Dead Ends on the Long Road of Nonfiction Research

New Zealand is a beau­ti­ful coun­try filled with dead ends, wind­ing roads, and one-way bridges. Trav­el is slow. Back in 2013 my hus­band and I took a trip to vis­it our son who was in New Zealand study­ing abroad.

The Latta Family

One day as we looked at the map, we thought we spot­ted a short cut and liked the idea of trav­el­ing a road less trav­eled. We wound around and around, up and down, left and right, not know­ing where we’d come out. This road split sev­er­al times and the map was not that good. Some­times the road end­ed in someone’s dri­ve­way. Some­times, it end­ed in breath­tak­ing cliff views over­look­ing the ocean.

dead end signAs tempt­ing as it might have been to stay there, we knew we had to go on and find the right route. Research­ing in non­fic­tion isn’t much dif­fer­ent. You run into many dead ends. But the key may be in know­ing when to find a dif­fer­ent route and when to change up your pur­pose. Is the sto­ry impor­tant and viable? Then I believe there are ways to work around those dead ends and get the car mov­ing again.

Define your goal(s). What specif­i­cal­ly do you want to know? Devel­op ques­tions that will lead you there. Know­ing what’s at stake in your non­fic­tion sto­ry can point you to dif­fer­ent research roads. For exam­ple, in one of my man­u­scripts the sub­ject works to treat a dis­ease. Research­ing her treat­ments led me to the trou­bles she met. I was able to focus my man­u­script on the bat­tle she faced with the male doc­tors who believed their way was the only way. Anoth­er more recent man­u­script led me to many dead ends until I fig­ured out the heart of the sto­ry was nev­er doubt­ing your­self and how you can sur­prise oth­ers. After that, the research dead ends dis­ap­peared and the sto­ry came together.

Some­times the sto­ry begs for a dif­fer­ent entry point. For me, that’s the hard­est part of writ­ing non­fic­tion. I just don’t know where to begin. Try list­ing sev­er­al dif­fer­ent begin­nings. Fol­low one research thread and if that doesn’t pan out, fol­low the next begin­ning. And so on. Some­times it takes awhile.

Change up your ques­tions. Even alter­ing one small aspect of what you’re look­ing for can uncov­er dif­fer­ent results and/or a dif­fer­ent focus for your story.

Who else can show you a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive of your sub­ject? Research­ing the peo­ple sur­round­ing your sub­ject such as par­ents, friends, and sib­lings may help fill in the miss­ing details.

If you are research­ing an event, look at oth­er events that hap­pened in the same time peri­od. For exam­ple, if research­ing Pearl Har­bor, look­ing at events hap­pen­ing in Europe at the same time may help change your per­spec­tive and pro­vide anoth­er research road with­out a dead end.

How did the event you are research­ing depend or not depend on oth­er events hap­pen­ing at the same time? No life or event hap­pens in a vac­u­um. One per­son is depen­dent on anoth­er, one event leads to the next in some fashion.

Remain flex­i­ble and be patient. Hit­ting dead ends is inevitable and you may not have to give up. If you even­tu­al­ly find that your idea leads to that dread­ed dead end road sign, know when to turn around and focus else­where. New infor­ma­tion you uncov­er may push you in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion but usu­al­ly moves this or a new sto­ry forward.

seal among the rocks
Note the seal among the rocks … an unplanned stop along our “short­cut.”

On that long dri­ve in New Zealand, we found new roads. And even­tu­al­ly those new roads led us to our des­ti­na­tion. Lat­er that night, study­ing oth­er maps we real­ized that the “short cut” we thought we could take was real­ly a bumpy three-hour detour. C’est la vie. The orig­i­nal road would’ve been much faster, but prob­a­bly much less inter­est­ing. And with our “short­cut” we were blessed with (most­ly) incred­i­ble views and dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives of a beau­ti­ful country.

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Damon Dean, SevenAcreSky
3 years ago

Great advice on research, and the dead ends often dis­cov­ered. It’s almost like find­ing pieces of the map as you go to replace the map you’ve relied on. Thanks for the encouragement.

Susan Latta
Susan Latta
Reply to  Damon Dean, SevenAcreSky
3 years ago

Yes. It seems as though I’m always recre­at­ing the map. It’s a part of the process and also the fun of writing.