· Down the Rabbit Hole ·
I’ve traveled down many rabbit holes before completing a first draft of a book. The trip down the black hole always begins innocently enough, with nothing but good intentions: I believe I need to get enough useful background on a topic before I can start the story.
But there are inherent risks in entering a rabbit hole. Once you start on the path, it can become disorienting, deranging, and difficult to turn around.
In my research on the Guna tribe of Panama, C.A., I took a lengthy diversion before writing “Moon Children,” my chapter connecting my fictional character, Suanna Morningcloud, to others with albinism (Taking Back the Bullet).
My literary journey was worthwhile from the moment I read Marjorie Mills Vandervelde’s enlightening book, Keep Out of Paradise (1966). She and others were warned about the primitive laws of the Gunas, “that no stranger can remain on the islands after sundown, on penalty of death.” There were twists and turns for me along the way, including the exaggerated accounts of Richard Oglesby Marsh, the author of White Indians of Darien (1934), and the excellent anthropological study, A People Who Would Not Kneel (1998), authored by Professor James Howe.
But why, oh why, did I feel the need to read David McCullough’s thrilling, historical, epic account of the building of the Panama Canal, titled The Path Between the Seas (1977)?
I reasoned: 1) It would help my writing by better understanding the pressures on the Guna culture; 2) I’m a better writer when I’m simultaneously reading excellent prose; 3) I enjoy reading historical works; and (4) I asked myself: “Didn’t I deserve a ‘little’ diversion from my research?”
Have you ever explored a research rabbit hole? If so, I’ll bet you, like me, did so with hopeful determination. You were curious and imaginative, using the traits every good writer should possess. You wanted to be surprised; you craved details; you desired a sensory experience.
How long were you away on your adventure? Did you intend to take an afternoon stroll, only to discover later, you hadn’t packed enough provisions for the extended stay?
After a while, the rabbit hole can become very comfortable and far less demanding than actual writing. If you’re not careful, your creative writing habits can regress.
It nearly happened to me. My exploration of the Guna tribe in Panama began on Google, led me to Amazon.com where I purchased many studies, and was holed up in my studio, delayed at least a month before typing a word. I couldn’t write; I was busy. I was immersed in the subject, in my rabbit hole, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t come out.
Writer beware! Only you can decide how much time to devote to research in order to make substantial progress in your writing. Remember, you can’t write in a rabbit hole, but you can write about things you’ve learned while in the rabbit hole.
Fortunately for me, when I emerged from my cozy burrow, my brain was sharp, my fingers were nimble and quick. I was writing with a purpose. I knew the story I wanted to tell.
Until next time, happy reading and writing!