Monday, April 19, 2010

Low-carb crowbar

By Steve Weddle

On the wall of the newsroom was a cartoon of a blindfolded reporter tossing a dart at a wall of words to find out what he would be an expert in for that day. Oh, joyous riot. Reporters have to research stuff. Ah, the hilarity.

Now I'm thinking that cartoon should hang over the desk of every novelist I know.

Casino security. Pipe bombs. Untraceable poisons. Yeah, there's a reason I hop over to my neighbor Justin's wifi router when I do my serious searches. (You can fake up with all the proxy stuff you want and keep your local box clean and footprint-free, but don't leave that router loop open.)

But novelists really hafta have a bucket of darts. Novelists have to have attention spans that are deep and wide, but also, um, flittery?

For a writer, surfing the Internet is work. Research. And reading magazine articles. Writers have to create worlds and characters, and these have to feel authentic.

When I started listening to John Coltrane, I wanted to know everything there was to know. Kicking his drug addiction by locking himself in a room in his mother's house. Bill Evans playing piano one handed because he'd accidentally numbed his arm while shooting up. The insult of 'walking the bar.' Modal music. Tracking down all I could find out about Red Garland. Collecting as many bootlegs as I could, and trying to figure out whether I liked this Eric Dolphy guy. Trying to figure out which version of "My Favorite Things" was my favorite. Sort of an all-consuming passion. Then, of course, this leads off in other directions.

Sometimes the all-consuming fire of a topic lasts for only a short time.

As my lovely bride said when I came home Friday with three low-carb books: "Hmm. This is going to be an interesting month."

Low-carb. I have no idea how this is going to come into play. A recent episode of the TV show "Castle" showcased murder by balsamic vinegar, so I guess anything is possible.

Of course, writers have their own ways to research. I'm reading COTTONWOOD by Scott Phillips. It's an amazingly awesome book set in late nineteenth-century Kansas, full of detail and atmosphere you can't get unless you know your subject. Oh, and you kinda hafta be a damn good writer, too, not just a good researcher.

Unless Mr. Phillips has a time machine, he did his research in a way quite different from that of Mr. William T. Vollmann, who lives with prostitutes in order to write about them. Of course, Vollmann's ICE SHIRT and other books in that SEVEN DREAMS series rely on the book-learning aspect of researching history. And talking to others who know their stuff.

And that's what it is to be a reporter or a novelist or anyone with a literary case of OCD. (Or, as the joke goes, CDO, which is OCD, but the letters are in order.) You dig into something, root around for a bit, and come out with pieces you can put together to share your vision.

Now if I could only figure out how to kill a character by using ketosis.


Writers -- How does your research work? A little here and there and then back to the writing? Or do you get sidetracked and come out a few days later knowing way more than you need to about how tough it was to kill Rasputin?

Readers -- Do you like a novel with a good deal of non-fiction learning? Does it sometimes get in the way of the story? Or does that matter? Is there a book you think really did this super-well?


Julie said...

I do like learning things while reading, but sometimes too much detail will send me screaming. I can't read Tom Clancy because of the details and minutiae about every single piece of equipment and vehicle and how they work.

By the way, Coltrane and Hartman's "My One and Only Love" might be my favorite song ever. EVER.

Steve Weddle said...

I wonder if some of the details are simply filler. In the best stories, the details really move the story forward or tell you a little something or do some of that fancy foreshadowing.
I probably don't need two pages on what kind of watch the dude has.

Vanessa Kelly said...

My secret weapon for research? Librarians. They know everything, or at least where to look for it.

Lamar said...

It's usually pretty clear when a writer -- a journalist or a novelist -- has done his research, or not. When done especially well, though, one doesn't think about such things -- one simply basks in the living detail.

What is annoying, even with good writers, is when they feel the need to put their research on display even when it has absolutely nothing to do with the story at hand. Few things kill what could have been a good story more than throwing on the brakes for an infodump because the writer felt the need to include all that information but didn't feel the need to integrate it properly into the narrative.

Laurie Verchomin said...

I began the research on my book about Bill Evans some 31 years ago, when he asked me to come to live with him. I knew I would write about the experience, his story was amazing. Then I spent the next 30 years listening to his music in the aftermath of his death.

Now I am retreiving the details and setting them into the storyline.

Dana King said...

I used to do a lot of research; now, only as needed. Much of this is because after having done a lot of research over an extended period, I'm now familiar with 805 of what I need to know to write a story. (I'm not writing hi tech or forensic thrillers, it's good old-fashioned people asking questions and finding stuff out.)

When I get hung up, I'll look up specifics, or go to an expert.

Jarrett Rush said...

I like to know that the writer I am reading has done his foot work before his writing. I think the more the writer knows about the subject the easier it is for them to work in just enough information to help the reader. If they are a good writer, that is.

I think with less talented writers you get the same thing you get with less talented reporters. They shake out their notebook and let everything they found land on the page. It makes for a tedious read whether it's in a newspaper or a novel.

Steve Weddle said...

Vanessa -- Yes. I think with all these innerwebs, we forget about the professionals who do this for a living.

Lamar -- The infodump is damned annoying. Wasn't that a big hunk of Moby-Dick? Background research should usually stay in the background, I'd think.

Laurie -- Sounds cool. As a Louisiana fella, I always have a soft spot for Bill Evans.

Dana -- Good point. Writing about people. And when those people need to know something, they can work it out in the book. Telling the reader the history of fourteenth-century footwear just because you don't want to waste the time you spent on wikipedia seems silly to me.

Steve Weddle said...

Jarrett -- I've seen young reporters who do this. Kinda like being a cook and not knowing what you want. Just open the cabinets and throw in whatever you have. If you have it, then you need to use it -- that's the idea. Of course, that type of writer never creates anything appetizing.

Dan O'Shea said...

I try to gang my researsch tasks and do them in batches so as not to interrupt the flow of writing. If I'm booking along and it occurs to me I need some detail or another I don't know, I just leave a question for myself in the draft and go back and look it up later. Once I've got an excuse to get out of the draft and on to the internet, then I'm gonna end up on twitter and facebook and checking my blog stats and looking at por . . . eh, recipes.

Eric Beetner said...

I try not to get bogged down. To me, the fiction is king and the over riding excuse to do whatever you want. BUT - I'm writing my second period-set novel right now and doing my due diligence with research has paid off with that extra flavor. Otherwise my "research" ends up being the seeping in knowledge of various movies I've seen. Not exactly accurate in most cases because the writer took his or her own liberties with the facts. And the snake continues to eat it's own tail...

Scott Phillips said...

Steve, you're too kind. Jim Crumley used to say that you should know what your character's grandparents did for a living, even if you don't mention it. Good research is like that for me--it provides atmosphere and background and a feeling of authenticity if it's done right, but it can be distracting and self-aggrandizing when it's just there for the sake of showing how much work you did at the library.

Scott Phillips said...

incidentally, I'm planning to research my next book about prostitutes using the Vollman method.

Jay Stringer said...

Scott, judging from your previous books you may need an alibi after that research. Give us a shout.

jedidiah ayres said...

What's research?

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I'm with Dan for most of my research. I do the bulk of it upfront. The best part about research is it often leads to ideas I didn't know I was going to have. But doing most of it upfront means I can get to the writing and keep writing every day. However, I will do research here and there to makes sure I'm on track if something comes up. If I don't I'm bugged by the fact I have something left hanging. Yeah - I'm anal that way!

Steve Weddle said...

Dan -- That's a great idea which probably requires a good deal of discipline.

Eric -- Those period/historic novels require an entirely new level of research and dedication, don't they?

Scott -- Yes, about the family history. I often find these things out as I go along writing, though. The idea of making detailed character sketches ahead of time is intriguing.

Jay -- You really think any of us would be able to provide an alibi that would hold up in court?

Jedidiah -- I think some people call it "surfing."

Joelle -- Right. Love it when you're researching something and you end up with a whole new idea.