Writers don’t just make up everything we write out of thin air. Even most fantasy writers do research, I’m sure. Whether it’s historical facts, geographical details, social context, fashion, scientific principles, or the average velocity of a sneeze…we like to get stuff right when we include it in a story.

The internet is an absolute godsend when it comes to doing research, but it can take you to weird places. And I’m not talking about the category of sites that start with P and end with –orn. I just mean that, well, research can end up affecting your life.

A case in point: a lot of the novel I’m currently writing is set in New York City. I don’t live there, and have never yet been there, but thanks to Google Maps and Streetview I can go virtually anywhere in the city, describe the trees, the buildings, the view in the distance. I can watch videos of people who’ve gone skydiving on Long Island and have my characters do that. And when the people in the book feel the need to grab a bite, I can find a good restaurant for them and check out the menu to see what they’d like (I don’t even have to leave a tip!) The characters in this novel are vegetarian, so that poses an extra challenge but certainly not a difficult one.

The other day I had the need to place a dinner scene. The characters were on the east side of Midtown Manhattan. Walking, not driving. Vegetarian. One was also Asian. After scrutiny of a few menus of real restaurants (by me, not them) they wound up at a Korean place. It happens that I like Korean food. One ordered Bibimbap. My mouth started to water. The next thing I knew I was looking up recipes and phoning my wife to bring home the ingredients we didn’t have on hand. Bibimbap was not only on the menu in my story but also in my kitchen that night. The picture above is our actual result. What’s more, it lived up to my expectations. I can’t always say that about my literary output for the day.

I hope I never have to eat my words. But if I occasionally get a dinner idea from one of my characters, I say bring it on.

Now if I can just resist looking up flights to New York.


Fantasy writers can make up all the details of their fictional world. Authors who write about real life can observe what goes on around them. For the rest of us, there’s research. The research I’m doing for the novel I’ve just begun to write (my fourth) is about consciousness, and how the brain works. And it’s enough to make my brain stop working.

Considering we’ve all got a brain (yes, even that @#$*&X driver in front of you), and we think we know how we think, there’s been an awful lot of ink spilled in attempts to explain it. The French philosopher Descartes is famous for saying, “I think, therefore I am.” And one of his main beliefs about how we think has become deeply ingrained in our collective knowledge, because it fits what we intuitively believe about the process of our thoughts. It seems evident that, for every bit of information taken in by our senses, there’s a specific moment when we become conscious of that information, and the details surrounding it (“Oh, look, there’s a very solid baseball coming straight at my face at high speed!”) So each moment of awareness is kind of like an image projected onto a screen in our heads (what some philosophers call the Cartesian theatre). But that forces the question: who’s looking at the screen? It presupposes there’s an inner mind, a deeper you or me who sees the projections on the screen and then does something about them—presumably a center spot of the brain where consciousness happens and decisions are made.

Neuroscientists have never found such a place. Philosophers now discredit the idea of the Cartesian theatre and will fill a book with thought exercises to show you why it’s wrong (a book so thick it qualifies as physical exercise just to lift it). Prevailing theories suggest that consciousness is more like a stream of activity with information coming in constantly, being processed, gaining priority and triggering action, or failing to achieve priority and being discarded. If you think it’s hard to wrap your head around a concept like that, imagine trying to absorb and retain it, along with dozens of other facts about neuroanatomy, brain-scanning technology, cognitive evolution, and more, while you try to write a good old-fashioned yarn about average people and the trouble they get into.

I guess the real question is: was I conscious when I decided to make a living this way?