Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Is there a Research Assistant out there?

by Bethany Maines

I need to buy a new computer.  I can’t tell you how much this fills me with dread.  As a working graphic designer I use a computer daily.  This leads some people to think I know how computers work.  I don’t.  I know how my programs work, but what causes them to function… That is the realm of IT geek… er… professionals.  And researching the proper specs for a new computer suitable for graphic design use is more than a little tortuous. 

But it occurs to me that researching the computer is a bit like me researching any other topic that I know nothing about and popping it into a novel. There are usually three things that I need to find out – what I want, what exists, and what I can afford. (i.e. I’d love an iPad that acted like a real computer, but it doesn’t exist right now, and even if it did, I probably couldn’t afford it.)  But when it comes to novels the criteria has to shift slightly to: what I want my character to do, what a real nuclear physicist/Quetzalcoatl/poker player/whatever would do, and what I have the length to explain. 

Having plotted my story I know that my character must progress from point A to point B, after overcoming obstacles X, Y, and Z.  The way in which he overcomes said obstacles is dependent on his history, knowledge, personality, and profession.  So I sketch out what I think is likely for my character and then I do some research to see if my ideas are realistic, ludicrous, or just mildly improbable.

The internet is an invaluable tool for starting such research because it has more bizarre articles on any topic you can possibly dream up.  (My favorite random article of the week? Why Time Travel Stories Should be Messy) Unfortunately, the internet often lies.  So there has to be a lot of double-checking to find out if Quetzalcoatl was a priest, an Aztec god, or a Spanish immigrant.

The next research tool is an actual poker player or archaeologist specializing in the Aztecs who has spent years researching the topic at hand.  These are the kind of people who will tell you about fascinating disemboweling rituals and may also be kind of pissed if you don’t get the details right, so be sure to take notes.  On the up side, they’re usually really excited that someone is taking an interest in their topic, so they will tell everything you could possibly want to know about current Quetzalcoatl theory. 

And the third research option is to travel to Mexico and investigate the Great Pyramid at Cholula yourself.  Which, I’m sure you’ll all agree is a bit on the expensive and time consuming side.  It’s also the option that I would totally take if I weren’t just looking to fill in the blanks on a 10,000 word short story.  Yeah, I think I’ll head back to the Reference section of Wikipedia to see what I can find.  Anything that lets me avoid looking at computer specs.

Bethany Maines is the author of Bulletproof Mascara, Compact With the Devil and Supporting the Girls.  Catch up with her at or check out the new Carrie Mae youtube video.


  1. Bethany, I really enjoyed this post. Sorry about the computer mess. I, too, hate to have to buy a new computer and figure out exactly what will be the best computer for my needs. I'm sorry you probably can't do what I do--call on my sons to help. My youngest is a Ph.D. in medieval lit and very tech-y, but my oldest son is a top IT consultant to universities and healthcare corporations. Lucky me! I get all that expensive consultation for free.

    I love research. First, I like to do the broad background research when I'm planning. It often gives me ideas for plot. Then I write, leaving bold notes where questions about details come up in the writing. Those I research when I've finished the first draft.

    Good luck on your computer search!

  2. I Tweeted it...You cld be very busy...Hope it helps..I am VTcozy on Twitter..Susan..VT

  3. Okay - the computer buying issue seems to be plaguing us all. Mine is only a year old, but it seems to have taken to crashing - a lot. Good luck on your search. If you find an awesome computer, let me know what it is!