Monday, November 16, 2009

Research Methods

By Steve Weddle

Most of this story is true.

As a graduate student in Kansas, I took a class called “Research Methods,” a semester’s work largely outdated when “Google” became a verb.

Back in the dark ages, we would stumble among hefty hardbacks from the Modern Language Association of America, indexing the publication information of scholarly articles. You’d find out the where and when of the article you thought you needed. Then you’d search the library for a while until you were convinced that they didn’t carry that article. Then you went to the research desk and the nice person there helped you fill out a slip of paper requesting the article. Then they would attach that slip of paper to carrier prairie dogs (CPDs) that would travel across the Midwest attempting to locate a library with the article. If you were fortunate, within a month or so you would receive a letter in the mail saying that a copy of the article had been located and would be mailed to your university within 10 business days. Then your library would mail you a letter informing you that the article had arrived and that you had 24 hours to pick it up or it would be destroyed to make room for large hardbacks indexing article information.

The need for a research class was as clear as the methods weren’t.
One of the first in-class tasks was to go to the library, find the answers to some assigned questions, then return to class with the answers and call numbers. I got to the lobby after most of my classmates because I’d slowed down for a couple of back-and-forths of Frisbee following someone’s errant throw. I got to the lobby alone and looked around.

I needed to know what was in the seal of Johns Hopkins. I had a vague idea of where to look in the stacks, but never made it past the lobby. Instead, I walked over to the pay phone and called information. Pretty soon, I was talking to a helpful woman at Johns Hopkins, wrote down the answer, and moved on to the next question -- something about the largest Indian reservation in America. Or the smallest. I called information again and asked for something about Indian affairs in Washington, D.C. A few more calls like those and I’d finished. None of my classmates had come back through the lobby, so I folded up the scrap of paper with the answers and went back outside to play Frisbee until they were done.

When we got back to class, I started to realize that maybe I hadn’t exactly completed the assignment in a way that would provide me a passing grade.

The professor asked for my answers. I gave him the answers.

He asked for the call numbers. I gave him the numbers I’d called. In 30 years of giving the same assignment, he said, he’d never had that kind of result.

Why run from book to book when the answer was inside the phone? I dunno. People do weird stuff.

The National Geographic folks are promoting a show. “We wanted to know whether Amazon headshrinkers still exist. So we went to the Amazon.” Uh, why’d you do that? Google broke?

Thanks to the innerwebs, you could hole up in Salinger’s bunker and write about a trip to the Amazon where you encounter a German-speaking hermaphrodite with a love for 14th century Chinese history and a rare skin disease. But how convincing would it be?

My first novel, LOST AND FOUND, has a couple of scenes in Murrell’s restaurant in Shreveport, Louisiana. As an undergrad, I’d spent more time there than anywhere, but I couldn’t remember what the cups were like. The coffee cups. Those heavy mugs? Cup and saucer? Short little wide cups with a green stripe? I looked on the innerwebs and couldn’t find the answer. Checked a Facebook group. Sent a couple of emails. So I called the restaurant. I picked what I hoped was a slow time. A waitress answered. The phone call couldn’t have been more awkward if I’d been asking her to the prom.
I got my answer, but it didn’t sound quite right. Were those the same cups they used when I was there? Or when the story takes place? We did our best to figure it out.

I also needed to know how long it takes to get from one part of town to the other, a trip I’d made many times, but many years ago. Google Maps helped. Street View was amazing. When did they put that gas station there? It used to be a house. And I remember that house. Some band had played there. When was that? Hey, I can totally use that in my book.

Phone calls and Googling have changed the way writers research. I wouldn’t consider using those tools to research a place I had never been -- though I suspect some writers do that. For me, using them to remember, to brush up, to shake ideas loose – that works great.

What research methods do you use to write? Isn't Google's Street View the coolest thing since "Adam-12"?

And when you read, can you tell when a writer has never been to a certain place? Does that bother you?


Dana King said...

I use Google maps to refresh my memory all the time. I sometimes use it for a place I've never been, but I only use those places in passing.

I also got pretty good results when I wanted to place a couple of scenes in specific restaurants I'd never been to in Chicago. I knew what neighborhoods I wanted to use, and Googled them to find appropriate restaurants. Then street view and Google images gave me an idea of the exterior. The menus were available online. One even had a brief video tour on You Tube.

I can catch someone out if they put in more detail than they really know and work hard not to expose myself that way. If I know the special is an oliveburger, I can use that and not much detail about the seating to put people in the right frame of mind, on the premise that Morton's isn't going to offer an oliveburger.

95% of the time, I keep my stories to areas I know fairly well.

Travener said...

OH, I Google a lot, esp. Google maps. I did that a lot for my novel, mostly set in the greater L.A. area. I know L.A., but not that well, and Googling help me place Beverly Hills in relation to Westwood, Hollywood, Century City, etc. If a writer makes a glaringly obvious mistake that's clearly based on ignorance or indifference, it definitely colors my attitude -- I feel insulted.

The phone is still a great resource when you can't find what you need on the Interet. Back when I worked for the Very Important Organization and needed to find some specific expertise elsewhere in the Vast Governmental Apparatus, it never took more than three phone calls, max, to locate the proper person/office.

Steve Weddle said...

That restaurant example is perfect -- the sort of thing that works. You need a touch of this or a little glimpse of setting, the innerwebs are great.

And phone calls are fantastic if you don't mind talking to actual people. Probably an opportunity for some additional information there, too.

What worries me is when folks use information just because it's available. I'm sure I've had drafts with lines such as "When I got to the 12,200 population town, I stepped out into the middle of its three-square-mile downtown."

Jay Stringer said...

Google Maps is invaluable. I use it to refresh myself of the basic geography of the area my stories are set, because i now live a few hundred miles away and don't have a car.

That said, while you can use it to refresh, you really miss the important details. Example; an important portion of my current work-in-progress is set on a rough estate near where i grew up. I didn't remember, street names, what connected to what, if the footbridge still looked foreboding...Google maps helped with most of those issues. The passages in story felt factually accurate, but missed something.

I went home at the weekend and took a wander round the estate. I talked to people, and noticed that surveilance camera's have been put up all over the estate. A detail that moves the writing ahead by a million miles, but wouldn't have shown up on Google.

A for phones, i don't use them much for writing. But i use the same principle; ask people. talk to people. listen to people. If you can't ask and can't listen then i don't think you can write.

But that cover story, Steve? "Frisbee"? you expect us to believe that, eh?

McDroll said...

Reading about your research methods reminded me of when I lived on the small Scottish west coast island of Islay, very well known for its whiskeys but not so well known for its libraries.

I was studying for my masters, this was 1986, and as you would expect had to carry out extensive research on gender issues in education.

To get hold of a book or article that I needed I had to wait until a Thursday and drive home from school at lunchtime. I then had to wait for the mobile library van to come to the village for its weekly visit. The van was well stocked with Agatha Christie and Maeve Binchy but didn't have much on gender issues!

I would take out my list of articles, wait in line, and finally present the list to the driver/librarian. He then had to fill ourt a card that would be posted to London in an attempt to find my obscure reading material.

As he's never had to do this before, he would always look at me with that sceptical island look that wanted to know why I was needing all these books on feminism.

But to my utter belief, after a few weeks, the books arrived and he would duly hand them over.

How much easier would the internet make my research now?
(I also had to study by candlelight quite often because the power would go off when there was a strong wind - which was most of the time!) - But that's another story.....

Mike Dennis said...

I wouldn't dream of writing extensively about a locale unless I was very familiar with it. The second novel I ever wrote was situated partly in Big Piney, Wyoming. I'd never been there, so I got on a plane in New Orleans (where I was living at the time) and went there.

I spent about a week in Big Piney and the surrounding area, walking the land that my characters walked, and getting a feel for the local culture. And while I was there, someone asked me, "What're you doin' all the way out here from Louisiana?" and I couldn't believe I actually heard myself say, "I'm researching a novel."

It was an excellent book, if I do say so, but was never published. Being a political novel, it's now somewhat dated, but the research breathed real life into it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I try to write at a computer without Internet access and fill in the blanks later because otherwise I get lost in google. I think I have googled more words, phrases, people, names of songs, movies, books, and places than anyone in the world because I am compulsive about checking out anything that pops into my head. It must have been very restful to just go to a library.

Steve Weddle said...

Jay - One of my problems with Google Maps and Street View is knowing when changes were made versus when the pictures were taken.
If my story takes place 10 years ago and I was last there 15 years ago, how do I know when that tree fell down?

McDroll - Sounds like the driver/librarian was nice, but the prairie dogs in Kansas would have been quicker.

Mike - The talking to locals is probably the biggest thing we lose. Heck, it's tough to get accents/dialects right from Google Maps. And the "feel" of a place, well you just can't get that either. Big difference between Metairie and Kenner.

Patti - I spent plenty of time writing and researching in the library, as I'm sure most of us have. But being able to research online allows me to drink coffee while I work, something the librarians tend to frown on. And if I turn off the innerwebs while I write, what will I use to distract me?

Christina Davis said...

"to remember, to brush up,"
Had to Google cotton boll this morning.

I wouldn't try to write about a place I'd never been. Seems unfair to the reader who might know what you've left out. Plus I count on an author to take me somewhere I haven't been and I need to feel that the writer HAS BEEN there. Google is great but there is no "feeling" in it.

Have you always been such a smart mouth and so anxious to show up an educator? Oh wait, I know the answer to that question.