Posts Tagged ‘research’

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps ironic that after writing a novel set in the desert of northern India, I now liken the research process to learning to swim. But here it is: moving through the ocean of information with mastery is like being a scuba diver, aware of your depth and your air supply and the location of the shore, accepting the power of the water and the currents, but having the confidence to immerse yourself in observation, to follow an intriguing trail of bubbles to an unexpected coral head. There, in that fine balance of mastery and deference, of the planned and the unexpected, lies the pure joy of researching your setting. But from standing safely on the shore contemplating the allure of the water to reaching this almost magical moment of gliding with control involves many stages, some of them very difficult, all of them necessary.

After taking the plunge, you realize the power of the water, the immensity of the ocean, and your own insignificance. You flail, assailed with doubts. Even once you manage to tread water and keep your head clear you realize you are expending a lot of energy and going nowhere. This is the crucial moment. You can give up, holler for someone to haul you out, or you can give it your all. Once you manage an inelegant doggy paddle, propelling yourself with purpose, hope and self-confidence emerge and you can look forward to refining your stroke and, eventually, diving for details with the knowledge that you can and will resurface, perhaps not exactly where or when you expected, but always enriched by the experience.

Here are the stages, and recognizing them each can be helpful.

Contemplating the allure of the water from the safety of land: Little bits of a story idea, of a different world, have landed on you, like droplets of water, on a summer day, leaving you wanting more. The water shimmers, entices. It is hot out, prickly hot, and the surface calls to you. The clouds are reflected in it, undulating slightly; it doesn’t look that deep. How refreshing it would be to take a dip, to immerse yourself in this other world. You’ve heard there is a whole universe under there: coral and colorful fish and strange anemones with scarlet tentacles. A pelican dives in, head first, and emerges with a fish. Other people make it look so easy, gliding through, cutting the surface with their arms. And fun! Splashing around, laughing. Standing on their heads, their feet waving, and then toppling. Some of them wear snorkel masks, and you wonder what they see. You want to see it, too.

Realizing the power of the water: You take the plunge. You launch yourself into, say, nineteenth century India. Immediately, you are overwhelmed. There is such a vast immensity of information available. Gasping, coughing, you gulp some of it down. You reach out and try to grab at anything you can hold onto. You read everything, or try to. You jot down a lot of facts, many of which you know you’ll never use, but you don’t yet know which ones those are, and you suspect the ones you don’t bother to record are the ones that will be critical to your story. History, politics, journals and diaries, newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, books on daily life, architecture, food and customs, sweeping summaries and minute details alike. They all swirl around you. You enter search terms willy-nilly into Google and Google Books, Amazon, Wikipedia, local library catalogs. You feel hopeless, yet determined. You flail. The more you read, the less you feel you are qualified, authorized, to write this story. But you have to fight the pull of the current. This is a test. Will you give up, be knocked about by the waves, and emerge bruised and dejected, or will you find a foothold and prevail, strengthened by the understanding that you are not in full control?

Treading water: After a while, you get the hang of keeping your head above water. You maintain the shoreline in sight, remember what this is all about. You manage to control your arm and leg movements. Vague story elements start to form. Not just India, but the city of Lucknow. The courtesan and merchant quarters. Not just the nineteenth century, but the years just before and just after the Great Rebellion. You manage to look down into the water and catch sight of identifiable shapes: a clump of rock, a tuft of sea grass. Some of your characters start to come into focus, and this helps dictate the specific settings for your story. You don’t yet see the details, but you begin to imagine them. You go from “he’s an artist” to “he’s a musician” to “he’s a sarangi player.” You are able to eliminate some of the sources for being irrelevant, and to replace them with others, which you now know will be highly relevant. You organize the resources and the research and you make lists. Many lists.

Doggy paddle: Now you are actually making forward progress. The plot starts to form. Getting from Point A to Point B. This is the exciting part, where you realize you are not only staying afloat, but you are swimming! It may be a basic form of locomotion, low on the totem pole of swim strokes, with a silly name, but it is a bona fide style. And now the development of the story feeds the research, and vice versa. You have direction. Instead of researching all festivals and religious celebrations of the time and place, you zero in on the specific one that will feature in your story, the one during which the betrayal, or the discovery, or the moment of forgiveness will happen. Instead of researching all forms of architecture and buildings, you picture and describe the specific ones your characters inhabit. You study maps, learn the layout of the setting. Now you know that it would take a good thirty minutes to walk from your main character’s home to La Martinière, the boys’ school across the river. Now you know that the shore is not that far away, and that you can keep up this doggy paddle thing for quite a while.

Front crawl: You hit your stride. You control when you come up for air. You cut through the water with purpose. You outline your scenes, and start writing some. Now you get into serious specifics. Someone is growing flowers on the roof. You look up exactly the types of flowers likely to be growing there, and the birds that will peck at the seeds. You imagine a specific meal, the food on the dishes, how it smells. You picture what your characters are wearing, feel the fabric, choose the colors. You go from “some European shopkeepers in Lucknow took orders for frivolous objects for their customers” to “Monsieur Carnonge insisted that a cucumber slicer be acquired for him from the latest shipment of European goods that had arrived that morning from Cawnpore by hackery.”

Scuba diving: This is it. You have your tank of air strapped onto your back, and you immerse yourself in this new world. You are no longer overwhelmed by its vast immensity, by the multitudes of lives teeming below you. You know how to navigate it. Now you can take your time, float a while, seek out nuggets of fact or possibility that others unfamiliar with the terrain would miss. There, in that clump of rocks, there is a crevice that you now know is likely to hide an octopus. (What? An octopus in Lucknow?!) You dive down and hover, peering in, slowing your fins, controlling your bubbles, watching, and you are rewarded by a pulpy display of tentative tentacles. Hello, you say in your head, and you smile—insofar as you can do so with your lips stretched around the regulator—delighted with your discovery. Momentary euphoria.

Until you have your first draft critiqued.

Yours truly diving off Harbour Island, Bahamas

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People ask how I do it—children, freelance work, dance, volunteering, home and meals, writing, but the fact of the matter is, the secret is, very often I just don’t. And when I don’t, it’s the writing that is the first to go. (Well, except for when Next Doors is providing the meal, in which case I can happily let go of the cooking knowing a fantastic dinner is on its way.) Anyone in my situation—and I know that means a lot of people– will understand this. I know I am not alone, and usually I manage to cope, but there are times when I start to despair that I’ll ever get two sentences down for my next book. Because the problem that I have now recognized is that I can never manage to enter and then inhabit the world of my book, across the world and nearly two centuries ago, long enough to get the muse going. How do other writers in this predicament do it, I wonder? And why have I set myself up to place my next story in a setting that requires me to transport myself into another world? (Well, that’s a whole other story, one that David Rocklin touches on in this post on Beyond the Margins.)

Take the other day, for example. It was not even a particularly, remarkably complicated day. Just an average one. But even with one child attending school and one with a sitter for a the morning, I was not able to extract myself from the household scene until 9:30 am, almost three full hours after getting up. There were lunches to make and pack, a full breakfast to cook so we could have a solid meal and some family time to get the day going, negotiations about attire appropriate for the weather and school activities, the spare crib to set up for the Next Doors child who spends Wednesdays with the sitter as well, dinner logistics to arrange, and so on.

When I finally managed to retreat upstairs with my twice reheated tea, leaving two babbling toddlers with the sitter, I found a slew of emails pertaining to my dance group’s performance, including logistics relative to costumes, the cues for the lighting and sound techs, the order of the dance items and more. I skimmed them, responded to as many as possible, and turned off my email program so as not to be distracted by the notifications of new mail. I averted my eyes from the pile of envelopes and papers in my inbox marked “To Deal With Now” which was leaning precariously because of something lumpy buried somewhere underneath, the identity of which I have not tried to elucidate for fear of causing an avalanche of papers that might reveal long overdue bills.

I put my teacup down and wondered if I should, instead of drinking it, go upstairs to practice my dance piece, then decided not to because a serious practice would then entail a shower, and the whole process would seriously cut down on my already dwindling and precious work time. Instead I turned on the music to the piece and went through it a few times in my head. Better than nothing, I told myself, although I still felt guilty. Guilt is a large part of trying to do so many things: one is never fully satisfied with the level at which one is managing to do any given one of them.

Finally, after running the gauntlet of aforementioned toddlers in my living room, I escaped to a coffee shop, settled in, was distracted for a while by the conversation at the adjacent table which I started mining for ideas for another story. By the time I opened the book I’d been toting around for days, a book that looked like it would yield some good research, it was 11 am.

I was right—the book I launched into, singer Sheila Dhar’s Here is Somebody I’d Like You to Meet, was, despite its unwieldy title and dreary cover, engaging, funny, smartly written and full of colorful anecdotes which drew me into the world of Indian classical musicians in the early to mid 1900s, their eccentricities, their art. (See her obituary here. I wish I could have met her in person.) I felt myself slip into that world, and ideas for my own characters started forming. I jotted down some notes, noticed that I was doing so, smiled to myself, then glanced at my watch. And the whole mood was instantly lost. I realized I had only one hour until school pick-up, and that before then I needed to check into my work email for edits to a cover letter for an overdue federal grant proposal. Ugh. I started despairing as to when I’d have another chance to enter that world and recapture the source of story and character ideas. (It’s now over a week later, and that chance has not yet come.)

This is the true challenge of the writer: to be able to create (or re-create) and inhabit a whole different world, to have lengthy and complex experiences in it, to see it in all its detail, and to fit all this into just an hour or two of actual existence. That space is like a dream, one that one can conjure up at will, in which a whole day’s events are compressed into a few minutes of sleep time, or like the cloud at the top of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree which holds within it an entire universe in which Fanny, Jo and Bessie can have fantastic adventures with Moon Face and Saucepan Man, but be home in time for supper.

I want one of those clouds, one of those dreams. I want a place I can jump into for an hour, and experience ten hours of ideas and adventures. Someone mentioned to me recently that I should apply for a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and so I looked it up, and watched this video, and realized this is it. What a magical-sounding place, where for two weeks (more would be impossible considering children and such) I could be given a studio in the woods, quiet time, lunch delivered in a picnic basket by a kind soul on a bicycle, and the evening company of dozens of other artists with whom conversation would spark ideas and creativity and energy. I could get a year of work done in fourteen days. Of course, there’s the minor issue of being selected from amongst the thousands of applicants each year. But I think I’ll try. If not that one, which is so highly selective, than others, as long as they are open to all sorts of artists, not just writers. In a year or so, when a draft is hopefully well underway and Little One is bigger, I think I’ll try to enter that cloud for just a wee bit of time, and see what happens.

And now Little One is about to wake from her nap, Big One has been chatting at me for a while, and it’s my turn to make dinner. At least the grant proposal is in.

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