Thursday, January 21, 2010

Research in Fiction: The Foundation of Realism, the Structural Support for the Fantastic

When I was a junior in college, I took the "Intermediate Journalism Workshop" with Professor Ted Gup.  As a journalist, Professor Gup was renowned at the time for the release of his recent book The Book of Honor : The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives.  More, he's released his second book, Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life.  And he's received some pretty important awards for these books (including a nomination for the Pulitzer).  Clearly, working as a journalist around secrets as closely guarded as those held by the CIA, he knows his way around research.  He's probably met a roadblock or two preparing his manuscripts, making sure they have sufficient material - and evidence - for the general market.

Now, imagine a younger Ryan Edel taking Professor Gup's course.  I was an English Major by then, very excited about the prospects of becoming a fiction writer, and certainly proud of my own work.  And our first assignment sounded like cake - eight hundred words written about Cleveland's West Side Market.  And I was accustomed to writing ten or twenty pages  - I figured that 800 words would be the time to show my talent.  I even wrote over and then pared it down, cutting from 1,200 words to a magical 798.  And somewhere in there I also talked about my visit to the West Side Market.

I hope you see the problem in this approach.  Writing these 800 words for a journalism class, I approached the story not from the facts, but rather from the words.  On that trip to the market, I wasn't looking for knowledge about the market - I was looking for information for the story.  I walked around, gathering my laundry list of shops and locations, the general layout of the place, maybe a bit about the history.  The fact that my memories are pretty vague on this reveals something very important - I never actually experienced the West Side Market.

This of course became very clear when it came time to read our articles in class.  I tend to favor encouraging, positive criticism - Professor Gup favors direct criticism which is fair but very much too-the-point.  "Did you talk to anyone while you were there?" he asked.  And of course I hadn't - it never occurred to me that I should.  And even now, the thought of interviewing a living, breathing human being is rather scary.  I don't like the idea of asking personal questions, especially the awkward moments of sitting down for the express purpose of asking such questions.  But my list of shops was nothing to the history of the single stall that one of my classmates had written about.  Even now, I remember his line about "the smell of ground chuck" at the butcher shop, and then how he went on to read about the woman who had worked there for many years.  He didn't cover the entire West Side Market the way I had tried to - in 800 words, no one really can - but his article gave a name and a face to the place.  It revealed why a person would work there, how a person would find a life and a living there.  It changed the way I look at research.

Come back to the present.  Consider this idea that, as fiction writers, we must "write what we know."  And ask yourself - "What do we know?"  Me, I know about the Army and writing workshops and running.  I know a bit about books.  I can tell you what it means to be an RA, and I can talk about love and relationships and other topics I won't mention here.  But what about the weightless feeling of going into space?  Or how it feels to work under the hood a Jiffy Lube, coming home every night with the smell of oil permanently welded to one's hands?  Or how about the feeling of being ill and having no idea about treatment - maybe having tuberculosis in, say, one of those countries inhabited by two-thirds of the world's population?

Now let's say I wanted to write a story for one of these settings.  Clearly, I don't have personal experience with these situations, but I can still write about them.  Here are techniques for conducting the research necessary to do these situations justice.

1. Gain that Experience
This is very time consuming and potentially expensive, but it gives the most genuine result.  One of the reasons I joined the Army was so I could write better stories with a military theme.  Now, bear in mind that I enlisted the year after September 11th, just a few months after graduating as an English/German major with no other job prospects - there was a lot more going on than just a desire to write a better story.  But those five years in the military gave me an irreplaceable wealth of knowledge.  You can learn about claymores and RPG's and HMMWV's from books, sure, but can you also learn how to use a salute to insult an enlisted man?  Or how to say "sir" in such a way as to carry the mandatory respect while also telling an officer he's full of it?  These are aspects of the military one can only learn through direct experience, and this experience has significantly improved the realism in my stories.

(As you'll see in some of my other posts, one of my pet peeves is reading a military story that gets the basics wrong.  I'm reading a military sci fi book right now that has characters flat as posterboard, a plot thin as tissue, and language so direct that its stilted.  But the author gets the military part right - really right.  Maybe even too right, too perfect.  The book isn't that great, but it doesn't bother me as much because I buy the basic premises behind the military decisions.)

2. Interview Others - Better Still, Just Talk
I hate question-and-answer sessions unless I'm the one answering.  When you're answering, you have the power - you have the knowledge that someone else wants.  And for me, as a fiction writer, I already feel oppressed enough - my body simply isn't sturdy enough to support the dead weight of ego floating in my head.  So direct interviews are practically out.  And that's okay - tragic, but okay.  I've done a couple interviews, and I remember that I didn't like them.  More importantly, I understand why didn't like them.

Let's start with why interviews are important.  As I mentioned above, there are certain experiences that simply cannot be learned from books.  You miss the facial expressions, the tones of voice, the very subtle ways that people move their hands as they interact.  And interviews on TV don't quite provide the information you need, either - they're good, but the facts you need for your stories are very specific, and you alone will know what they are.  Unfortunately, you don't often know which facts you need until you hear the facts you're interested in.

This is where the interview comes in.  Say you're writing a story about the socioeconomic injustice of Jiffy Lube.  (Nothing against Jiffy Lube - I really like their service.  I actually take my car there for every oil change.  But for an example of some assertive interviews and a good reason for me to be wary of my favorite oil change, check out Channel 4 Takes on Jiffy Lube).  Now there are several perspectives on this - the needs of a business to thrive and prosper, the needs of those employees to keep their jobs and get paid, and the needs of customers to get their cars serviced at an affordable price.  If you really want to know what's going on, you'll want to talk with some people who work there - they are the ones who see the place day-in-and-day out.  Their lives and livelihoods depend on understanding the place and succeeding there.  They will understand the Jiffy Lube in ways that no customer or reporter will ever know.

But this isn't to say they'll want to share that knowledge.  Chances are, they won't just answer questions, especially if they don't know who you are and what you're after.  (If you look or sound like Channel of luck...)  This is where we switch to what I like to think of as the "soft" interview.  It's more of a conversation, really - just two friends, hanging out, talking about things.  Alcohol may help with this, but not in a "I'll get this person drunk so they'll talk" kind of way.  Actually, you should avoid that kind of thinking.  What we're going for here is comfort.  This is easy if you're having a conversation with a good friend or a relative, but it's hard if it's a stranger or a relative who's close enough that they worry about what your questions might mean for them.  (it would be like asking your parents about sex - probably not the best idea).

So what do you talk about during these soft interviews?  Lots of things.  You'll talk about yourself, and your new friend will talk about things you'd never think to ask about.  Conversations might slip to family, or they might slip to school, or they might slip to that topic you're really interested in.  Whatever you do, don't rush things.  Let it come naturally.  Ask questions to get your interviewee interested in the subject.  If you're ever lucky enough to talk with a former fighter pilot, for example, avoid starting out with "so what's the weight-to-thrust ratio of an F-18?"  Instead, go with the pilot's interests: "What made you want to be a fighter pilot?  How'd you like flying?  Which plane was your favorite?"  By focusing on the interests of your interviewee, you'll establish rapport and maintain they're comfort.  You send the message that the subject is less important to you than the person.  By doing this, you'll encourage your pilot to share vignettes about the pilot's locker room on the carrier, and then maybe that story about pissing off the colonel's daughter and getting a martini splashed in his face when he was actually hoping to piss off the colonel by feeding a martini to his daughter.  These stories might have nothing to with airplanes, but as you listen you'll find they have everything to do with being a fighter pilot.  (to any fighter pilots - I hope I haven't gotten things horribly wrong.  I've never had a chance to meet a fighter pilot, though I always wanted to be one).

Now you want to know how to meet all these people for your research.  The simple answer is to meet lots and lots of people - go to parties, volunteer, etc.  But this doesn't always work.  In fact, I do horribly at parties.  They're kind of like a serial interview, interviewing one person after the next after the next.  Not that I'm interviewing - it's just the stress of all the noise and people and having to "say the right things."  So I try to go out in smaller groups.  Whenever I see someone sitting alone at a party, I try to strike up conversation.  If I have nothing interesting to say, I ask a question.  It doesn't always work, but every little bit helps.

3. The Boring Part: Read.  Read a Lot.  Then Use Google.
I don't want to talk too much about this one.  It's mostly self-explanatory - read good books, find reputable websites, and learn as much as you can.  One strategy I do recommend is to do your reading before you do the writing.  Get a feel for your subject first - you'll find that research offers wonderful vignettes that find their way into your story.  For example, I'm working on a story right now that involves an electromagnetic pulse.  Now we all know from movies that EMP's wipe out cars, cell phones, and digital watches.  But would an EMP kill the brake lights in your car?  I didn't know.  But then I found this wonderful video of a guy driving a car under an EMP generator.  And yes, it killed the engine, but some of the dash lights still worked.  And, as an added bonus, I learned about why airplanes and certain kinds of research centers might (only might...still need to do more research...) be immune to the effects of EMP.  And this is very handy knowledge for when you're writing a story about advanced warfare.  Might change the plot a bit if the hero can find a drivable Mercedes parked on the street, or if he runs into the only nutcase in the state who has researched all this stuff so he could own said Mercedes...(trust me - if you have to ask, then your car would probably not survive EMP.  I checked.  If nuclear war is something you lose sleep over, then it's time to buy some beer for that interview with the local nutcase...)

So, with these tips in mind....Happy Research!

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