Adding to Your Knowledge Base

by James Scott Bell

I play three brain games each day. I start with my new addiction, Phrazle. It’s like Wordle, only with common phases. You fill in the blank boxes with words, then follow the color clues to get closer to the actual phrase. You have six chances to solve the puzzle. So far, I’ve not been knocked out. The pressure is on!

Then there’s the classic, Jumble. Solve the scrambled words, then use the letters in the circles to figure out a phrase that applies to the little cartoon accompanying the puzzle. My favorites are when the answer is a play on words, indicated by quote marks. For instance, the other day, the cartoon had a man coming downstairs to the basement where his wife is working on a laptop. He’s carrying a box, and says, “Look who’s got a box of her new hit book!”

The wife says, “Wow! Working down here really paid off!”

The caption: The author converted her basement into a place to write, and the result was a—

Answer: Best “cellar.”


Then there’s a crossword. Currently I’m working through a big book of ’em. Crosswords, of course, test your knowledge base. Sometimes you know the answer to a clue right off, and happily fill that in.

Other times you have—you’ll pardon the expression—no clue.

Like the other day. The clue was “1974 Peace Prize winner Eisaku.” No idea.

I did the usual, trying to fill in other rows intersecting with the answer, but was still coming up empty.

Which raises the issue of “cheating.” Is it ever okay to jump on the internet and look up the answer?

There are passionate voices on both sides. Maybe the answer depends on your purpose:

Whether or not it is considered cheating to seek out crossword puzzle help, there sure are a lot of resources to help you do just that. But perhaps there’s a difference between researching the whole answer versus receiving a prompt through a dictionary or a crossword solver. In other words, are you seeking out the answer because you want to gain more knowledge, or just because you want to solve the puzzle?

My view is that anything I can do to add to my knowledge base is fair game. [The name is Eisaku Sato, BTW. If I hadn’t looked it up, I wouldn’t know that he was Japanese prime minister from 1963 to 1972, and signed Japan onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In my defense, those were my elementary through high school years, which were followed by my college days at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At UCSB, the quest for knowledge was counterpoised in equal measure by keggers, so that was kind of a wash.]

So no qualms here about looking up an answer to gain more knowledge.

Which brings me to writing, because a great part of writing pleasure for me is adding knowledge by way of research.

Here’s how I go about it.

I’m writing a scene and come to a part where I need to find something out. In my Romeo series, it is often the details of a philosophical issue. Though I’ve always loved philosophy and have read widely in it, the subject is too vast for any one mind to “know it all” (except, perhaps, for my good internet acquaintance, the public philosopher Tom V. Morris).

So I know I’ll need to study some details.

If I’m going good, I put in a placeholder: [FIL]. That means “fill in later.” I keep writing and do my study later.

This also applies to things like police procedure or forensics. Often, I’ll I write the scene with my best guess as to how it would be handled. Some time after my writing stint, I’ll research it out or contact an expert. I did that with a scene in Romeo’s Rage where a SWAT team is called in. I wrote the scene as best I could. A day or so later I called an LAPD Captain I’d met at a community meet-and-greet. He proceeded to give me several details of SWAT procedure that I worked into the scene….and added to my knowledge base.

And just so you know, the capital of Moravia is Brno. I looked it up.

  1. Do you like research? When you’re writing and come to a spot that needs special knowledge, how do you proceed? Do you tend to leave your page and start down rabbit trails? Or do you keep writing, making your best guess, and save the research for later?
  1. What are your favorite brain games? 
  1. Is it cheating to look something up for a crossword puzzle?

43 thoughts on “Adding to Your Knowledge Base

  1. 1. I love research and usually find useful tidbits I wasn’t looking for. For shallow rabbit holes (how long does it take to drive from Billings to Great Falls), I google it on the spot. For deeper holes (mining sapphires in Montana), I fill in later.
    2. Where did I leave my cellphone?
    3. Not cheating if you’re looking for knowledge.

  2. Do you like research? When you’re writing and come to a spot that needs special knowledge, how do you proceed? Do you tend to leave your page and start down rabbit trails? Or do you keep writing, making your best guess, and save the research for later?

    I LOVE researching for my books–so much so that I get carried off on rabbit trails way too often (but that generates new story ideas). Most of the time I just add [research] in the manuscript copy and keep going but occasionally stop to try and look up the info I need as I write. But since I mainly write historical, what I *try* to do is read a lot of material on the place/era before I start writing then supplement as I go, but that’s not always possible & even so, there are still many details that have to be researched. Occasionally research can be frustrating when you are searching & searching for a detail and come up empty, but for me, it’s one of the most fun things about writing–writing is learning.

    What are your favorite brain games?
    Don’t have one and need to do more of this. I would love to do crossword puzzles regularly but the problem is most are based on pop culture stuff that I never pay any attention to. One of these days in my spare time, I’d like to look for a book of crossword puzzles where the theme of all the crosswords is actually something I’m interested in and have at least a modicum of knowledge about.

    Is it cheating to look something up for a crossword puzzle?
    Nope. I give it a try for a few minutes but if I still can’t fill it in, I look it up. No dawdling. If I’m going to spend time agonizing over something that’s missing I’d rather it be time spent agonizing over a story. 😎

  3. I do the Times Mini Cross every morning. Goal is under a minute. I’m usually ok unless … typos. M-W I give the ‘big’ puzzle a shot.
    I like Wordle, but will look up Phrazle. I used to do the Jumbles every day, but haven’t sought them out since they don’t show up in my feed.
    In my youth, our family played a paper and pencil game called Jotto, which is similar to Wordle.
    I loved Anacrostics.
    I don’t think looking up answers is cheating. Like you, I think learning new stuff is always a bonus, and when it comes to clues/answers about current media/pop culture, I’m always lost.

    • We were a board game family–chess, checkers, Monopoly, Life. As a kid I was never into Chutes and Ladders. Just seemed like too much luck.

      My favorite game now is Backgammon, a perfect mix of skill and the dice.

      • We knew my mom was in a serious decline when she stopped playing backgammon. She taught all her caregivers how to play and that was much of her daily routine. The table itself was too big/heavy to ship (my son wanted it), but I packed up the tiles and the dice –including her lucky ones that threw double sixes at the most opportune times–to our son.

  4. I do a lot of my research during the planning stage. Create a Word.doc with the most important topics, bookmark the rest, and then start writing. If I come to a spot in the story that I don’t have a resource for, I’ll stop for a few minutes. But if I can’t quickly find what I’m looking for, I’ll leave myself a note to circle back rather than get stuck down a rabbit hole.

    • Agree. Scrivener has a Research file I fill up with items found on the internet. In the “old days” it was a physical notebook. I still have several of those, taking up much needed shelf space. Digital is the way to go!

  5. Interesting post, Jim. Thanks for the links to Phrazle and Jumble.

    1. I enjoy research. Like others have mentioned, I have several approaches. For quick simple facts, I have google docs opened behind my Scrivener page (with my outline and scene notes) and google it immediately. If more extensive research will be needed, I put an * in my rough draft and leave a note for myself in the “Notes” section to the right of the manuscript. If there is significant information that I will need and realize that while brainstorming or outlining, I’ll look for a textbook or other source with more in depth details.

    2. I don’t currently play any brain games, except figuring out ways to make mechanical repairs, and learning how to achieve something in the wood shop more efficiently. I guess experimentation is a brain game.

    3. I don’t think it is cheating to look up an answer for a crossword puzzle. The purpose of the exercise is to learn.

      • Sorry, I didn’t find this question until this morning. I started using google docs for it flexibility. I have Scrivener on only one Mac laptop. All the other computers I use are PCs, including a computer I was using at my office. Google docs allowed me to work on a document from wherever I was and on any computer, as long as I had internet access.

        I began using google docs for brainstorming. It gradually morphed into becoming my outline, then additional notes, including a place to compare titles, work on first paragraph, etc.

        The multiple capabilities of a word processor provided so much ease of use that I found it easier to navigate and edit than Scrivener’s outline mode.

        I love Scrivener, but for flexibility of working with text (other than the manuscript), I find a word processor easier to use. And it’s always open, right behind my Scrivener composer window. All I have to do is click on it.

  6. Do you like research? Start down rabbit trails? Or keep writing?
    Not a fan of research. My first approach is to write around it, avoid it, employ technobabble. I go down rabbit trails too often, but for major research, I insert “zxc” and reserve a time for full research.

    What are your favorite brain games?
    I do Wordle every day. I’ve had four “twoples,” (two liners), and many threeples. Lately, a string of fourples. Still hoping for a oneple any day now.

    Is it cheating to look something up for a crossword puzzle?
    Of course it is. If desperate, I make a best guess and check it. The best crosswords were in the Ventura Star. The NYT puzzles are good, but manage to include their favorite politics somewhere in every puzzle.
    If a brand of puzzles is too easy, I discard the down clues.

  7. 1a. Do you like research?
    I love it too much! I write dark fantasy with a foothold in ancient history, so research is all about layering more plausibility, believability into my world-crafting. And that’s addictive. My writer’s FB page is full of archaeological shares of fun things that pertain to the series.

    1b. When you’re writing and come to a spot that needs special knowledge, how do you proceed?
    Something simple (length of a Roman gladius, or definition of a hectare) can be a quick look, but if I stumble into a deep rabbit warren that I know I want/need to spend time in (Norse bog iron smelting, or the conductive natures of sedementary rock) then I definitely bookmark as Sue suggests, placehold as you suggest, and move on!

    2. What are your favorite brain games?
    Currently, French via Duolingo. I’ve forgotten 90% of my old HS classes, so it’s a challenge.

    3. Is it cheating to look something up for a crossword puzzle?
    Well, technically yes, but, to quote Debbie, it’s a quest for knowledge!

    • I love historical research, too, Cyn. That’s perhaps he biggest rabbit chase of all. Once you start, so many trails open up, you take one, and more trails…it’s fun to learn, but you’ve got to pace yourself.

  8. Like you, Professor Bell, my wife and I do newspaper daily crosswords at the dining table, augmented by crossword books. She does Wordle and Jumble, too. It’s supposed to keep us sharp in our eighties. And experts say it keeps us sharp in our eighties.

    Yesterday, after a long spate of writing, I had a brain spark and did a word search through my old writing files, came across a pithy phrase from notes I’d made in 1999. I thought it might make a good byline. Seeking attribution, I thought Larry Brooks, because it was about structure. Ever try find a phrase in a print book? I found no love there, so back to the computer, I googled the lead sentence in quotes and voila. It came from Dramatica by Chris Huntley, on “Becoming.” So there’s my attribution if I need it.

    Without the web I never would have found it because I haven’t consulted Dramatica in more than 20 years.

    Talk about rabbit holes…

    • Wow, Dramatica! Blast from the past.

      The web is truly wonderful in many respects. I’ve searched for phrases I remembered and found them in Google Books. Would never have found them any other way.

  9. I love research and unfortunately sometimes fall down that rabbit hole for way too long. I can’t seem to get past a sticky point unless get my answer. Most of the time because a future scene will depend on what actually happens. If I get it wrong, it’s like falling dominoes.

    I’m like Debbie in that finding my phone is what I do more than the one game I play—Word Brain. It doesn’t take as long now that I have a watch that can locate it. I’ll have to try some of the games mentioned.

    • That’s a good warning, Patricia. There are some details we need to get right from the get-go, because they come up in later scenes. In such a case I make my best guess, write the scene, then research to make sure I get it right.

  10. 1. I hate research. When I get to a spot, I do the bare minimum. My most recent was symptoms of brain bleeds. Since my family are mostly medical professionals, I didn’t need to do much research, but just having to click on more than one article annoyed me. (and yet I just finished a second bachelor’s degree in teaching history.)
    I suppose someday I’ll write about something I actually need to do a bunch of research on. Maybe I could find a nice book…
    2. I used to do cryptograms. They were so much fun. But now I’ve reached a point where they’re too easy. Need to find something new.

    3. I wouldn’t call it cheating, but per my answer to number 1, research would take all the fun out of the puzzle.

    • Writers do seem to fall into one of two camps: love or hate research. I do love it, but I’m also impatient to get the book written.

      There’s an old Hollywood screenwriting motto: Skate fast on thin ice. That is, if you can skate over some area quickly, maybe you can avoid lengthy research. I dunno…I usually break through the ice and end up researching anyway.

  11. 1. Do you like research? Yes, but like others, I won’t stop writing if it’s going to take considerable time. I’ll mark my place in the text with all caps like [WHAT MOUNTAIN RANGES ARE IN WESTERN IDAHO] and keep going.

    2. What are your favorite brain games? I *love* brain games. My favorites are
    a) Elevate. I have the free version of the app on my phone. The user is presented with three different “tests” each day that build skills in math, reading, writing, memory, and speaking. It only takes a few minutes, and the user gets a raw score and percentile ranking.
    b) NY Times Spelling Bee. The user is presented with seven letters and makes as many words as possible. One designated letter has to be in each of the words. The more words you get, the further you progress along a line from “Beginner” to “Genius.” My husband and I often play this game during lunch. (It takes both of us working together to get to Genius. 🙂
    c) NY Times Sunday Crossword. It takes me a long time to work through the Sunday puzzle — usually a week or so. There’s an interesting parallel to writing: if I get stuck on a clue (which I often am), I leave the puzzle. When I come back the next day, the answer is obvious even though I haven’t consciously thought about it. Those boys in the basement are always working.

    3. Is it cheating to look something up for a crossword puzzle? Yes. Unless you’ve completed everything you possibly can. Then it’s okay to look something up.

    I need to check out Phrazle.

  12. Games — Jumble and crossword. Every day. Great way to pick up random facts. I always try to solve the Jumble without a pen, and maybe once a week am able to solve it without looking at the cartoon clue. Good for stretching the short-term memory muscles.

  13. Great post, Jim. I enjoy research, and have to be careful not to let it take over a writing session. In the past, I’ve used a bracketed note to remind myself later, but with the mystery, I’ve gotten into a bad habit of hopping on the internet and digging around. I need to return to imagining it the best I can, and then researching as needed in revision.

    Brain games is something I need to get back to. I’m a big time board gamer, including playing detailed war-games like GMT’s Twilight Struggle, which can really work the brain, but haven’t done crosswords or digital brain games in ages. Thanks for the reminder!

    Have a wonderful Sunday.

    • Dale, in college my roomies and I were big time into Risk. What a great game. There’s a hilarious Seinfeld episode about it, where Kramer and Newman are playing so intently they take the board on the subway with them. Suffice to say, the game does not survive.

  14. I’m one of those people who love to learn. Everything fascinates me. Needless to say, I have to be careful not to spend too much time in research, and I’ll never dig myself out of that rabbit hole.

  15. 1. I generally write within the sleeve of what I already know. If I need a detail–or the layout of streets in a city I don’t care to visit–I’ll duck out f the manuscript for long enough to get what I want, and then get back to the ms as soon as I can. That doesn’t mean I haven’t explored my share of rabbit holes–starting out to find the muzzle velocity of a particular munition and somehow end up watching videos of baby goats in pajamas–but I try to avoid them.

    2. I start every day with the Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle. I also have an app on my phone called Word Cookies, which is essentially an unscrambling game.

    3. Yes, looking up words in a crossword puzzle is cheating, but sometimes it has to be done. I cannot leave a puzzle uncompleted, and sooner or later, I have to get on with the real work of the day.

    • Maybe instead of “cheating” we could call it “sneaking.”

      You must love the heck out of writers who don’t do minimal research on weapons and associated items. Like the novel I read once where a cop put on his Mylar vest. I wondered if it said SWAT or “Happy Birthday.”

  16. I once heard it said that all life is a process of figuring out what you don’t know by reference to what you do know. That guides me on research. Most of my stories are pretty simple but it’s all in the details. Get one detail wrong and you’ve lost the reader who, after all, is your customer. The details are part of the deliverables you must produce.

    I’m completely useless at puzzles and games- my brain just doesn’t work that way. My spouse runs that department here. It should be easy because my mom was a crossword editor for Dell at one time.

    I would like to insert a plug here for something I have recently found which is a wonderful resource. It is titled A Place Called WriterL: Where The Conversation Was Always About Literary Journalism. WriterL was a listserv hosted by Jon and Lynn Franklin and the conversation included Pulitzer Prize winning authors and this book represents the best of that listserv, edited by Stuart Warner.

    • I used to avoid brain games and puzzles and word problems because I’d get really frustrated when I couldn’t solve something. Then I read that it’s the effort that counts, not the outcome, as far as brain health is concerned. Took the pressure off.

  17. Do you like research?
    I love researching just about anything and can find myself down a rabbit hole very easily. I had to stop reading this post to see where Moravia was. I put a place holder in my writing and leave comments on the side.

    What are your favorite brain games?
    I like logic puzzles. There is a serious called Montague Island I just started – looks like it could be fun and take me forever. Usually don’t learn anything new but it gets the juices flowing.

    Is it cheating to look something up for a crossword puzzle?
    I look things up when I just can’t take it anymore – when I have moved on and come back so many times I just have to admit ‘I have no idea’.

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