Research: How Much Is Enough?

(Originally published May 28, 2008).

At a recent writers’ retreat, the inevitable topic of research arose during mealtime conversation. Since many of the attendees were historians, academics, or ordinary folk writing historical novels, I was overwhelmed and, I confess, a little envious of their investigative zeal.

Here’s the thing. Research has a nasty habit of taking on a life of its own and becoming an end in itself. Sometimes it is easier to lose myself in research than to tackle the blank screen that taunts me, awaiting the pearls of wisdom and wit conjured up by my fertile imagination.

So how do I know when to stop? When is enough, enough?

Years ago, when I entered the complex I.T. jungle, rife with proliferating technologies, methodologies, and tools, a wise manager took pity on me and gave me the following advice: “Conduct research on a ‘need to know’ basis or you’ll drive yourself nuts.”

As a writer, I still heed his priceless advice. Consequently, I conduct only enough research to make the story plausible, provide realistic detail, and avoid factual mistakes. Truth be told, wherever feasible I subscribe to an avoidance approach to conducting research.

For example, while writing The Jaguar Legacy (akin to Temple of Doom, only containing steamy romance), I confess that the main reason I chose to write about the Olmecs, instead of, say, the Aztecs or the Incas or Zapotecs, was that the Olmec race is so ancient, no one, even the experts, knows much about them. Controversial theories abound, but only a few facts exist: They were an advanced race with complex cities and temples; they worshipped the jaguar and snake; they believed they could shape-shift into the jaguar; and, to this day, intact Olmec remains have never been found.

Not to say I didn’t do my homework. Please don’t get the wrong idea. Hey, I interviewed an archaeologist who gave me enough details to create a realistic dig in Mexico (plenty of sex going on in them thar digs). I researched the use of peyote by reading several books and conducting Internet research. For those of you who might be wondering, I did not, repeat NOT, sample peyote. Best of all, I visited south-west Mexico and the nearby ruins not once, but twice, gathering realistic details about the location, history, local customs, and, oh yes, the ancient Olmecs. Our guide happened to be an Olmec expert, who provided details that brought the ancient race to life.

With my second book, Fur Ball Fever (Best in Show shakes hands with Stephanie Plum), my ‘need to know’ extends far beyond my comfort zone. This one requires research into such diverse topics as transgender issues, fetish clubs, and alternative lifestyles. Happily, I found a starting point– at a fetish and alternative lifestyle trade show called Sexapalooza.

One memorable weekend in January, several members of the Ottawa Romance Writers of America congregated at Sexapalooza to peddle our books. Our booth was located directly under the giant pink penis suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition hall.

According to the newspaper, the extravaganza hoped to attract 10,000 people. Based on what I saw, they surely must have achieved their objective. Who knew so many horny people could squeeze under one roof — and in Ottawa, of all places? I had to fight an excited crowd to circle the building and check out the offerings and exhibits. The air positively hummed with folks of all ages discussing alternative lifestyles — the etiquette of juggling multiple partners, swinging for couples, the nuances of bisexuality, the joys of bondage, domination, sado-masochism (BDSM) for beginners, and the like. Booths overflowed with sex toys, scented oils and candles, fet-wear and boots, leather whips and restraints, lingerie, and, in my case, romance novels. At one point, a topless young lady galloped through the hall, clad in bridle, bit, mask, boots, G-string, and not much else. Pony-girl was a great crowd-pleaser.

A dungeon provided a taste of BDSM for those so inclined (for the record, I am not, but was interested to learn more, all in the name of research, naturally). In front of a crowd of fifty or more interested onlookers, the lycra-clad dominatrix lashed a submissive, who was stretched out, arms shackled above his head, on a St. Andrew’s cross. This was a real lashing — the whip raised red welts on the poor sucker’s naked back. But not to worry. He was hugely, and I mean hugely, turned on. In another corner, a metal grope cage confined a masked woman, who was fending off another joker’s pokes and prods with a few well-placed blows from her commando boots.

During the proceedings, I conducted a quick interview with the owner of a local adult emporium about some of the activities. She was kind enough to explain the purpose of the various pieces of bondage equipment and to reassure me that the submissive undergoing the lash was enjoying himself as much as the dominatrix. She explained that if the torment starts gently enough, the brain releases endorphins to protect the body from pain. A skilled dominatrix increases the whipping in tiny increments, and before long, the submissive will hit the pinnacle of ecstasy, as, presumably, does the dom.

Unfortunately, I missed the “Screaming O” Contest (How Well Can You Fake an Orgasm?), the male and female exotic dancers, and the drag performance. I did, however, catch a live demo of the bondage bed. Move over, Mattress Mart, here I come.

Writers beware. Research isn’t for sissies.