A Personal Journey Disguised as “Doing Research”: Brain-Dead Brainstorming

Hi, and welcome to the first post in this four-part series on doing research! Love it or hate it, research is going to be a part of every author’s life. In this class, we’re going to delve a little deeper into research–not just ways to tolerate it, but ways to let it enrich your career and life. Classes in this series will be posted every Wednesday this May. And we’re going to start by talking about the connection between research and brainstorming.

mailboxStuck for an Idea?

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m just darn awful at coming up with story ideas. Every now and again, I have a stroke of genius, all on my own. But by and large, the inside of my head looks like Charlie Brown’s mailbox.

And yet I have a file in my computer containing no less than seven WIPs and a series, all in various stages of completion. How can that be if I struggle so hard to create story ideas?

Simple. I don’t create them. I lift them out of the real world. And before you groan and say you don’t want to write fictionalized true-life stories, just hang on to your shirt. That’s not necessarily what I’m talking about.

The Dreaded Horse Murders 

I’m a mystery writer. Ironically, coming up with a compelling, authentic crime to build my mystery around is the hardest part. I can brainstorm shootings and kidnappings and bombings to no end–but it can take me weeks, months, and years to figure out why my villain is so bent on destruction.

Case in point: One of my novels, Redemption, (theoretically in-the-works but really on the back burner) is set in the world of horses and professional show jumpers. Horses were such an intrinsic part of my characters’  lives, I knew I wanted them to be an intrinsic part of the mystery and the crime. But brainstorming resulted in zero ideas. Even when I pounded my head on the desk.

Brainstorming had failed me. (As is usual with me.) So … I turned to research. I tried Googling things like “horse crime,” “horse theft”–but didn’t turn up anything more remarkable than endless reports of stolen horse tack on online horse forums. Finally one of the phrases I randomly Googled–expecting no results; it was such a dumb phrase–was “horse murder.”

To my surprise, I struck gold.

I found out about a spate of horse killings that took place in the show jumping world in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Owners were finding their horses’ insurance money more profitable than their earnings in the ring. But the deaths had to look natural–and an elite few had the tools and the know-how. It was a huge scandal, taking the FBI years to figure out what was going on and who was behind it all.

This scenario fit so perfectly with elements of my back story, I knew I had exactly what I was looking for. And my novel was launched into life. Thanks to an afternoon’s research.

6148571b223c342d8489b65362acfe45The Stone Soup Approach

I never copy and paste a story straight out of the newspapers. Instead, I like to mix and match. Individualize. Make the story my own.

Researching the setting, my characters’ careers, and bunny trails (research is fraught with yellow “bunny X-ing” signs) exposes me to dozens of potential story ideas. And like a scrapbooker who clips pictures out of magazines and pastes them into her own collage, I make a note of everything that appeals to me and throw it into the soup.

All that research usually kick-starts my brain into some action. Sooner or later, I start brainstorming my own original ideas. Those ideas get thrown into the soup, too.

The net result is half original material and half mosaic comprised of pieces from all across the Internet, the library, and the encyclopedia. As a bonus, I can advertise that the story, while fictional, is based on true events. That usually piques a lot of reader interest and adds authority to your story.

And I’m not the only one who writes this way. You seriously have to check out mystery author Mindy Starns Clark, a true expert when it comes to blending fact and fiction. (Shadows of Lancaster County, an Amish/mystery hybrid, was a stellar example.)

Research Isn’t a Scientific Equation

I think part of the reason some writers dread research is that they view it in such a sterile environment. They reduce it to fact-checking and fail to see it for what it is: A world full of stories.

Research is about life. It’s about real people in the real world.

Novels are about life. They’re about realistic people in a realistic world.

The difference is faint. When I’m researching, I’m constantly asking, Who are the people involved in these real-life scenarios? For instance, when I learned about the horse murders, I asked, Who were the horses? Who were the killers? Who were the owners? Who were the riders? Who were the investigators? I take the raw facts and give them individual faces, personalities, goals, ambitions, families, etc.

And before you know it, you have a story.


Danger: This may result in a new novel to add to your “to-write” list. Thankfully, homework assignments at Indie Plot Twist are always optional.

  • Open a newspaper. Or go to the library and pick a book off the shelf. Or Google a topic that interests you. In other words, devote a half hour to an hour to research. Find a topic that interests you. Now create your own character, or use one you already have, and drop him or her into the middle of the topic you’ve just researched. Caution: Be prepared for a really fun brainstorming session.

I would love to hear the results of your homework! Feel free to leave me a comment. I always reply.

This week we discussed one of the ways research can make your writing more fun. Next week, we’re going to talk about making your life more fun … and memorable … and possibly short-lived: Research as an excuse to do crazy things! If you don’t want to miss out on this class or any other, feel free to subscribe. Hope to see you next week!

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