During my launch of Laws of Nature, I shared this post on an efriend’s blog. I’m sharing for those who might have missed it:
Good research feels like a satisfying detective story. You have a mystery, how something did or didn’t happen, and follow the clues until the dots are connected. But as the author, how do you research what no one knows well enough to explain it in your story?
I’ll use my series, Man vs. Nature, as an example.
This multi-book saga explores pivotal points in history when man would either thrive or become extinct depending upon events. The first trilogy–Dawn of Humanity–is set 1.8 mya, an era when the earliest versions of man were about as far from the alpha on the landscape as possible. The second trilogy, Crossroads, set 850,000 years ago, addresses the time when man conquered fire, discovered clothing, invented weapons, and the many other innovations that enabled them to dominate nature. The next trilogy, Savage Land, 75,000 years ago, deals with a recent time in man’s history when nature almost beat us.
For each, I had to research historic events without benefit of books, recorded notes, or even apocryphal stories. The only clues were rocks and artifacts.
Where to research what no one knows
Richard Leakey, the most famous of all early man hunters (called paleoanthropologists), said:
“Archeology is a detective story in which all the principal characters are absent and only a few broken fragments of their possessions remain.”
Barring a handy time machine, if you must research what no one knows, extrapolate your truths from what you do know.
It sounds impossible, but a slew of brilliant researchers managed to reach believable and mostly accurate conclusions using that approach. Unfortunately, my task was more challenging. To record Lucy’s life for my most recent novel, Laws of Nature, I had to uncover what these brilliant scientific minds couldn’t. How did Lucy conduct her everyday life? How did she handle illness? Solve problems she’d never before seen? I devoured a multidisciplinary assortment of scientists–paleobotanists, paleogeologists, paleoclimatologists–but still came up short. Where were the inevitable life and death struggles inherent in days and nights ruled by nature? Where was the emotion that travels hand in hand with making life and death decisions? Where was the drama integral to her existence?
Terry Pratchett says, “…there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber…”
Because my understanding still lacked the humanity I needed for my story, I studied primitive tribes, many driven to extinction by modern man. Project Gutenberg offered a treasure trove of free books, written long ago and no longer carried in libraries. When that still left holes in my story, I read everything available from Birute Galdikas, Dian Fossy, and Jane Goodell, leaders in understanding mankind’s closest primate relatives, the Great Apes, who share 99% of our DNA.
A problem I had most of you won’t is few people care about the topics that rivet me. Browsers like Firefox and Google index search results based on interest. If few search a topic, the resource is on page 500. Who gets as far as page 20 much less 500?! I found it easier to research in academic libraries like the US’s Library of Congress (I’m American) and well-stocked University libraries like Notre Dame. I have fond memories of time spent in both of these.
Another problem is to know what you don’t know. I’ll give you an example: sitting. Sitting is an everyday action that didn’t hit my radar as needing research for a long time (one of the reasons why it took me twenty years to write the first in my series). I had my ancient people sitting when resting until I chanced upon an article discussing telltale divots and scratches where tendons attached to the femur, tibia, and ankle bone. This indicated our ancestors–as late as Neanderthals–squatted. They didn’t sit. When I researched this surprise, turns out sitting is fairly new, became popular about the time of chairs. If you think about it, squatting makes sense. It’s a more natural position for the body and quicker to get into and out of when danger arrives.
I did a find-replace and switched ‘sat’ for ‘squat’ or ‘crouch’.
If the set of information available to you about your topic has holes, take that finite body of knowledge and fill the empty spaces with logical inferences that make sense. That’s a good first approach to researching what no one knows.
Note: My newest prehistoric fiction book is out, Laws of Nature. I’d love for you to give it a look!
Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also the author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice, a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, Natural Selection Winter 2022.