search Google with this image in the drop-down menu. This will show me every website where this image is located. You can imagine the possibilities.

With this minor effort, my knowledge grows. I’m getting ideas about how to improve the story in several ways and they are ideas born from learning. The story begins to plot itself. Here, one can reach the dangerous point of addiction. I admit I’m a research junkie. After the publication of Fame and Infamy, I was left with a mountain of material, most of it unused. Saddened about all that waste, an idea came to me to offer this wealth of information to the public. After ten years in existence, four universities are now linked to my Victorian Paris blog. Last year, I published a collection of blog posts in a 343-page ebook under the title Life in 19th Century Paris. There is no such thing as useless knowledge and getting it can be entertaining. Give it a try.



Down the rabbit hole…

I recently spent 2 weeks researching the same worldbuilding population problem (I so suck at math) and never did solve my question, but I found 6 different other completely unrelated details to add to the story. Tangents. Love them and hate them.

Nice article, btw.

Aug-01 2022


This blog hits right at the core of my own experience with research, which is also in relation to Paris, but in my case it’s the 18th century. Had it not been for internet resources (which sometimes you kindly indicated to me :wink: ), I’m sure the novel I’m writing would have been impossible - unless I spent months living there.

The tastes, smells, and sounds of the city are sadly missing in electronic searching. What I’m saying here is that research needs not to eat your time and money.

That is a very valid point. I think any creative activity, whether visual or written, needs to draw from details that can be experienced, details which might be overlooked by a casual observer. I’m not sure if I could have set a story in Paris had I not visited at least once, but that’s me.

Now, for tastes and smells that go back centuries that’s even more difficult, but research helps you get there. And depending on the amount of detail, you could always find something similar around you. I have managed that way so far, anyway. ( I pass by stables for traditional horse carriages on my way to work. One example :smiley: )

I also rely on period films and series, or modern novels set in the same time period. You’d have to be cautious which ones to look out for, but the accurate ones help me check if I’m on the right track.

Aug-01 2022


Online research turned out to be surprisingly helpful when trying to characterize a credible fictional island nation in the Pacific. I expected to find weather, topography, and indigenous plant life. I was shocked to find tracking of ocean shipping lanes (in real time, I recall), ocean currents, and historical paths of cyclones.

And it had it’s dangerous side. My first draft had a character remarking that waterspouts (marine tornados) usually develop from a line of cumulus clouds and that the mountain range cutting across the island was caused by the Pacific Rim of Fire.

I regretted scrapping those two beauties more than any ex regretted kicking me to the curb.

Aug-01 2022


Virtual research is helpful, but it does miss the heart and soul of what brings writing to life: personal experience. I’m glad I don’t have to travel across the world for a layout of a particular city, but I risk having a scene (or novel) that doesn’t feel genuine to the people who live there.
That said, I do find it interesting that Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” was so convincing that Civil War veterans thought he’d fought in the war. In truth, he was a child during the war, and he based the novel off his personal interviews with real veterans.

Aug-01 2022


Research is definitely one the terrifying things to do. It only gets easier when you know exactly what you want to find. The rest is just how to google.

Aug-01 2022


Honestly I personally thing research is the most enjoyable part of writing. You get to not only make a thing come to life, but you too learn about it and get to know something deeper about the world. Perhaps it’s a bias since my actual job is academic research and I do writing on the side, but I spend so long just researching minute things (like the time I learned the entire history of soup just to figure out a minute detail of how a character bathes with in a short story I wrote) that I sometimes end up not writing anything and just collecting a stock pile of notes. :rofl:

Aug-05 2022



Did you know that there is really a 48,XXYY chromosome disorder? and 47,XYY and 49, XXXYY…and so on. Just because I wrote a woman who dabbled in genetic research, went down the rabbit hole and out came a new 48,XXYY character. Holycow. :exploding_head:

Socrates, Napoleon and Ardipithecus ramidus. I should have a friggin’ PhD by now.

But all in the service of writing the Story, and writing it right.

Aug-05 2022


Research is very necessary and useful. When writing my soccer/football fanfiction, I often research events that happen with the real people and teams, as well as games. The research helps the stories feel more realistic, like it could happen in real life.
But it can lead into a rabbit-hole, so one MUST be careful not to get sidetracked (unless you’re like me, who doesn’t mind reading the whole 130-year history of Liverpool F.C!).

Aug-09 2022


Hi everyone, I’m new here and reading this blog was the first thing I read on here. I have only been a serious writer since 2018, when I published my first book, but I have loved writing all my life.
Writing essays and book reports was always my favorite, because I loved doing the research. In my early school days, there were no internet, and of course, no money for traveling.
My mom purchased us a set of expensive encyclopedias, best money she ever spent. They were well used. What I didn’t get from the encyclopedia, I got from my local library. The library was my favorite place to be.
Today, I still love doing research. I still don’t have the money for traveling, but that’s alright too. You are right, the internet makes it much easier. Cheers, for the internet!

Aug-14 2022
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