One of the questions I get most often about writing nonfiction is: How do you know when you’ve done enough research?
I begin new projects by doing a lot of research. When I’ve got a huge pile of material together, I start writing. Too early? Too arbitrary? Maybe. But it also helps me spot the holes in my research. What don’t I know that I need to know?
This leads to more research. Eventually, I realize that I’m done.
Sometimes I know that I’m done because everything “new” that I find merely repeats something I’ve already read.
Sometimes it is because I spot mistakes that other people have missed. This can be frustrating — which fact is correct? Then you have to look at the sources and try to figure out where they got their information. Remember, it doesn’t always matter if you find fact A in 10 places and fact B in only 1. If 9 of the sources for Fact A are all getting the data from the one remaining source, that doesn’t make it any more accurate than Fact B.
But sometimes spotting mistakes is just funny. Last week, there were news alerts about a baboon loose in my community. They even flashed up a photo that “a woman” had taken of the ape in her backyard.
My husband had e-mailed me the link to the article so I clicked on it while he and I talked on the phone. One look at the photo and I knew it was bunk.
Me: The story isn’t true. That’s not a baboon.
Him: Most mom’s would want to know if someone was hurt.
Me: They can’t be hurt by a nonexistent baboon. That’s not a baboon.
Him: What is it?
Me: Give me a minute. It isn’t a mandrill, but there’s another closely related ape. Let me do a search. Drill. That’s what it is.
Me: What? Quit laughing at me.
When I got off the phone, I even did a search on “baboon” to see if the photo came up. Nope. I got some photos of mandrills but no drills. I only got drills when I searched for that specific term. And, yes, I found the photo she copied.
You know you have done enough research when you can immediately tell that something is inaccurate. When your husband just laughs? You know you’re a nonfiction author.
Just in case you want to know what each of these animals looks like, here are some links to photos. I opted against posting the actual photos because I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright:
Baboon (olive baboon specifically)
Drill (the actual photo that was copied)
Awesome creatures, aren’t they? But, really. Who on earth could mistake a drill for a baboon?