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As a graduate student in Kansas, I took a class called “Research Methods,” a semester’s work largely outdated when “Google” became a verb.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