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How to cure research rabbit hole disease in 3 steps

It's all about discipline

Step one: identify the symptoms

It sneaks up on you suddenly, this dreadful condition known as research rabbit hole disease (RRHD for short). One minute you’re typing away on your draft, caught up in the scene. Maybe you’re thrilled because you’re nailing the dialogue today. Maybe you’re using some kick-ass action verbs. Your scene-setting skills seem to be on fire. You feel your heart beating faster as your characters find themselves in one dangerous predicament after another.

And then suddenly it strikes. RRHD. The first symptom is that little doubting voice, the one that glides into your ear like a ninja mosquito, bringing everything to a screeching halt. “Oh, wait a minute,” it whispers nervously. “Would a Renaissance-era artisan guild in Toulouse require a woodworker to apprentice for three years before becoming a journeyman? Or could he just walk into the city and hire himself out as a freelancer, bypassing the guild?”

You shake off the voice and dig back into your story. You’re immersed in the world you’ve created. You’re hammering together a foundation for the revisions to come. The story’s there, that’s what you care about. The writing may be meh, but that’ll be fixed down the road. What matters now is STORY.  But wait, what’s that? The voice. It’s back. “Uh oh,” it interrupts in a silky hiss. “You want the merchant to ship his goods from Toulouse to Bayonne, on the west coast of France? Is there even a river that goes there from Toulouse? Or are you—” Dreadful pause. “—just making this up?

Step 2: admit that you have a problem

“Stop it!” you order. Out loud. The dog looks up, startled. The symptom is bad this time. It just won’t quit. Finally, you succumb. You toggle over to a search engine and let your fingers do the walking. Or in 21st century parlance, you Google it. You try to triage the situation by limiting yourself to just a few searches. Regular Google won’t cut it, you soon realize. No, it’s time to bring out the big guns: Google scholar. Even Google scholar doesn’t provide instant relief. Before you know it, you’re deep into Google France, combing through academic articles in French, feeling a rush of relief anytime something relevant is available on PDF and intense irritation anytime you hit a paywall (JSTOR, feel the wrath). Finally you see the article of your dreams. The title: “How a journeyman cabinetmaker in Toulouse navigated the Renaissance-era barge system to ship his goods to Bayonne.”

Oh. My. God. This is it. The one. You click. Dang it! Paywall. Well, maybe it’s worth it. How much would it be just for this article? Oh, you can’t get just the article? OK, how about a copy of the academic journal it’s in? $120? Really? Well, maybe that’s not so much. Considering that if you don’t get it, your entire story will crumble into dust and you’ll be singled out for crucification by the historical fiction police, it’s really quite a small price to pay.

Step 3: just walk away

This is the moment when the alert goes off in your brain. You’ve got it again. RRHD. You’ve got it baaaaaad. The only cure: step away from the Internet. Just get up and move your body and get out of this danger zone! You can do it. Slowly, agonizingly, you close your laptop. You ease out of the chair. You walk away. And just like that, you’re cured.

Until, that is, the next time.

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