How Writing Will Make You Question Everything

(or “Please Ignore My Browser History”)

I’ve heard it said that a good exercise for writers is to ask “What if.” What if a team of scientists went to Mars and one of them got accidentally left behind? What if a white journalist in 1960 Mississippi decided to write an expose on the treatment of black maids in her city? What if someone bequeathed to you a tidy sum of $300 million if you can completely blow $30 million in 30 days?

The “what if” question opens the mind to possibilities inherent in a given situation. Other questions then round out the story, put meat on its bones. How would the scientist survive on Mars long enough for rescue to reach him? Why would the black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, agree to help a privileged white socialite when it could only bring trouble to them and their families? How could you possibly spend $30 million in 30 days and have nothing to show for it?

Of course, it isn’t just writers who do this. Everyone asks questions. Everyone wants answers. Where we sometimes differ is in the subjects that spark said snooping. Writing a story about almost anything provokes curiosity in my busy brain. Not just big, universal subjects. Little ones too. Topics I might never have considered before tumble out of my brain via the keyboard and stare back, blinking, from my computer screen, begging for supporting details. How many types of martial arts are recognized today? Which ones are specific to which cultures? What is the average lift weight likely for most deadlifters, and what percentage of their body weight does it comprise? What is public healthcare like in northern Norway?

I know you’ve probably asked yourself these very same questions, so maybe I was late to the game. But every time I write, I have a browser window open. I have to admit, it’s hard sometimes to refrain from following my inquisitiveness so far down the rabbit hole that I forget my initial question—you know, the one that prompted my research in the first place. Google is my friend. Still, I’d rather learn these answers by asking people who know. One-on-one dialogue is a much more dynamic way to inform myself, and I can ask the weird questions that are hard to answer on the Internet. An added plus: it’s often hilarious to see the expression on the other person’s face when you present your query.

About ten years ago, I was making notes for backstory on my current novel-in-progress. For purposes of the plot, I needed to explore the short- and long-term effects of an enormous coronal mass ejection (CME) on surface and orbital tech. I was able to connect with a director at the Space Weather Prediction Center who provided me with great data on how to make my story’s tech failures believable—at least until my queries edged into the realm of super-sensitive information, when he gently and graciously steered me in a different direction.

Around the same time, I asked a banker connection how such a thing would affect the international banking system and, if it wouldn’t take the whole thing down, what would. She looked at me like I’d grown a second head and said, “You have to be careful about asking questions like that or the men in the black sedans will come knocking at your door.” (She never did offer an answer.)

Shortly after that, I sent several e-mails to the local power company through their “Contact Us” link on the page where one might schedule a facility tour. I explained that I am a writer and would love to talk to someone about how to take down an electrical grid, that it didn’t have to be factual info, as long as it was believable. For some reason, they’ve never responded. Odd, that. (I’m probably on someone’s List somewhere.)

Writers research weird stuff. Once I asked a healer friend how to shoot someone in the torso without actually penetrating any vital organs or perforating the bowel. Fortunately, she’s seen my work, and knows me well. Rather than give me that “have-you-lost-your-mind” expression, she dragged out the anatomical diagrams and helped me figure it out so I could write my scene.

When I can’t find an on-hand expert, I look it up online. Believe it or not (and if you’re a writer, you already know this), there are numerous online forums where you can ask questions like “How long does it take an adult human to bleed out if the jugular is severed? How about the carotid?” (Why yes, I did research those very questions. Why do you ask?) Most contributors and querents are writers and understand the need for this information to connect plotlines in a work-in-progress; it’s interesting to follow the discussions and see what the contributors had to say in response to these inquiries.

Just so you know, we don’t just seek info on the really eyebrow-raising topics. Sometimes it’s a search for gambling terms or what types of edible aquaculture one might cultivate in a given setting. Even ho-hum topics fascinate me when I’m on the hunt for story details. World-building is at its best when it’s believable, so I try to base as much of it (even my extra-terrestrial worlds) as possible on known science. At least then, the speculative elements of my fiction have a solid skeleton on which the less scientific flesh of the story might take form.

For the record, it isn’t only writers who research odd topics online. I queried my friends on social media to share the weirdest thing I would find in their browser histories. Answers ranged from Portuguese law enforcement hierarchy to synonyms for “vagina.” Some of my favorites were: how to disembowel someone; formal Victorian dresses from the 1880s; habits of the predatory wasp of the Palisades; apocalyptic cloud formations; uses of cheese mold; characteristics of assassins; how to destroy a retro-virus outside the human body; and (my personal favorite) the caloric content of human blood. Every one of these made me laugh and a few prompted me to ask, “Really? What did you find?”

So now it’s your turn to share! What’s the weirdest thing I might find in your browser history in the last month? Is it related to a writing or other art project? If so, how?