Unlike the nicely organized brain of an accountant or brain surgeon, look into your favorite novelist's head and you will most certainly find soup for brains—a few million brain cells assembled in a quivering gray mass.
The creative writer unwittingly manages to make a mess of the ordinary thinking process: memory, imagination, and something approximating objective reality are all mooshed together into a dark, rich stew.
The fragrant mess is being constantly stirred, the recipe changing, if not hour by hour, certainly from one week to the next: memory agitates, imagination warps, new stuff is learned and enters the mixture.
When the pursuit of new knowledge becomes systematic and purposeful, rather than a random gathering of tidbits, it's called research. And research is serious business in the writing of fiction; most stories of whatever length will require at least a little.
Research is as much a part of the creative process as memory and imagination. When I'm asked what an aspiring writer should study in college, I advise going easy on creative writing and literature, saving time for history, geography, biology, anthropology. Dig up courses that teach stuff. Learn the names of trees and flowers and birds. Words like forsythia, eucalyptus, and dove-winged parsifano are downright poetic. The more stuff a writer learns, the richer the soup.
For me, research and writing are commingled in an adventure of discovery. Just as I sometimes begin a story without knowing exactly where it's going, I often do research with no clear idea of what I'll do with the knowledge.
In the pursuit of the exotic and the merely curious, I have encountered odd books I otherwise wouldn't have read (How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland), surfed the Web (www.sephardim.com) and watched embarrassing television (yeah, Oprah). I've flown, hitched, hiked, and rafted. I've mined a lode of experience from my parents and my children, old friends and new acquaintances. I've stood awestruck in ancient mosques and cathedrals, prisons, brothels, and markets. I've chatted up cops and robbers, pathologists, shrinks, vets, herbalists, swamis, divas and their voice teachers, the inevitable taxi driver, and my hair cutter, Scary Stephie.
Sometimes research is done after writing. In my novel Floating Kingdom, I envisioned an outlaw family living on an island in the Rio Grande, in a house positioned on a ledge halfway up a limestone canyon high above the river. This image haunted me for more than a year as I worked on the initial drafts.
Then, I took a trip along the Rio Grande in order to fine tune my sense of the landscape. As I drove along the escarpment, there were no signs of human habitation. The actual landscape with the slow muddy river coiling between walls of glistening stone confirmed what I had imagined. My novel was set in a particular house turned into an autonomous kingdom by the family patriarch. I despaired of finding anyone who could possibly want to live in such an austere environment. My precious three hundred pages were being eaten by the dogs of plausibility.
Unexpectedly, at a bend in the road, as I climbed higher along the canyon walls, I saw it! The house, a boxy two-story of gray brick with barred windows, fronted by a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, with a chained and padlocked gate, a black 1970 Ford Galaxy on blocks, a shed to one side festooned with hubcaps, an unfriendly dog. It was all there, and then some. I was giddy with the power of imagination, the magic of reality, the mystery of memory. Out of the soup had emerged my hero's house. I stuck my camera out the window and snapped a picture, before hastily driving off.
There is something thrilling about the writer creating the illusion of truth with unquestioned authority. We may know a contemporary writer was not alive during the Middle Ages or the Spanish Civil War or the final game of the 1946 World Series, and yet a character behaves so credibly, a place is rendered so concrete, that doubts vanish; the reader believes. If an untold number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, the angel that dances on a telling detail can endow fiction with a sense of the miraculous.
The Ten Exhortations for the Literary Researcher:
- Go where no writer has gone before.
- Don't feel you have to use everything you've learned.
- You don't even have to use anything you've learned.
- Keep in mind that someone out there reading your book knows more about your subject than you do.
- Don't worry too much about that person.
- Don't confuse facts with details. Facts are stones. Details are wings. The astute researcher sniffs out the telling detail like a pig rooting after truffles.
- Hang onto notes, clippings, book titles, photos, souvenirs, post cards, road maps, hotel receipts, (good for taxes, if you ever make any money).
- Whenever you don't know something when you're writing, make it up. You'll be surprised how true it is when you check later.
- Don't forget to check later.
- Research does not make the story. The story makes the story.