The Charles Darwin Model of Preliminary Research

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One of the most enjoyable things I get to do as a book writing coach is work with people in the early stage of the research that will become a book. Usually, the aspiring author has an idea of the subject that he or she wants to learn more about and thinks that writing a book would be a great way to boost their reputation and business.

That’s exciting and it’s natural to want to get started writing so you can finish the book and reap the benefits. But it’s vitally important at this stage not to decide too early what it is you’re going to write about. Use Charles Darwin as your role model for preliminary research.

The Voyage of HMS Beagle

In a drizzling rain on the morning of December 27, 1831, HMS Beagle sailed out of Plymouth, England for what would be a five-year voyage around the world that would wind up shaking the foundations of many popular beliefs. The Beagle had a crew of 73. Charles Darwin was aboard, but he wasn’t a member of the crew. Darwin was on board as a naturalist and his family paid his way.

This would be very good for Darwin. The fact that his research was family funded meant that everything he collected and all his observations were his property. In fact, Darwin spent the great majority of his time on land, looking for interesting things to bring home, charting coastlines, and writing down his observations and ideas.

Become a Collector

Charles Darwin was a passionate collector of all sorts of things. Beetles were a favorite. So were earthworms, and orchids. Research for Darwin began with collecting things. If you think like a collector, you’ll pick up everything interesting. Some of those things will become important later.

Many research projects begin with a specific objective in mind. Darwin’s was different. He was out there to find interesting stuff and, since there was no assurance he would ever make a trip like this again, he scooped up everything interesting and wrote down everything interesting that he saw and every speculation that he had.

That’s how many aspiring authors need to do research. Scoop up everything interesting and write down your insights and ideas. You don’t know yet what you’re going to do with them, but you can’t do anything with them if you don’t have them.

Prepare for Your Research

Read everything you can find about your general subject. Darwin read Charles Lyell’s book Principles of Geology. What he read there led to connections he made on one of the Beagle’s first stop.

On the Cape Verde Islands, Darwin noticed a stratum of fossils some 45 feet above sea level. Since they contained the remains of sea creatures, Darwin wondered how they could have gotten up that high. Lyell’s book primed him to look for evidence of volcanic activity pushing the earth upward.

Don’t Depend Solely on Your Own Observations and Insights

Darwin didn’t have the internet, but the Beagle had a library of 400 volumes and was located in Darwin’s cabin. Literally, he lived and worked in the library for five years.

There were books on travel and voyages, on natural history and geology. There were atlases and nautical charts, reference materials, and some literature. It all gave Darwin the incredible opportunity to work steadily and to check what he was seeing and thinking against some of the best knowledge of the day.

Take as Long as It Takes

Darwin didn’t exactly rush into print. His classic work, On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man wasn’t published until twenty-three years after he set foot in England at the end of his voyage. That book wasn’t the only result of his research. Darwin spent the rest of his life mining the insights and collections that came from that fertile five-year voyage.

Take the time you need to bring your material together and make it good. Take the time you need to write it in the most effective way. That’s what Charles Darwin did and it’s not a bad model for the rest of us.

We live in a more fast-paced world where research and discoveries are happening all the time. We live in a much more interconnected world where we find out those things quickly. But we owe it to ourselves and our book to do what Darwin did: find a lot of interesting stuff and then make something of it.

As he said in the opening line to On the Origin of Species, “When on board HMS Beagle, as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts.” That’s what made everything else possible.

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