My novel, Grand River and Joy, is about Detroit in the 1960s—a volatile, edgy time that culminated in one of the most destructive urban explosions of that era. More specifically, my novel is about a Jewish man named Harry Levine, who lives in Detroit. And it's also about his family and his neighbors. And most particularly, it's about his business—a wholesale shoe warehouse located in a downscale neighborhood near the intersection of Grand River and Joy Road, which is the source of the title.
In the novel, a number of key scenes take place in the cavernous basement of Harry's business, and one of those scenes relates to the old steam boiler that resides there. Partly because Harry failed to maintain it properly, the boiler goes haywire in the middle of a sub-zero February night. Fortunately, the teen-aged tenant, Alvin, is in the basement and goes to tell his father, who in turn calls Harry, and Harry drives down to try to avert a catastrophe.
I realized somewhere along my way that a boiler carried significant metaphorical potential—a device in which pressure builds and where electricity combines with water, and gas combines with flame. I liked the aura of contained danger, which reflected the forces at work in the cities of the 1960s. But to write about a boiler, I needed to know how one worked. What would make it fail, and if it did fail, what would it sound like, smell like, feel like?
Launching into research mode, I started with my own plumber, who I quizzed one day while he dismantled my bathroom sink. In that conversation, he told me about the pressure-relief valve, a device that can become clogged, in which case the boiler's building pressure can't be relieved. Perfect.
But before I felt I had sufficient technical information or sensory detail, my plumber had to move on, so I continued my search, finding my way to a website called Heatinghelp.com, where boiler guys go to discuss their boiler issues. One of them even called himself Steamhead.
Entering their discussion forum (the Wall), I wrote a post with the title "novelist needs realistic details about steam boilers." I set out the gist of my story and asked a few questions.
That got their attention. For three or four days, I was at the top of the charts on Heatinghelp.com, laughing my head off at their catastrophic fantasies and tearing my hair out as I tried to grasp the technical details. At one point, a poster wrote, "I sincerely hope you are a novelist looking for ideas and not a terrorist looking for ideas. How do we know??" And I had to remind him that I'd said from the start I didn't want any explosions or anyone hurt. They were the ones who kept coming up with the disasters.
For technical details, another recommended that I read We Got Steam Heat, the book by Dan Holohan, the website's proprietor. I bought Dan's book and enjoyed it very much—the charm and humanity of it. And speaking of Dan Holohan, when he entered the exchange, he helped identify one theme of my story:
We trust that our machines will always be good servants. That they won't turn on us. That they'll last forever, even if mistreated. We've often treated social order in the same way. There's also the sense that things will probably always be as they've always been, simply because they've been that way for so long. Not unlike the thinking that led to the explosion in Detroit during those days.
I have told parts of this story at every one of my readings, and it's always the audience's favorite. So doing rigorous research for fiction can have a life beyond the work itself. I highly recommend deep immersion and an openness to where it may take you.