Dawn of Humanity / Laws of Nature / Man vs Nature / research

How to Research What No One Knows

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.

Unique problems

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’.

Conclusion

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.

78 thoughts on “How to Research What No One Knows

  1. Hi Jacqui – you’re always looking … and you must have done masses of research notes … how you keep the bits of information ‘in place’ I’ll never know … but it’s brilliant. Your books ring true. Also I know you’ve been open to thoughts – you’ve got lots of extra thoughts here too – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

    • How I research is pretty much what you helped me with on the bird language–I get lost in reading about it. In that case, I read for hours and enjoyed every bit of it, with some nudges from you and your friend. This is one of my favorite parts of writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. On BBC radio, about 3 weeks ago, ( must track this down) a Sunday morning speaker claimed that prehistoric peoples didn’t share our complex emotions, their lives were so simple, just hunting the next mammoth.. In contrast, our lives are stressful, so demanding.. Really ?
    With developed brains, just like ours, the physiology enabling speech, and the skill needed to feed themselves successfully, every day ? Your thoughts on how she would deal with illness might need a whole book

    Liked by 1 person

    • If the BBC is truly talking about people from prehistory, it’s difficult to tell what they went through on something like emotions that leaves no record. There is a certain amount of information scientists can get from braincasts that roughly show what parts of the brain were bigger/smaller but there’s a lot of disagreement.

      It’s always an interesting subject!

      Like

  3. I cannot imagine how much work, time, and research go into your pre-historic fiction books, Jacqui! And, again, when do you find time to focus on research and all that extra reading, while there are so many other facets to focus on in your writing, editing, publishing, marketing, blogging, and teaching world!!??

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would think it would help to read other books in your chosen genre (in your case, Clan of the Cave Bear) to get ideas on the subject. I know for suspense I learn a lot from police procedural or military books.
    Still, lots and lots of research went into your work, and it shows!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this post, Jacqui! I have an old project that I’m trying to breathe some life into through research. I quit writing it about 10 years ago because I was afraid I didn’t know “enough” about 920 CE Bohemia (not Czech as today), and I kept stumbling into some problems – Bohemia was basically in the “middle” of Western and Eastern Europe, it was between Empires, etc, and 920 is early middle ages so weapons, tech and other things aren’t quite as far along as the usual Medieval and Middle Ages books discuss. It seems like popular research into the middle ages focus on 1000 and beyond – or the Crusades, or England, but not Bohemia, and I can’t read Czech so some books I can find via searching don’t work for me. However, thinking about what you’ve posted here, I can research before and after, some of West and East, the basic medieval structures in society and culture. I want to do it “right” which is a stumbling block, but if I can get near, and maybe find an expert – somewhere – I think I can breathe life back into the book. I’m researching now and writing snippets in the hopes of finishing it sometime next year…so it’s not my primary project, but it’s still on my brain.
    BTW – still primarily posting regularly from: https://tyreanswritingspot.blogspot.com/

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting problem, Tyrean. For me, I read/researched voraciously until I reached a point I felt like I understood. Maybe that would happen for you, too. Historians don’t usually agree on history, everyone has their own ideas based on their set of facts, but when you reach a point everything falls into place for your world vision, that’s probably good enough.

      Best of luck with your book!

      Like

  6. Good explanation on internet search, Jacqui! “Browsers like Firefox and Google index search results based on interest. If few search a topic, the resource is on page 500.”
    I don’t go past the first two or three pages, thinking anything beyond that doesn’t have significant information. But the sequence of listing based on the interest changed my perception. Topics beyond 50 pages may be of my interest but not anyone else.

    It’s hard to dig up information the way you did, like finding a needle in a haystack. It must be satisfying to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting Jacqui, and I can appreciate the dilemmas that writing about prehistoric peoples presents. I had no idea that sitting wasn’t a thing before chairs were invented, but it does make sense. You must have discovered a number of fascinating bits of info that’s made you rethink how people lived back then.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I actually think that archaeologists and paleontologists do the same thing. They take some clues, and make up a compelling story based on the little they know. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t. When doing your research, you go with the school of thought whose story you find most compelling.

    In my books, the writing and research is an iterative process and luck has played a large role in steering me toward needed resources at just the right moment. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that like you, I have an interest in anthropology and ancient history, and a background in studying anthropology and linguistics. Thus, I had some years of being a research magpie behind me before I ever began to write fiction. You need some kind of basic foundation like before you can even glimpse the outlines of your story, which then drives further research.

    Many people around the world today still find it comfortable to squat. But if you don’t grow up doing it, blood flow to the ol’ legs can be a problem. 😉

    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, Jacqui–all I can say is you have really done your homework when so many other authors would just make it up. But that authenticity really shines through in your work. Basing your make-believe people on a firm basis of historical fact–well, it just adds something, or at least I think it does. I tried to do something similar with Snow White. I spent a bunch of time on local research, and I loved it. My task was less daunting than yours, though, since the 19th century is very well documented, and they all definitely used chairs. : )

    Liked by 1 person

    • I often find truth is stranger than fiction. The bits archeologists know about our ancestors inspire stories in me. I suppose it’s like people watching, when we see families at an airport doing whatever they do and we create an entire story around it. Very fun!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Jacqui, you set yourself a huge challenge with your interest and books but wow, you rose to the detective work! Your post is compelling and an engrossing read as we learn how you managed to research the impossible. One sentence stands out for me: ‘Barring a handy time machine, if you must research what no one knows, extrapolate your truths from what you do know.” Excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Interesting post, I’ve only recently been looking into the Asian squat as a stretch exercise. A youtube video I watched works on stretching from the ground into the squat – as a child would move and eventually learn to stand – instead of the usual way of squatting from standing up position. Your research makes perfect sense when you watch how children move.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is a great article, Jacqui. I know that it is difficult to get the everyday detail from historical non-fiction books and articles. I always try to find letters and journals and also books written in the relevant period. For you, the options are less with regards to fictional books. On the other hand, no-one can really challenge you on what you do write because there is a lot of hypothesis about history that far back. I can relate 100%.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m not surprised by the amount of research you did, Jacqui. It shows in your books and it’s what makes them so riveting. Those hours of chasing down leads paid off. I know I wouldn’t have the patience for it, but I’m glad that you do. Phew!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great topic, Jacqui. I especially found it interesting to consider that you’re trying to find topics that may not interest most people. I respect that you take the extra time needed to give yourself the most accurate information through various sources. I’m afraid too many people take shortcuts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been on this prehistoric fiction question for about 30 years. I dropped it originally because agents recommended the market as too small. Then, when I realized I wasn’t writing for agents, I returned. It actually has a small but devoted readership. And the time spent researching–priceless.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. This is so interesting, Jacqui. And, of course, those scientists whose research your read wouldn’t be very interested in the emotions of the people of the time period. They’re scientists, after all. But making inferences is clearly all you can do, and with all your research, your inferences are likely pretty logical. That thing about squatting is particularly interesting! And I guess that makes sense. Sometimes they probably sat on the ground, though, too, if they didn’t have to worry about imminent danger. Squatting can be tiring. I’ll bet they developed excellent thigh muscles from that alone! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. You are amazing, Jacqui. To research and write about something NO ONE knows of is a daunting task. Somehow, I have to believe that the spirits are channeling through you to tell their ancient story! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Thanks, Jacqui! I can relate to the appeal and danger of research. My digital writer’s journal bleeds 3,000+ plus entries organized across dozens of topics and even more subtopics. Like you stated, “… few people care about the topics that rivet me.” But every once in a while, it all comes together. That obscure factoid tucked away in my journal gives brilliant insights into solving an immediate problem, redeeming the hours of research.

    Liked by 3 people

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