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Not My Wheelhouse: The Unexpected Places Research Takes Us

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Nikki VanRy

Contributing Editor

Nikki VanRy is a proud resident of Arizona, where she gets to indulge her love of tacos, desert storms, and tank tops. She also writes for the Tucson Festival of Books, loves anything sci-fi/fantasy/historical, drinks too much chai, and will spend all day in bed reading thankyouverymuch. Follow her on Instagram @nikki.vanry.

We all have our reading wheelhouses, those books that just feel cozy and right. 

For me, they’re usually lyrical and quiet books like brown girl dreaming or Gileador anything by Mary Doria Russell, or great big fantasy stories like The Gentleman Bastard series or The Kingkiller ChroniclesMy wheelhouse may be a bit broader than some, but I know what I like and, when I’m sick or on vacation or in a general reading slump, I know the very types of books that I’m guaranteed to love.

And yet, I’ve found some unexpected thrills and fun in the least obvious of places: while doing research.

The writers in the group are already nodding. Even if we strike out, the late-night, more-than-panic-inducing Googling habits of writers (with queries like, “How long does it take to suffocate a person?”, “What is the best poison to use if you want someone to die two hours after ingesting it?”, or “What materials were trousers made of in 17th century Russia?”), writers often journey out much further than their wheelhouse would ever allow to find information about the obscure topics they’re writing about.

Along the way, there will come a moment when a writer (or any creative person really) will look up from the book they’re reading for research and ask if they’re actually reading about that thing and, more unpredictably, actually enjoying it.

Miscarriage, Medicine & Miracles by Bruce YoungThat moment came for me when I was halfway through a book called Miscarriage, Medicine & Miracles: Everything You Need to Know About Miscarriage by Bruce K. Young, MD, and Amy Zavatto and could. not. put. it. down.

Let’s be clear.

I have not been pregnant nor do I have plans to become pregnant in the near future. I read nonfiction, but it’s not usually my jam.

And yet, I was fascinated by Young and Zavatto’s direct recounting of how miscarriages can occur, how to prevent them, and how to heal after one.

It wasn’t in my wheelhouse, but it was a fascinating book that I would have never read if research didn’t force me there. That same project also led me to Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife by Peggy Vincent, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy, and Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Again, none of those books were in my wheelhouse, but damn if I couldn’t put them down.

I’m working on another, less pregnancy-focused, project now and find myself having to research topics that are just as far from my reading comfort zone as the pregnancy ones were. Recently captivating reads include Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Ray Jayawardhana and Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself by Adam Rutherford.

Neutrino Hunters by Ray JayawardhanaDid I have absolutely any background or interest in neutrinos or synthetic biology before? That’s a big nope. Do I now? Oh, you betchya.

Research can be a time-consuming labyrinth where questions build upon questions build upon questions. It can be boring and messy. But it also holds that spark of possibility–of becoming so immersed in a book about 17th century Russian fashions that our own wheelhouse becomes just a bit broader. That’s the real fun part.

We read to find new information and to learn about different ways of life. Reading for pleasure can bring us there, but research is the strong-arm that forces us to consider new topics, viewpoints, and issues.

What crazy and unexpected books have you read for research? 


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