Researching a story… to death.
Writers research. Even fiction writers. After all, readers want details and they expect them to ring true. Location, weather, clothing, food, transportation. These are the basics. Don’t have someone take a bus in my hometown of Madisonville, Kentucky. There aren’t any. Detail should slip into the story like water through a crack. No blaring signs that say: look, I got the music and the moon boots right, it’s 1983! Instead, the subtleties of detail should ring true silently. With them, the reader feels a place without signposts. Mention endless fields of cotton, small bottles of Coke for a nickel in a chilled machine, blazing heat followed by shattering lightening and I think the Mississippi Delta in the 1970s. A few details and I’m there. Get a detail significantly wrong and I’m pulled away. After all, that’s where I spent my summers in those years. At my grandparents, frying eggs on the bricks of their patio, it was so hot. Impressed – and a little frightened- by the enormous circles of burned cotton where lightening struck the fields overnight. And not quite understanding why we had to play inside some days (later I’d learn it meant there was a prison escaped from Parchman penitentiary, which was the plantation over). Currently, I’m in the planning stages of a book set partially in war time Austria. This is a different kind of research from that of a contemporary setting. I have a list of things that need answers: what do people wear, eat, listen to, read, care about…. How do they travel, what kind of money, means of communication… The list began to be endless. After all, I’m really talking about everything. Ultimately I realized that the list is a reminder that details need to be checked, but I don’t need to actually know everything. Take food. Do I need to know what kind of food people ate everyday? Only if food is mentioned in a scene, which it likely will be. So I take what I do know and do a bit of research on cafe culture in Vienna in the 1930s. If I end up with a scene in a cafe I’ll double check the place and the food. Otherwise I might stay in the research phase until I’m frozen by information overload. Then the book – my book – never gets written. I was reminded of my graduate studies in history. The best way to sum up graduate school is too much to read. You quickly learn to skim, to summarize, to look for only the important details (different from every detail that supports an argument). If a book is peripheral to your core concentration you might read only the first and last sentence of every paragraph…. reading the entire paragraph only if the quick version indicates it is of particular interest. You begin graduate school taking pages of notes on every book you are assigned. You end graduate school with a few key sentences about the book. I’m applying this to research for my current work. Right now, I have a few ideas, possibly evolved enough to call them plot points, but they may change. I need to read widely in order to sweep in information that might prove critical to the story. But I can’t worry about every detail. Not yet, anyway. Later, when I’m deep in the writing and the details of place and dress and food and music matter I should have enough of a sense of the overall culture to pick the important elements. Try writing about Vienna in the early part of the twentieth century and not mention a cafe…. I think it would stand out as an omission to anyone familiar with the place and the era. When I’m writing that cafe scene, know where to look for a more precise assortment of details. Until then, I won’t worry about them.