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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


And ... we're live!

This is just a quick note to officially switch from Blogger and begin posting over in Wordpress. If you haven't already, nose around the rest of the site (start at the Home page, which I'm kind of proud of), and then stay tuned as I begin posting here from now on. Also, if you used to follow me in here Blogger, update your RSS feeds to this:

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I'll leave this blog open through the end of January, maybe a bit longer, but all my new posts will appear at the Wordpress site, so please visit me over there.

And now--back to the fiction!


New blog site nearly ready

The big move is just around the corner:  Look for a link to the new home of Beginner's Mind in the next day or two.

Also, I have a new addition to the list of resources for helping Haiti.  And if you haven't already, check out Lori Ann Bloomfield's post on compassionate writing.


Compassion in action

My friend Lori Ann Bloomfield, over on her blog First Line, has posted an excellent comment on how writers can help not only Haitians but all human beings, simply through the act of writing.  By writing more human characters, she says, we come to understand our fellow human beings better, and it's a very small step from there to full compassion for all humanity.  Better still, when we compassionately write fully realized, human characters, we invite our readers to a broader, more compassionate view of the world.  It's a beautiful post, and I encourage everyone to check it out.


I'm moving the blog

Just a heads-up:  I plan to migrate this blog over to Wordpress next week.  I like Blogger a lot and I've enjoyed posting here, but I'm moving for the website-like functionality of Wordpress.  I'll keep this blog up through the rest of the month, and I'll keep posting here for a while even after I've moved to Wordpress, but early next week, look for a link to my new home on the Web.


Research wrap-up: More resources than you ever wanted (but not nearly as many as you'll need)

As I said in the first post of this series, there’s a lot of advice out there. I’ve just hit some highlights that have intrigued me over the years, but if you want to push further and see what other ideas exist, here are some articles and resources I've found online. I’ve also included a short bibliography of some books that at least mention researching for fiction. And in case anyone was curious, yes, I did mention Anne Lamott and Jesse Lee Kercheval a lot, as well as a few references to Paul Lucey. That’s because when my wife and I first moved overseas, I only had room in my luggage for a handful of books, and at the time I was wholly enthralled with Bird by Bird and Building Fiction, and Story Sense is just a terrific reference guide for plotting, so they got to tag along for the ride. The other books on the list below are equally fantastic, though (I own them all), and I would have quoted them as well if I’d been able to bring them with me.

Web articles about research:

Bibliographies and databases:

Here are a couple of links to bibliographies on research resources, both of them special collections related to science fiction and fantasy research:

And, because my own research that started all this was on the American Civil War, I thought I’d toss in a few of the sites I found invaluable during my own writing (there are thousands of Civil War sites online—these are just the few I stopped at, and they were plenty):


These are books I own.  They discuss, at least in brief, some aspect of researching for fiction:
Also, check out some of the standard magazines and journals about writing. You might try Writer’s Digest or The Writer, but I do remember reading some terrific articles on research in The Writer’s Chronicle and Poets & Writers, and I strongly recommend both those publications.

Just when we thought we had things under control, that maybe since the aid was arriving we could let up on our contributions, a vicious 5.9 aftershock rocked Haiti again today.  Which means we aren't finished helping yet—not even close.  So, once again, please visit my links page to find out how you can help.


Research tip #6: Marbling

So now you have all your research done and you’re ready to get back to the writing. But you’re writing fiction here, not a research paper—so how do you use this research you’ve done? Sometimes the answer is easy: You were looking for a particular detail, and you found it, and you just plug it in and keep on working. But other times your research will be background—you’d written a quick rough draft but needed to learn a lot more about the time period, or the industry, or the culture, or whatever it is you’re writing about, so you’ve spent days or weeks or even months plowing through piles of research, and now you need to return to that draft of yours and work in what you learned. And this is where things get tricky.

The simple answer is to always focus on the writing. If you learned what you studied, if you absorbed all that research you did, then you should be able to just start revising the text and the details will fall in on their own. But let’s be honest, writing is almost never as easy as shaking our heads and letting the genius sift down. You’re going to have to work at this, and it’s going to have to be precise and intentional.

So let’s set aside the writing for a minute and go bake a cake.

In his screenwriting book, Story Sense, Paul Lucey discusses working research into a story:
A certain amount of your research may be cited in the script, but it should not be dumped on audiences to impress them. Instead, research should be worked into the story in the same way that the history of the characters and the locations is worked in through a process called marbling. This term refers to information that reveals the characters and the plot indirectly, through dialogue and images. When marbling is done skillfully, audiences are hardly aware that they are receiving exposition.

Because we’re writers and therefore probably also book nerds, we might be tempted to think of marbling in terms of paper-dying, the art form in which you swirl inks and dyes on paper to produce wild, psychedelic patterns. But I think this is a poor metaphor, because the result is a disorienting churn of color that does not help anyone perceive either the larger picture or the individual hues. Instead, I think the term “marbling” as used for fiction is best related to marbling in baking. For those of you who’ve never been up to your elbows in flour, marbling in baking refers to swirling two contrasting batters—one light, one dark, usually vanilla and chocolate—into a single cake, so the baked cake comes out looking like marble (or like marbled paper). But bakers know that the secret to a good marbled cake is neither the separation of the flavors nor the blend of flavors, but the complement of flavors: we don’t want to taste chocolate and then vanilla, and we don’t want to taste chocolate-vanilla; we want to taste how chocolate and vanilla play off each other in a single bite.

In fiction, we “marble” our details in such a way that they neither stand out as a distinct list of details (“Look what I learned!”) nor blend in as indistinct jumbles of words. Instead, marbled details should work their way into a story so they complement the story—they show us details not to inform the reader but to inform the story, to provide depth to character, to drive the plot, to set the mood.

And we should never forget that this is the function of our research—to serve as details in a story. This can feel frustrating sometimes in the same way that cooking frustrates some people. You spend hours and hours in the kitchen, tossing up a huge mess and stacking dirty dishes you’ll just have to spend hours cleaning later, but the final result is a single plate of food that someone wolfs down in maybe 20 minutes, and then it’s over. Similarly, when you spend hours or days rubbing your weary eyeballs and your hands have gone dry from flipping pages and you’ve learned an entire history inside and out, it can be terribly frustrating to find that all that work boils down to a single detail, a phrase in a sentence. You are tempted, I bet, to pour on the details, to load in everything you learned just to prove that you did the work. But this is not why we did the research; we’re not out to prove anything, we’re out to tell a story.

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, puts it this way:
Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth—a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well. Bad liars pile on the facts and figures, the corroborating evidence, the improbable digressions ending in blinds alleys, while good (or at least better) liars know that it’s the single priceless detail that jumps out of the story and tells us to take it easy, we can quit our dreary adult jobs of playing judge and jury and again become as trusting children, hearing the gospel of grown-up knowledge without a single care or doubt.

Yes, your research lends your fiction a certain authority, a sense that you know what you’re talking about, or at least your narrator does. A lot of great authors made sure they did know what they were talking about—when you read Hemingway’s vivid descriptions of lion-hunting in Africa, you know that old Papa Hemingway actually hefted a rifle and trekked out on safari, actually shot at the king of cats himself. But in Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells of writing a story about gardening based solely on research and on going to the source (in this case, a horticulturalist as well as dozens of happy home gardeners) and then catching people off guard when they assumed she herself was a gardener. “I’d let them know that I had only been winging it, with a lot of help from people around me. [. . .] ‘You don’t love to garden?’ they’d ask me incredulously, and I’d shake my head and not mention that what I love are cut flowers, because this sounds so violent and decadent [. . .].”

So you find only those details that are necessary, only the research that serves the story, and then you work it in where it’s necessary and only there. In her book Building Fiction, Jesse Lee Kercheval explains how Tim O’Brien (who, to be fair, was indeed a Vietnam veteran, so his details came first-hand) worked in whole lists of specific facts to lend realism to his short story “The Things They Carried.”
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men. . . .

As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&Ms for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds.

The information here accomplishes several things at once: They give the narrator (and O’Brien himself) authority through the specificity of the details—the weight of packs, the caliber of firearm, the curious detail about the “M&Ms for especially bad wounds.” Only someone who’d been there, we would reason, could know details like that. The lists also inform us about the characters, “the cumulative impression they leave of a character’s rank and specialty,” as Kercheval puts it. (Notice that the medic carries comic books, too, which, combined with the M&M detail, tells us something about Rat Kiley the human being as well as Rat Kiley the medic.) And they move the story itself forward—the description of the platoon leader, with his weapons of war and his “responsibility for the lives of his men,” precedes the description of the medic, whose gear helps him heal the wounds of war, and this pairing creates a tension that propels the story forward.

But for the best example of how to use your research in your fiction—how to marble in the details so that they complement the story you’re telling—I will turn to the master, Cormac McCarthy, and his greatest novel so far, the brilliant historical novel Blood Meridian. (For a fascinating discussion of McCarthy’s own research and writing process, check out this rare interview, with John Jurgensen.)

In Blood Meridian, a group of men led by the violently mythic Judge Holden are running from a band of vengeful Native Americans; as one might expect in a Western, they are shooting at each other as they gallop across the West Texas desert, firing so much that the judge’s men run out of ammunition. Actually, they have plenty of bullets and plenty of empty casings and are used to recycling their rounds by recasing their own ammo, but they have run out of gunpowder. So they run to the volcanic mountains to escape, and there on the burning peaks the judge sets about making gunpowder by hand.

The process of making gunpowder involves chemically mixing potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur powder, and charcoal. But these men are on the run, trapped at the top of a volcano—they’re not leisurely tinkering around with a chemistry set. McCarthy did his research, though, and he learned that human urine contains nitrogen and that saltpeter can be made from urine by mixing it with potash (wood ashes). He also must have discovered that sulfur naturally occurs in volcanic regions. And it wouldn’t be hard to come across charcoal at a volcano, either.

I did a little looking myself (okay, a very little—I just hit Wikipedia), and learned that just before the Renaissance, Europeans discovered a way to add liquid to the ingredients and create a kind of gunpowder paste, which they then dried and crushed to form gunpowder. And, according to the Wikipedia article, “gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns.”

Perfect! But these men in Blood Meridian are on the run, in the middle of a shootout, fighting for their lives. We don’t have time to pause the action and explain all these technical, alchemical processes. We need gunpowder and we need it now! So McCarthy marbles—he keeps the action moving fiery and relentless even as he describes the powder-making process in grossly vivid detail and reveals volumes of insight into Judge Holden’s feral genius and his devlish nature:
We hauled forth our members and at it we went and the judge on his knees kneadin the mass with his naked arms and the piss was splashin about and he was cryin out for us to piss, man, piss for your very souls for cant you see the redskins yonder, and laughing the while and workin up this great mass in a foul black dough, a devil's batter by the stink of it and him not a bloody dark pastryman himself I dont suppose and he pulls out his knife and he commences to trowel it across the southfacin rocks, spreadin it out thin with the knifeblade and watchin the sun with one eye and him smeared with blacking and reekin of piss and sulphur and grinnin and wieldin the knife with a dexterity that was wondrous like he did it every day of his life.

(For any chemistry nerds reading, I should point out that most information online explains that making gunpowder takes an incredibly long time, upwards of two days or more, so I know there’s absolutely no way that the judge’s men could concoct makeshift gunpowder on a mountaintop and reload and carry on their fight with the Native Americans in the span of time McCarthy describes in his novel. But we don’t care—the story has us, we are committed, and now we just want these guys to shoot the bullet.)

Tomorrow, a short summation and a list of links to other articles and books you might find useful.

If you haven't already, please visit my links for charity and aid organizations that are helping Haiti.  Also, today I discovered the website for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which is another place you can donate (I've added it to the existing list as well).  And as always, if you know of any news or any other organizations I can add here, let me know.


Research tip #5: Shop the catalogue

I’ve written about this before, but just to recap: Tom Franklin hates doing research. Yet his first two novels were historical fiction, which stuck Franklin doing the very thing he hates. Still, Franklin prefers to focus on the writing, to let the fiction drive his work (which is probably the way we all should work), so he developed a way to conduct the research he needed to do without letting it get in the way of his writing. The idea wasn’t his—he credits Steven Scarborough for the suggestion—but he made it his own.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Franklin has a thing for details. The way he sees it, a story might be entertaining if you focus on character and plot, but the characters aren't real and the plot won’t ring true without the help of minute details. “You can't write convincingly unless you know the tiny details of a place, of people, buttons on their britches or zippers, how much their snuff costs, the caliber of their sidearm,” he once told interviewer Rob McClure Smith. But in Hell at the Breech, Franklin was writing about the late 1890s, a period he had little access to. So, how to get the details right?

Scarborough suggested he find an old Sears & Roebuck catalogue. “Everything in the world you could get you got through Sears & Roebuck,” Franklin told Smith. “I got one from 1897 and it's filled with pictures of everything from Adzes to zebra lined boots. [. . .] This Sears catalogue’s got it all.”

The catalogue became his springboard into the fiction. He’d write and write (and revise as he went), and just keep plowing away at the story until he couldn’t write any more. He was dry; he needed a dip at the well. So he’d pull out his facsimile copy of the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalogue and flip through it. Eventually, he’d find something—sometimes an item he was looking for, like, say, a pocket watch, but often he’d stumble across something he hadn’t expected, like a stereoscope for viewing photographs, a kind of Victorian-era version of our old 3-D View-Masters—and he’d start describing whatever he found. The catalogue, after all, contained drawings or diagrams of the items for sale, descriptions of what they were and how they functioned, ads explaining who might find them useful, and so on. And absolute wealth of information—practically a time machine. So Franklin would describe the item, would perhaps assign it to a character and let him or her use it, and just keep working over the bit until it developed into a scene. The next thing Franklin knew, the fiction was rolling along again and the story progressed.

Franklin got lucky, of course, that anyone was bothering to print facsimiles of the old Sears catalogue at all, let alone that it was from the same time period he was writing about. But it's not hard to find similar items for yourself, and the more we writers come to need these books, the more our demand will create a market for them. That same 1897 Sears catalogue is actually available now through Amazon, as is an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue and an 1886 Bloomingdale's illustrated catalogue. A quick search through your local library might also turn up books on the history of advertising, in which you can find ads and illustrations from years past.  You can also find useful information in histories of clothing and costumes, antique furniture guides, even old cookbooks. 

And while you’re there, look into the library’s newspaper archives. Most public libraries—even the small town libraries—will keep archives of the local papers, and many larger libraries will keep archives of major national papers as well. If your library is well funded, you might even be able to search through the microfilm or microfiche collections for newspapers that are decades, even centuries old. (If your library is not well funded, lobby your local government to increase library funding, and join your area Friends of the Library group to help raise money.)

I mention the newspapers because they’ll also have print advertising and can help add a little local color to your details, and while you’re there, you can also browse some of the community articles to see what people were writing their editors to complain about, what people were gossiping about, what the local community was interested in. Check out the photos, too--you can see what people were wearing, which, as Sherlock Holmes would tell you, can provide excellent character details.  You can do the same with magazines, sometimes with surprising results (the library at one of the colleges I attended has the entire run of Playboy—in full color—on microfiche, though you have to know who to ask to get access to it and sorry, I’m not going to help you with that one).

When I was working on my Civil War novel, I found myself slowing down about halfway through and I started wondering how I was going to push on through. I thought about Franklin, in the same predicament while working on Hell at the Breech, and I decided to follow his advice: I shopped the catalogue. Of course, I don’t have a copy of that or any other historical catalogue, and living overseas as I do, it was going to be difficult to get one on short notice. But with some search guidance from a librarian (actually, my wife), I started poking around online and I stumbled across the excellent web site titled simply The Civil War. The site is good for all its history and essays and trivia, sure, but the pot of gold is their collection of Civil War-era Harper's Weekly magazines, which they’ve scanned in and posted online. (The coolest thing about their project is that they preserved the text as text, so the magazines are fully searchable!) Now, not only did I have access to contemporary news about the war, but I also had letters, political cartoons, sketches of battles, and, best of all, advertising. Thanks to these magazines, I was able to add vivid realism to my battle descriptions, give depth to characters’ personal sentiments about the war, and include rich details about daily life. In one scene, my characters come across a few worn old books in a dead soldier’s rucksack, and I listed the titles, which I’d found on a bestseller list from 1863. In another scene, some characters are haggling over the price of a few blackmarket firearms, and I was able to describe some of them based on advertising in the magazine, which sold pistols alongside ladies’ stockings.

The Harper’s Weeklys weren’t as easily perused as a Sears catalogue, maybe, and they were comparatively limited in scope, but they got the writing going every time, and that’s the only point anyway—it is always the point—to get back to the writing.

Of course, once you shop the catalogue, you have to unpack all that stuff and arrange it, which is for some people the biggest trick of all. So, tomorrow, I’ll write about marbling….

Bonus link:  For more recent cultural and material research, check out the delightful Retroland website.  Remember Trapper Keepers?  Yeah, so do they.  Loads of nostalgic fun.

Obama has tweeted about Haiti—his first post on Twitter—and asked Americans to continue supporting Haitian relief efforts.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for troops and aid organizations to unclog the bottleneck of supplies, and indeed the US military (according to some, a source of the bottlenecking once we took control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince) has agreed to help speed the distribution of supplies.  Yet as the death toll mounts, with some estimates now reaching more than 200,000 dead, survivors continue to be miraculously pulled from the rubble, alive and in dire need of food and medicine.  That means it remains important—is perhaps more important now—to continue giving to relief efforts.  There are reports now of fake support groups popping up on Facebook, which is unfortunate, but the list I put together a few days ago remains a good starting point for finding legitimate, carefully vetted aid organizations.  Please check out that list and consider giving.


Research tip #4: Shoot the bullet

A few years ago, I was at the big national conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and a friend of mine, Tom Franklin, was on a panel discussing research in fiction. Franklin joined the panel by virtue of his historical novels Hell at the Breech and Smonk (particularly Hell, which is based on a true story), but Franklin freely admits he dislikes research, so I knew the panel discussion would be fun. The panel did turn out to be a pretty lively one, frequently digressing into friendly banter and swapped anecdotes between Franklin and his friends and fellow panelists Julianna Baggott, Justin Cronin, Jennifer Vanderbes, and Mark Winegardner. In fact, the stories the panelists started telling sometimes had little to do with research—the group quickly became just a bunch of practiced storytellers trying to outdo each other—but they all did a terrific job of bringing their rambling stories back to the point at hand: research.

Among the planned topics for that panel, some (“what really happened!”) seemed fairly gratuitous, and others (“what to look for and how to look for it”) fairly dry and mechanical. But there was one point that people keep debating, and after the comments from this panel, I’m not sure why, because the answer seems pretty simple. The conference program lists this point three different ways: “negotiating between historic fact and story-truth,” “approximating what can't be looked up,” and “what's better made-up,” but they all boil down to one axiom: Sometimes it’s better to shoot the bullet.

I should confess here that I don’t recall who told this story. I know it was a guy, and I know it wasn’t Franklin. That leaves Justin Cronin and Mark Winegardner, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Winegardner. That should make it Cronin’s story, but my memory keeps adding a fourth guy, tacked on the end of the panel as a late addition, and I don’t want to put words in Cronin’s mouth that weren’t his. But until someone corrects me on this (I e-mailed Franklin, but he doesn’t remember, either), we’ll say it was “Cronin” who told this story.

And the story goes like this: “Cronin” was working on an action sequence in which a character has been shot in the leg but must run to escape his enemies. He has no surgical experience and no time to stop and dig out the bullet even if he knew how, but he also cannot run effectively with that bullet still lodged in his thigh. What he does have is an almost superhuman expertise in firearms, and he has a pistol. So he does what any desperate action hero would do in this situation: He aims his pistol at his own thigh, muzzle pressed into the open wound and angled along the same trajectory as the original bullet. He grits his teeth. Then he pulls the trigger and fires a second bullet into his leg. The result is something like projectile-billiards—his bullet strikes the first bullet and knocks it out the far side of his thigh, and his bullet then continues on the same path and exits the same wound. No more bullets, and now he can run. And off he goes.

We in the audience all laughed at this story, as did the guy who told it. It is a ridiculous scene, he admitted. (In my head, I recalled the scene in Rambo III when Rambo, out in the deserts of Afghanistan and wounded in the stomach, uncases two rifle bullets, pours the gunpowder into his wound, and ignites it—fire bursting from his muscled torso into the desert night—to cauterize the wound). Still, “Cronin” said, shooting the bullet was just too cool to pass over, and it sounded vaguely plausible to him. He wanted it to work.

He’d already been poring over medical references and firearms manuals in the course of writing this book of his, but he’d never come across anything that would either confirm or contradict his idea to shoot the bullet. This sounded like specialist information, the kind of thing you could probably only deduce from experience. So “Cronin” went to the source and called a doctor friend of his. He explained the situation, described how his hero would shoot the bullet, and then asked his doctor friend if such a thing would work.

His friend laughed in his face.

“Of course that wouldn’t work!” the doctor said. “Medically speaking, it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard—and the odds against it are astronomical!”

Disheartened, “Cronin” began thinking then and there of alternative possibilities, but he didn’t get far in his silent, dejected reverie, because the doctor leaned in close and said, “But the way you describe it, shooting the bullet sounds cool as hell. You should let him do it anyway!”

And that was the lesson for the day: Sometimes the research can get in the way of good writing. Sometimes you have to say to hell with realism, to hell with the facts, and just write a cool story. Sometimes you have to shoot the bullet.

This doesn’t mean you can get away with shoddy writing. You don’t always have to operate within the rules of the real world, but you do have to operate within the rules of your established world—you have to remain true to your story. Take my novella, for example, which involves a couple of teenage boys running around causing trouble just outside Boerne, Texas, in the woodsy little subdivision where I grew up. I have spent a lot of time constructing complicated calendars and character note cards, and I’ve gone through every line of the story checking that the timeline adds up. I can’t say my character is 14 in the winter and 15 the summer, for instance, without knowing that he has a birthday sometime in the spring (it's March 14, if anyone cares). I don’t have to mention the birthday at all, but I do have to know that I can’t mention his birthday in the fall is it had already happened in the spring.  The rules of my story won't allow it.

But I’m not tied to the physical details of my old neighborhood. This is fiction, after all. So I have my characters tearing loose in a version of my own back yard even though the reference sites for each boy's house are nowhere near my parents’ actual home. I can manipulate geography because I’m not drawing a map—I’m writing fiction. The point is not that people reading my story can go out to my old subdivision and find the secret hiding place where these boys spend their time—they can’t, because the geography is imprecise. The point is that someone can read the descriptions and, if they know Boerne or my old subdivision, they can recognize the general landscape (which I hope people can).

When I was an undergrad student, Madeleine L'Engle once visited my college as a visiting speaker. Among the many insights she touched on during her audience Q&A session, she explained what she saw as the difference between fact and truth. Facts, she said, are details, data, pieces of information that we can record and prove and quantify . . . and manipulate. They are not inherently true. On the other hand, truth is not always dependent on facts—truth is just as much something we can feel or something we believe as it is something we can point to or measure. And fiction, according to L’Engle, is often more truthful than factual.

Fiction writer and memoirist Bill Roorbach has alluded to a similar phenomenon in his own work. He likes to joke that his greatest frustration is when he reads from his nonfiction and people challenge him, shouting out from the audience, “That didn’t happen! You’re making that up!” but when he reads a piece of fiction, people creep up to him and lean in conspiratorially, wink at him, and whisper, “I know that’s based on a true story—I know all that really happened to you.” The point, Roorbach says, is that people often confuse fact for truth, so when he writes a story full of truth, people mistake it for fact, and when he writes an essay full of truth, people want only the facts.

We are not in the fact business. We are in the truth business. It doesn’t matter what form our work takes—fiction, essays, poetry, scripts, aphorisms, whatever—so long as we strive to tell the truth. And sometimes, telling the truth, or even just telling a damn good story, requires us to bend or even ignore the facts.

When Tom Franklin was writing Hell at the Breech, his first novel, he spent a lot of time interviewing people who knew the true story, whose relatives had lived through it and passed down their version through the generations. He wrestled and agonized for a long time over how to reconcile all the variations of the local legend, how to write the most factually accurate story possible and please all the folks he’d talked to. But eventually he realized he couldn’t, and in his author’s note in the book, he explains that his is a work of fiction, not fact. Once he let go of trying to get in all the factual details, he discovered he could tell the truest story possible.

Which isn’t to say Franklin gave up doing research. What he did, though, was a specific kind of research best suited to his writing style, something I like to call “shopping the catalogue,” but that’s for tomorrow’s post . . . .

The situation in Haiti is getting better, but it's also getting more desperate.  Supplies are bottlenecked, relief organizations are tripping over each other, and what little order people managed to cobble together in the immediate aftermath is deteriorating.  Let's not make this sound prettier than it is.  But let's also focus on what is getting accomplished:  Supplies are arriving and are getting distributed.  In fact, despite the bottleneck, supplies are running out as fast as they're arriving, which means relief organizations still need your help.  When you return from the public celebrations of the Reverend Dr. King's life, and before you switch on the Golden Globes, take a moment to give a donation.  See this list of organizations for more information.

UPDATE:  United Arab Emirates, where we live, is joining other Arab nations in sending aid to Haiti, both through Khalifa Bin Zayed Charity Foundation and through the UAE branch of the Red Crescent Society, the organization we're donating to.


Research tip #3: Go to the source

A lot of great writers started out as journalists, and critics have offered a lot of reasons for that shared background. Journalists know how to work under deadline, they have an instinct for finding a story, they’ve learned how to find an angle or a hook to draw a reader in, they have developed a sense of concision and compression in language. But I think there is at least one reason that critics tend to overlook: Journalists know how to interview people.

I’ve been writing so far about how to conduct research for fiction, but up till now that research has been primarily textual—books, articles, websites. However, sometimes research in books or online isn’t enough. There are some things you can’t learn by reading, but Hemingway’s or Annie Proulx’s examples aside, there are also a lot of things you can’t learn by living through or traveling to, either. For some things, you have to go to the source, you have to talk to other people who have lived through it, who did travel there—you have to talk to people who know.

This is a hard thing for many introverted writers to do. We’re much happier holed up at our desks with our desk lamp, our music, and our cat for company. We’re writers, we tell ourselves, because we don’t like to talk. So actually tracking down people and meeting them is at best a chore—at worst, terrifying. But hey, you've managed to get out and meet a librarian by now, right? (Right?) So you can do this too. Talking to people isn’t really much different from the kind of research you’ve probably been doing, except instead of asking questions in a search engine or a database or a catalogue, you’re asking a human being. And sometimes, this is the only way it can work.

The simplest thing to do is start with people you already know. For example: I’m currently working on a story in which one of the characters is a Mexican-American who understands English fine but does not speak English. I can write the character without any problems, because I grew up in the Texas Hill Country, in a small town with a significant, proud Hispanic population. My perspective remains irrefutably white, of course, but this isn’t really a problem in the story—most of what we see of this guy is through a white perspective. But he needs to speak, and I need his speech to be authentic. Yet no matter how many Hispanic friends I hung out with at lunch or on weekends, and no matter how many Hispanic coworkers I worked with (this character is in fact based loosely on a guy I used to mow lawns with), my Spanish is limited, academic, and frankly, terrible. I’ve used the language in stories before, but it’s an issue I always wrestle with. I can (and have) used dictionaries and online translators to temporarily write the dialogue I’ve used, but we all know this is inauthentic—no one speaks their own language the way it’s written in textbooks or constructed by translators.  So, for my Mexican-American character’s voice to ring true, I turned to some of my Spanish-speaking friends from back in high school, because they can help me with the spoken rhythms of the language, the idioms and the slang. (This is an on-going project, by the way, so if any of my friends want to volunteer as translators, I’d love to hear from you!)

More recently, I learned a wealth of invaluable information while working on that Civil War novel I keep mentioning. One of the characters in that book has the bizarre habit of skinning wolves and wearing their pelts as clothes—he even wears a real wolf’s face as a mask. But I’ve never been a hunter and I’m now a vegetarian, not to mention that many wolf populations are protected today, so this not only was something I was unfamiliar with, it is something I’ll never have a chance to try for myself. I tried reading some guides online but the specific information I was looking for was difficult to find, and besides, the skinning and preparation of these pelts is, for my character, an intensely personal process, so I needed some kind of inside information. I put out the call online, and several friends came through for me immediately, including my friend Amy Smith Hicks, who is a self-described “country girl” and regularly helps dress and butcher deer during the annual hunting seasons; better still, members of her family are in the taxidermy business, so she had some insights there as well. Amy not only was able to explain the mechanics of the process better than the manuals I was reading, but she also described the sounds and smells of the skinning process, how the skin feels as you strip it from the carcass, and some personal tips for an easier job.  These are details I would never have gotten from reading a book or even watching a video.

If you’re lucky, you can do the same with other complicated professional information as well. Despite the stereotypes, most writers are not insular homebodies who hang out only with other writers, if with anyone. You probably have friends or acquaintances in a wide breadth of fields, from grocery store clerks to construction workers to computer support technicians to police officers to accountants to college professors. You also conduct a lot of business with people in various professions. When you get your cable installed, talk to the person hooking up your tv. When you go to the doctor for a check-up, ask questions about your characters' fictional conditions.

Sometimes, though, you’ll simply need to dive in and play reporter, to call up a professional or an organization and start asking questions. Say you’re writing a crime thriller but you’ve never lived in a dangerous neighborhood, you don’t know any cops, you’ve never even seen a firearm up close. Call up your police department and request a ride-along. (You can usually do the same for your local fire department and sometimes the paramedics as well.) Or let’s say you’re writing about an employee at an animal shelter. Call up your local humane society and ask about volunteering; while you’re there, talk to other volunteers, talk to the vets.

Some professions or people are going to be trickier than others, of course. I don’t recommend diving into dangerous situations without a LOT of preparation and help from other professionals, and even then, I would never condone any writer participating in dangerous or illegal activities just to write a story. When in doubt, go back to the old rule of writing what you know. But you should embrace a certain sense of adventure and talk to interesting people; your readers want to read about those people.  Talk to professionals in the fields your characters work in; your readers they want to know that you know what you’re talking about, or at least that Val, your lawn-mowing main character, knows his way around a commercial-grade Walker mower.

When I was hospitalized in 1999 with a bleeding ulcer, the doctors explained to me how they would insert a gastrointestinal scope down my throat and take a look around inside me to find the ulcer, and then they’d use the laser attached to the scope to suture the ulcer shut. I was going to be unconscious for all this, they assured me, and then I asked what struck them as a strange question: Would they be recording the scope? Sure, they explained, they would keep a video record of the procedure for reference later. I said, “Will I be able to see this video?” They reminded me I would be under anesthesia, but I clarified that I wanted access to the video after the procedure. “I just want to see what it looks like,” I said. I had no plans for the information—at the time, I’d lost a couple pints of blood and was lying weak and woozy on a gurney, already in the surgery room where they were preparing the scope, so I wasn’t thinking about fiction at all. But I knew I needed to see that video, and indeed, a few weeks afterward, I returned to the hospital and asked to see my file.  I watched the video and asked a lot of questions about what some of the images meant, what they’d done during the procedure, what the instruments did and how they worked. And then I forgot it. It became just another piece of information I knew, trivial and quirky but not of much immediate use. But sure enough, more than four years later I had an idea for a story that involved a scope down the esophagus, and I remembered that video; my story “Horror Vacuui,” about a sword-swallower with a dangerous case of intestinal blockage, would not be the same if I hadn’t seen first-hand what the inside of my own bloody intestines looked like. These details matter, and sometimes the best way to get them is from the source itself.

That's why, tomorrow, I'm going to offer some specific advice based on a story about a doctor and how you, too, can "shoot the bullet."

Relief efforts in Haiti are going slowly and the situation is dangerously precarious, but a lot of supplies have already arrived on the island and volunteers are working hard to help the Haitian people.  The harder they work and the more they give, the more they're going to need your donations!  Please see my list of charity and action organizations, and as usual, if you know of more I need to list, please let me know.


Weekend repreive

The research series is on hold for the weekend (I live in a Muslim country, where our weekend is Friday and Saturday), so look for Tip #3 on Sunday.

In the meantime, if you're on Facebook:  Today a friend of mine who is a Unitarian minister alerted me to a "Prayers & Thoughts for the people of Haiti" event on Facebook, hosted by the group "Long Live His Holiness the Dalai Lama."  I'm certain there are many other groups associated with other faiths or with secular organizations who are hosting similar pages/events, so look them up.

And keep those donations going!


More help for Haiti

The links just keep coming, thanks especially to my friends Rima Abunasser, Beth Davidson, and Diana Pearson.  I'm re-posting the list from yesterday, but some links are to organizations and some to lists of organizations, so I'm listing the lists first:
  • NEW:  Microsoft Community Involvement site (Microsoft has put together a list of resources, not all of them merely financial.  I can't vouch for the reliability of all those resources, but it's worth a look, especially for the non-monetary ways you help)
  • Charity Navigator (this is a kind of clearing house for reliable, reputable charities; it weeds out the scams and helps you find the right charity for your giving preferences)
  • InterAction (from my friend Rima:  "a list of legitimate organizations who are participating in the relief effort")
  • Google (my friend Beth pointed out that Google is listing charities; you can search yourself or just follow the link she sent me)
  • BBB Wise Giving Alliance (Beth also pointed out this clearing house, "for 'vetting' charities")
  • The White House (this comes directly from President Obama, via an mass e-mail he sent out; it lists all the efforts our government is taking and how you can help, and it's where I got this web badge for today's post)
Help for Haiti: Learn What You Can Do

Here are some individual charities and organizations:
  • International Red Cross Red Crescent (this is the main site for the joint operations of Red Cross and Red Crescent; you can donate directly here, or you can use their search tool to find a Red Cross or Red Crescent office in your home country)
  • Doctors Without Borders (they were already operating three hospitals in Haiti before the earthquake, but all three hospitals are destroyed and the medical staff are now operating out of tents and temporary shelters--they desperately need your help, and every dollar counts)
  • Oxfam (another hugely important coallition of international aid organizations)
  • Heifer International (Heifer seeks to fight hunger and poverty, and has decided to step in as a first responder in the Haiti crisis.  Thanks to my friend Beth Davidson for pointing this one out.)
  • Episcopal Relief and Development (my friend Diana says this organization "is already on the ground there and puts 92 cents on the dollar into relief work.")
  • World Vision (my friend Rima says, "according to ABC, they're already distributing first aid kits and and other staples in Haiti.")
  • Save the Children (also from Rima:  "using grassroots methods like sending motorcycle teams to help people in Port au Prince") 
  • Care (Rima:  "distributing high protein biscuits they already had in warehouses in Haiti"; Beth highlighted this one, too)
  • UNICEF (a time-honored and reliable group--I used to "trick or treat" for donations when I was a kid; thanks to Beth for pointing this one out!)
  • Clinton Bush Haiti Fund (a new addition to this list; this is the organization set up by former Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush, as the request of President Obama)

Thanks everyone for your links and support!  Keep those ideas coming, and keep the words, the money, and the helping hands going!



I want to pause in the series on researching to focus on more important matters: Haiti. As I write this, the death toll is not yet known, and like the horrible tsunami catastrophe of 2005, we may never truly know. What we do know is that millions--that's millions--of Haitians are injured or dying, and all Haitians, both in their homeland and living abroad, are suffering terrible, unspeakable grief.

There have been a lot of calls for prayer in the past day or so, and I'm among those people who believe that prayer, or meditation, or any other form of mental or spiritual offering can be hugely beneficial in tragedy, not only to those on whose behalf we pray but also for ourselves as well. It's why I'm here now: I view writing as a kind of prayer, like a message in the Wailing Wall or a sutra on a prayer flag or calligraphy from the Qur'an, and I write this because I want to send my hope and compassion out into the world, on the off chance that it can help someone who is suffering, if only to know there's someone like me who cares.

But I also believe that words alone are not going to help the people of Haiti, and I agree with all those people who suggest that action is as important as prayers--maybe, for the time being, action is more important.

I know things are hard for a lot of people the world over. Just today, as I browsed messages and status reports from friends and family, I found as many people despairing over their own hardships as I found despairing for Haiti. I have friends who have lost their jobs, or who have been seeking jobs for months to no avail; I have friends who wake each morning wondering how they're going to feed their children. I have friends who are suffering from terrible illness, or whose family members or spouses are dying of cancer. I have friends who are fighting day after day just to retain (or in some cases earn for the first time) their basic human rights.

But I also know that there are also plenty of us who can afford to help. It doesn't take much. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit several years ago, I had students approach me asking to be excused from class for a week. They wanted to head south, down to the Gulf Coast. I said, "You have family down there?" They said, "No, I'm joining a group of volunteers helping to clean up." I excused them from class. A couple of years later, up in Wisconsin, another group of students asked the same thing--they were driving down to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. These actions cost time, but they rarely cost money, and they have enormous impact.

I don't yet know what sorts of actions are available to help Haitians; the Haitians themselves do not yet fully understand the terrible scope of this tragedy or what their needs will be, and the governments of the world, including my own, are scrambling to help but don't yet know how. I hope by the end of today we can know, at least to some degree, and the help can begin. But in the meantime, I do know that one thing needed desperately is money to fund the efforts of those brave volunteers waiting to rush to Haiti's aid. So if you can afford to, please consider donating. Some places are willing to accept anything you can spare, even if it's only a dollar.

To that end, here is a short list of charities to consider, compiled by myself, some friends on Facebook, and one of my favorite blogs, Cake Wrecks:
  • Charity Navigator (this is a kind of clearing house for reliable, reputable charities; it weeds out the scams and helps you find the right charity for your giving preferences)
  • International Red Cross Red Crescent (this is the main site for the joint operations of Red Cross and Red Crescent; you can donate directly here, or you can use their search tool to find a Red Cross or Red Crescent office in your home country)
  • Doctors Without Borders (they were already operating three hospitals in Haiti before the earthquake, but all three hospitals are destroyed and the medical staff are now operating out of tents and temporary shelters--they desperately need your help, and every dollar counts)
  • Oxfam (another hugely important coallition of international aid organizations)
  • Heifer International (already an addition!  Heifer seeks to fight hunger and poverty, and has decided to step in as a first responder in the Haiti crisis.  Thanks to my friend Beth Davidson for pointing this one out.)
  • Episcopal Relief and Development (and another addition, this one from my friend Diana Pearson, who says this organization "is already on the ground there and puts 92 cents on the dollar into relief work.")

If you know of any more than I can add to this list, or of any non-monetary ways in which we can help, please tell me--I will [continue to] update and repost the list as long as it's necessary.


Research tip #2: Know your limits

Sing it with me now: “To everything there is a season . . . A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to research, and a time to stop researching and get back to the writing . . .”

Every good academic knows there comes a point in the research process at which you have to quit looking at other people’s ideas and start working with your own. Failing to do so, you risk letting other people’s ideas take over, and what you wind up writing is not original argument but regurgitative reporting. Fiction writers, though, seem to know less about this magical balancing act and aren’t always aware when that moment comes.

The first thing you need to bear in mind as a researcher is what your skill set is, what things you know about researching and what things you’ll need help with. (If you read yesterday’s post, you know at least one thing: Ask a librarian!) Many fiction writers come from academic backgrounds and know a great deal about researching, but many fiction writers don't. And it's not a problem, not in terms of researching for fiction. The point is not to become expert researchers but to become excellent writers, which means we must always stay focused on the writing and not worry so much about the research. You’re not out to learn new processes (though it’s always helpful if you do learn some things along the way—see yesterday’s post), so what you want to do is work within the skills you have, find what you can as fast as you can, and then—say it with me—get back to the writing.

Maybe the only thing you know to do is jump onto Google or Wikipedia and look stuff up. That’s fine, though the Internet is notoriously time-consuming and conducive to procrastination (or, as my friend Tanya’s son Aaron brilliantly calls it, “procrasturbation”). If that’s what works for you, use it: follow a few links in, see what you can see. But if you linger too long or start clicking on too many links, shut it down and get back to the writing.

Maybe you have a small collection of standard references in your home, and you like to dive into those now and then, hit the encyclopedias or the indexes or The Dangerous Book for Boys, and read till you find what you’re after. That’s excellent. I can’t tell you how many trivia books and instruction manuals and dictionaries I’ve read over the years, and boring as it might sound, I’ve enjoyed them all. There’s some fascinating stuff out there in the world, and I love to learn. But there’s a difference between reading to write and just plain reading. Put the book down. You have a book of your own to write.

Maybe you’re well versed in complicated research methods, you know your library’s article databases inside and out, and you have personal access to the archives or the rare books room, and you head down to the library to put in some good hard research. Great. But take your writing with you—your laptop, your yellow legal pad, your lovingly worn, floppy old journal and fancy pen—and be prepared at any moment (the right moment) to drop everything and get back to the writing.

So what is the right moment? How do you know when you’ve done enough research and are ready to write again? Well, that’s a tricky question, and the simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate truth is that only you can know. It reminds me of the very short chapter on knowing when a story is finished, from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “This is a question my students always ask. I don’t quite know how to answer it. You just do.”   But I call it fortunate because you get to determine this—the “right” moment depends on you.

In his book on screenwriting, Story Sense, Paul Lucey suggests that “the amount of time spent on research depends on the topic, how quickly you work, and how much background you need to feel comfortable” with writing the story. “Some writers spend months research and mulling the story, which is also an aspect of writing. The research and story pondering continues until the writer feels charged with energy and begins working out the plot.” But I think Lucey’s description is a bit disingenuous, or else he drinks better coffee than I do—I’ve never felt “charged with energy” after a long research session. I feel swollen, full of new information and unsure what to do with it all.  But sometimes I also feel driven, sometimes frantically, to get down an idea or a scene, in much the same way I’d feel driven by any flash of inspiration or sudden insight I knew belonged in fiction. It is a gratifying moment, to flash on the one piece of information you were looking for (or better yet, a piece of information you didn’t know you were looking for) and suddenly know you need to get it into writing. But I worry that Lucey’s initial image of writers sitting around poring through tomes of research and pondering and mulling ad libitum gives us exactly the excuse we need to avoid writing. Fan as I am of Hemingway’s pinching orange peels and staring at the fire routine, we don’t really need any more excuses to avoid writing, and sometimes you have to recognize that, right information or not, you’ve put off the writing long enough and it’s time to go back and just write the thing. There will be time enough for follow-up research later. Right now you need to write.

When I was working on the Civil War novel that spawned these posts, I was under the daily pressure of NaNoWriMo to pound out a few pages every day, so even though I wound up doing a little research every day, I also had to force myself toget back to the writing.  In some cases this was easy: One time, I needed to find out how to defeat the Cajun folklore creature known as a rougarou (a bit like a werewolf), so I looked up the answer, found it, and moved on.  Other times, I risked letting the research run away with me, like the day I looked up Civil war battles in southwestern Louisiana.  I wanted to reference a particular battle in dialogue in order to set a character's background and establish some of the real history behind my story, so I started looking up historical accounts of battles.  At first I was just looking for date and place, but once I'd found several, I needed to pick one, and to pick one—I told myself—I needed to know a little about each battle.  So I started reading.  After a while I'd narrowed my battles down to two or three I could use, but then I decided that the only way for my character to talk about the battle effectively was if I knew that battle from the inside, so I tore off searching for first-hand accounts, letters and diaries from Civil War veterans, and newspaper reports contemporary to the battles.  Before I knew it, I'd spent hours and hours reading, and I was started to feel overwhelmed.  Worse, I hadn't written more than a few dozen words for the day.  There was no magic trigger, no a ha flash of inspiration.  There was only the weary realization that enough was enough, and it was time to get back to the writing.  So I dropped everything, picked a battle at random, and dropped a single reference to it in a line of dialogue, and I moved on.  I'm glad I did the research I did because it'll be easier to find again when I go back and fill in the details.  But the point that day was to write, and my mind told me when I'd finished with the research.

Determining the moment you’re ready to get back to the writing will take a certain degree of self-awareness, which means that you’re going to have to practice this a lot. Research and write, write and research, back and forth, until you can figure out that delicate balance. It’s a lot like meditation, what Buddhists and psychologists call “mindfulness” training: you need to learn what your mind is doing, learn to notice when you’re getting distracted from your goal, which in this case is always the writing.

In one version of mindfulness meditation, the meditator is supposed to focus on his breath. He notices when he breathes in; he notices when he breathes out. That’s it. Sometimes, he counts the breaths in order to remain focused on the breathing, but this becomes tricky, because it’s very easy to use that as a crutch, to stop focusing on the breathing and start focusing on the counting. And the counting is not the goal—the goal is breathing, and the counting is just a tool to facilitate the breathing.

The same is true with writing and research. We must begin with writing and we must end with writing. Sometimes we need the tool of research to help facilitate the writing, but the research is not our goal, not our purpose—we are doing the research only so we can continue writing.

This is easier said than done, of course, because for some people, research is a fantastic crutch. In a blog post on WordPlay, author K.M. Weiland explains one reason she quit writing exercises is because they became a good excuse to not write: “It’s much easier to scribble away on exercises that don’t matter, rather than buckle down and work on that tough scene opener.” I’m a fan of exercises myself, just as I’m a fan of research, but Weiland has a point—we can sometimes allow what started out as work to become a distraction from work, and research is especially nasty about this. Paul Lucey himself admits this, following up his idyllic image of pondering, intense writers hunched over their research with the warning that “in some cases the research can go on for so long that it becomes an excuse for avoiding writing.”  Try reading anything interesting on Wikipedia and you’ll quickly see what I mean. You reading something interesting and it points you to something else, some other related tidbit, so you go read about that, which links you to a different article, and soon your “research” has snowballed into “not writing” and you’re spending all day browsing useless information that won’t wind up helping anything. So you have to force yourself back to the writing.

Jack Kornfield, Buddhist and psychologist, in his chapter “Training the Puppy” from A Path with Heart, puts it like this:
In this way, meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say, “Stay.” Does the puppy listen? It gets up and it runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. “Stay.” And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes the puppy jumps up, runs over, and pees in the corner or makes some other mess. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they create even bigger messes. In training the mind, or the puppy, we have to start over and over again.

This is true for everyone’s mind, not just meditators.  Your mind is a puppy, and it’s squirmy and restless and playful as hell.  That’s fine.  Let it play—we are creative writers, after all.  But don’t let it make a mess.  In researching for fiction, we have to learn what our own limitations are, we have to discover—through practice—that in the end we can only research so much, and we have to remind ourselves to return to the fiction over and over again, because that is what we’re really doing: We are writers, and we need to write.  Listen to your mind, and when it says “A ha!” or “Enough,” let go of the research, and get back to the writing.

Of course, one way to cut down on your research time is to skip the books and go straight to the sources—to cultivate connections with experts and to learn from people on the street—but that’s for tomorrow’s post. . . .

[EDIT:  I've postponed the entry on sources to focus on the dire need in Haiti--please read tomorrow's post for more information.]


Research tip #1: Marry a librarian

I’ve been hanging out in libraries since I was a kid, and I was a regular at my town’s public library during high school.  My first year of college, I was commuting 40 minutes to school and had a huge gap between classes my first semester; with no dorm room or home to return to between classes, I did the only thing that felt natural to me and I hung out in the library.  A lot.  Sometimes six hours a day.  And I wasn’t sleeping in there—I was reading books, not just fiction but nonfiction too, usually researching arcane and ridiculous subjects in addition to my serious scholarly pursuits.  My habits didn’t change when I met the woman I would later marry, because she took a work study job in the library, which just meant I hung out in there more.

So I got to know a lot about libraries and librarians.  I knew the card catalog inside and out (that’s right—we still had one when I was in college, though they transitioned to an online system before I graduated).  I knew the vertical files and the atlas room.  I’d been inside the archives and even the dim basement storage affectionately nicknamed “the catacombs.”  The librarians and library staff all knew me by sight; most knew me by name.  And I knew where to look for most kinds of information (or thought I did at the time), and I had already learned the most valuable lesson of research: when in doubt, ask a librarian!

(That bears repeating:  ASK A LIBRARIAN!)

I didn’t set out to marry a librarian, really.  But it makes a lot of sense that I did marry one, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.  Better still—and I say this objectively, based on a lifetime of hanging out in libraries and chatting with librarians, as well as on a professional career understanding my own research needs—I was lucky enough to marry one of the best librarians I’ve ever worked with.  I know that if I have a pressing research need, I can call or text or e-mail my wife, and she can find the answer.  Most of the time, she’ll find more information than I was even looking for, or better information than I was looking for, and more often than not, she’ll have pointed me toward that information by the end of the day.  More than once she’s tracked down truly arcane information I’d spent two whole days looking for, and I swear (I’m not making this up), she’s found it inside of five minutes.

Librarians are like that, or the good ones are, anyway.  It’s what they’re trained for; it’s why they have advanced degrees (technically speaking, you cannot claim to be a librarian without at least a masters in library science).  And it’s why, if you plan to focus on your own writing without getting too bogged down in research, it’s going to be a good idea to marry a librarian.

Okay, I know.  There are only so many librarians in the world, so maybe you’re not going to be fortunate enough to marry one.  But you can still make friends.  I was friendly with all the librarians I worked with long before I fell in love with one, and they were always helpful, because any good librarian will view his or her job as a service profession.  Sure, all librarians collect information, and it’s a small step from collecting to hoarding, and yes, most librarians have some professional obligation to preserve and protect the information they collect.  But for most librarians, the main reason they’re collecting and preserving that information in the first place is so we, the public, can use it.  That means their primary concern on any given day is to help you find the best information in the fastest, most painless way possible.  So if you can’t marry a librarian, make friends with one. 

And don’t say you don’t know any librarians!  Head to your nearest library and meet one.  Walk up to the reference desk.  Say, “Hi, are you a librarian?”  (The person on the desk might be a staff member or a student worker, so it’s helpful to ask.)  If they say yes, tell them, “I’m a writer, and I’m going to need a lot of help doing research.  I don’t need any help right this second, but I wanted to meet you so I’d know where to come in the future.”  Smile when you say this.  Offer to shake hands.  Bring the librarian chocolate.  And thank the librarian, frequently and sincerely.

But meeting a librarian isn’t enough.  To get the most out of the relationship—and out of your fiction—you also have to . . . say it with me now . . . ask a librarian.  Which means you need to know what to ask.

I said in the previous post that the first step to writing historical fiction is to write the fiction.  Get a story down, or at least an outline.  Have some sense of where you’re going with this piece.  Put in your share of “butt in the chair” time.  Because the best way to get the most help out of a librarian is to know what you’re looking for in the first place, and to know what you’re looking for, you need to start the writing.

But let’s say you’ve got a draft started—or even just an outline.  Let’s say you’re writing about the 19th-century grave robbers known as “resurrectionists” (as did the delightful Hannah Tinti, in her novel The Good Thief), and you find yourself stuck in a passage about the process of robbing graves.  So, first things first:  Do the research yourself.  Librarians love it when you’ve made a little effort on your own, because any good librarian, like any good detective, is going to start with the simplest solutions, which means that if you’ve eliminated some of the basic steps of research before approaching a librarian, the librarian will be able to move that much more quickly to the really juicy stuff you couldn’t find on your own.  These basic steps will depend on your own skills as a researcher (see tomorrow’s entry for more details), so I won’t go into those here.  Your process is your own.

But let’s say you’ve now done a little of the preliminary work yourself, you've looked where you can think to look and found some good stuff but you want more.  So you get in touch with the librarian.  Personally, I love libraries—I view them as sanctuaries, academic temples worthy of the highest reverence—and I prefer to physically visit the actual buildings when I can.  But this is the digital age and librarians—who are by definition as up to date as anyone can be in the Information Age—are happy to work with you over the phone, via e-mail, or even in a chat session.  (While working on my Civil War novel, I started looking for information on the bayou in the mid-1800s, and I e-mailed the community library in Cameron Parish, Louisiana—which was all but wiped out by Hurricane Rita back in 2005—and the librarian there was not only quick to respond but provided me with some extremely helpful information.  Shout out to the wonderful Dede Sanders!)  The capabilities will vary by library, but the process is the same regardless of the medium you choose.

What will happen is what my wife (and any other librarian) calls the “reference interview.”  And, like any interview, you should come to it at least a little prepared, which means whatever work you’ve done until now you should be prepared to describe to the librarian.  Gather those materials, or at least remember what you have managed so far on your own, and then contact your librarian.  (My wife recommends calling or e-mailing and making an appointment.  “We love people who make appointments!” she tells me.  “Also, you might find out there’s a subject specialist—especially at big public libraries or academic libraries—if you inquire about appointments.”)

First, tell the librarian, as specifically as you can, what you’re looking for.  As my wife says, “We would want the same thing from a fiction writer as a person who is without a job and needs to look for job resources:  a clear understanding of what they need to find out. That's really what it boils down to.”  In our example, you could tell the librarian that you’re looking for information on resurrectionists, but that’s an awfully broad term, and unless the librarian asks you to be more specific, you could wind up with information on early Christianity, modern religious cults, body snatchers, zombies, even a Massachusetts rock band or a German metal band.  So it’s best to be specific:  “I’m writing a book on grave robbers in the 19th century, who were sometimes called ‘resurrectionists,’ and I’m trying to find out what processes they used to steal body parts.” 

Then you explain what you’ve done so far.  “I’ve looked on Wikipedia using these search terms . . . .”  “I checked the card catalog and used these search terms . . . .”  “I tried searching article databases in journals of medical history, using these terms . . . .”  (It’s always good to explain what terms you’ve used, because in my experience, the librarian will almost always come up with one or two terms you hadn’t thought of, and they’re usually better terms.)

From here, the librarian will probably ask you a series of questions to help narrow down the search (Are you looking for general info or for specific info?  Are you writing about a particular country or geographic region?  Are you interested in the legal aspects at all, or the medical aspects, or just the digging up of bodies? And so on . . .).  My wife puts it like this:  “Lots of times, patrons [that’s us] don't know what they want to know, so we have to ask a series of questions to get them—and us—to a point where we both know what we're looking for.” 

Also, my wife says, it’s helpful for patrons to know what format of info they're wanting—books, articles, web sites, etc.  If we’re writing an historical account of grave robbing in the 19th century, for example, we would probably want some contemporary accounts, so we could tell the librarian that we’re interested in memoirs about grave robbing, if any exist, and probably some 19th-century newspaper articles that report on grave robbing. 

You should expect to work with the librarian as much as possible—it isn’t exactly fair to just dump a load of research in a librarian’s lap and then sit back and twiddle your thumbs—but like any good professional, sometimes the librarian will want to dive into the research themselves or confer with other librarians, and you should also give these professionals the space they need to work.  Besides, that will give you some time to get back to the writing (always go back to the writing!) while you’re waiting on your information.  (Research should never be an excuse to stop writing, but more on that tomorrow.)  Most importantly, never approach a librarian and expect an answer then and there.  (This bears repeating, too:  Never approach a librarian and expect an answer then and there!)  I mentioned earlier that my wife, brilliant professional that she is, is sometimes amazingly fast at finding information.  But only sometimes—there are limits to how fast some information can be found, and good research is like good cooking: it takes time, and it’s always best to be patient.  No matter how long a librarian takes to track down the information, just remember that it’s faster than you were finding it on your own.

Finally, expect to learn something.  A librarian’s first goal is to help you find information—not to simply give you information.  That means that at the end of a search, the librarian will probably explain how she or he found the information.  (If she doesn’t, ask her.)  Pay attention to this, and take notes if you need to.  What she’s doing is teaching you how to find similar information on your own the next time, so as you progress in your novel, you will be able to do more and more of the research for yourself.  We researchers, my wife says, should learn to “feel more confident about starting out next time.”  The librarians, she adds, are “here as guides, not crutches.”

Now that you’re learning to feel more confident as a researcher, check out tomorrow’s post about knowing your limits!


Re-researching fiction: The new, expanded edition!

A while ago I wrote a blog entry on the research I was doing for my NaNoWriMo novel, a twisted little Civil War novel set in southwestern Louisiana during the last of the war years.  At the time I was just counting some of the cool things I’d learned while writing the first draft of that book, like how to build an Acadian shack or what sort of bait to use when catching crawfish, but I also made a few comments on the apparently contradictory act of researching for fiction.  Then a friend of mine, Midwestern rock star and fellow writer Ryan Werner, started a conversation about writing with a friend of his (we writers are a molecular bunch, clustering together in little clumps of “I know someone who knows someone” and hoping something alchemical results).  This friend of Ryan’s is thinking about writing an historical novel and wondered if Ryan had any thoughts; what Ryan thought is that he despises research (I’m euphemizing—Ryan was a bit more emphatic than “despises”), but then he remembered my blog post, and he sent me an e-mail asking if I might elaborate.  So here we are.  Now you know who to blame.

There's a lot of good advice out there.  There's a lot of bad advice, too, and half the time the good advice sounds almost identical to the bad.  What works and what doesn't depends on what sort of writer you are and on what sort of researcher you are, so like anything in fiction writing, no one tip or exercise is going to solve your writing problems for you.  You live and you learn--or, more accurately, you learn through living, through the practice itself. 

That said, it often does help to get a few pointers at the outset, a kind of nudge in one direction or another, and who cares if it's the right direction, because at least you're moving.  So over the next several posts I'm going to start discussing a variety of tips, some of which work for me, some of which don't--but they worked for someone, so maybe they'll help you, too.

But first, some general advice:

The first thing any writer of historical fiction needs to do is sort out his or her priorities, and I promise you, no matter what sort of writer you are, your first priority is to write.  That means now.  Start a draft, even if it’s terrible, even if you’ll wind up chucking 99% of it.  There is an old and oft-quoted (and oft-disputed) axiom in the writing world, that we should write what we know.  On the surface that sounds antithetical to researching for historical fiction—if you don’t know it in the first place, some purists would have it, you shouldn’t bother looking it up.  But what that axiom really means is that you should stay true to your own vision, and whatever time period you’re writing about, it will inevitably conform to your world view now.

Or, I'll put it another way.  There's a long-standing critical truism that all science fiction, however distantly futuristic it pretends to be, is a commentary on contemporary times (Philip K Dick's A Scanner Darkly, which I'm reading now, is not so much a novel about the drug culture of a near future but a commentary on the drug culture of the times Dick wrote it, just for example).  But there’s an adverse example, too:  In Jorge Luis Borges’s excellent short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," we read about a contemporary author who, having never read Cervantes’s Don Quixote, sets out to write a modern version of it.  Instead he winds up recreating the text verbatim, so that Pierre Menard’s Quixote is utterly indistinguishable from the original.  Yet—the story tells us—critics rave about the genius of Menard’s version because it has become a reflection on all that has changed in the centuries since the original Quixote was written.  In some respects Borges is poking fun at the pomposity of academia, but there is a more serious point underlying this, that any historical fiction we might write today must become relevant to contemporary readers and therefore must reflect a contemporary perspective, however accurate or inaccurate the resulting historicity might be.

So it is always a good idea to begin by writing cold, without research.  Get the story down, however sloppy or short or inaccurate, and then go back and correct the historical details through research.  If you begin with the research, you will wind up writing a report, which no one—not even college professors—really wants to read.  But if you begin with the story, you will have something engaging and exciting to build the historical details into, and that’s what will make for good fiction.

Tomorrow:  Tip #1--Marry a librarian!