Research

Childhood as Inspiration

Lonely tree  Photo by  Jimmy Casey

Lonely tree Photo by Jimmy Casey

I recently purchased Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in preparation for a future book. When I first read this famous work as a kid, I expected a book about puberty and periods. That's all anyone talked about - the period book! Like many books distilled to one fact or event, Are You There...? is more than that. In the first chapter, you meet the main character in the midst of a major transition from city to suburb, with parents who seem to be trying too hard to sell the move. Reading the book for the first time, I was a fifth grader who had attended four different elementary schools in three states. The story of a child adrift in a new place was easy for me to relate to.

Reading the book again as an adult wasn't intended to be anything more than reviewing subject matter related to my own story plans, but it's been an emotional and sometimes difficult read. I had forgotten the religious-outcast element, something that my siblings and I faced on a regular basis. Memories returned of being asked about my Sunday school by the parents of neighborhood children, followed by the ostracism directed at us by those children. In the first chapter of the book, a similar but less intense scene plays out for the main character.

I've finished the book since I started this blog entry. It ends without resolving many threads, because it's a book about a kid's life. There is no resolution. Judy Blume is an amazing writer who can perfectly execute the subtle, persistent discomfort of childhood. I've been trying to keep notes of these thoughts and feelings as I go. It's not cathartic, but it is useful material. Adults can easily forget how difficult childhood can be. The homework you hated doing because it was useless was useless. The teachers you remember belittling you or your classmates were not aberrations.

Reading a good children's book, particularly one you enjoyed as a child, brings back feelings you may no longer think about. It's important to not let those go -- they are some of the most sincere reactions you've ever experienced.

Research!

I've just completed Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku in preparation for my second novel. I love researching a topic that I find intriguing, jotting down notes as I go, finding inspiration by a particular fact or theory. I haven't stated anything earth-shattering here; research for fact-based fiction is common sense. While some research is always good, too much is always bad. Here are two examples.

I have a shelf at home that contains some of the physical books I ordered to prepare for Lifeless. These are in addition to the digital books, articles, and research papers I had studied before completing my first draft. Several of these physical books took their sweet time in transit - they were rare, out of print, or the shipping was just slow. In either case, I no longer needed them when they miraculously appeared on my doorstep. I was satisfied with the work I had completed on those topics. Now there they sit, with their facts, silently judging.

I keep thinking of taking them up, tweaking some things in the book. But I know me - I'd look at the cited works in the back and I'd find other handy materials. Just two more books, then I'll be done, I'd think. But those books would have interesting citations. And thus I would fall down the rabbit hole, my orange highlighter tumbling in after me.

There is another problem when researching a fiction book too deeply. Facts are not rigid and interpretations are endless. Sure, you've read the most popular research, but you know the historical dubiousness of popular research! Then of course you could talk to experts, but experts often disagree with one another. Who do you trust? If you wait long enough, new discoveries will be made that reveal the inaccuracy of 30% of your reference material. So you fix those things; you keep thinking of that expert in your audience, given the book by a well-meaning friend ("look at this, Betty! I saw 'rocket engineer' on the back and thought of you!"). You don't want to disappoint that expert.

My greatest challenge, and I know I'm not alone here, is accepting that you will disappoint that expert. If you don't disappoint that expert, you'll disappoint another one. You can't win over everyone. Someone will call you a lazy writer who didn't do enough research. That's OK. Your goal as a fiction writer is to create a coherent world for your characters to inhabit, to suspend disbelief, and to move on to something else when you are finished. Out-of-control research can prevent that from happening.

And when all else fails, be vague. :)