I love doing research for my novels, especially if it involves jumping on an airplane or saddling up the car and heading out into the great unknown.A good portion of my life is spent wandering around.I love the details of other people’s lives, new subjects, thorny issues.I like the coffee makers in motel rooms and cheap bars of soap.There’s nothing better than sleeping under the stars on a warm night out in the middle of the desert—just me and my taser.I love talking to strangers about intense situations and high drama.I notice that I often adapt a slight southern drawl when ordering my breakfast at truck stops.I like to arrive in a new town, read the local paper and dive right in. There’s nothing better than jumping into the middle of a crisis, transforming myself into a character, and finding out how all the elements will impact my developing story.It’s the particulars of a situation that make the moment real for me; the way things look or taste or feel, are what allow my people to breathe and function.Usually I wear cowboy boots and jeans when I’m doing research–sometimes a big belt buckle.It helps.

But here’s the thing: I have to be a little bit careful about what I read, hear and see when I’m in the early stages of writing a book.The sponge phase, where you’re open and everything interesting or exciting or terrible or nasty or sad is a potential topic, can be a treacherous time.I have to constantly remind myself that the novel is not a giant salad.You can’t just throw in all the leftovers from the fridge and hope for a masterpiece.Watermelon, fried olives and watercress may or may not be a gastronomical delight but just because you have the ingredients on hand, doesn’t mean they should be the mainstays of your book.

True, sometimes happy-accidents occur.While I was writing my second book, The Wentworths, I happened to read Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer.One of his best, it examines fundamentalist Mormons who still practice polygamy.I finished reading and the next thing I knew I was in the car, driving out to Colorado City, located on the Utah-Arizona border, in search of the truth about this dark religion.I was shocked and fascinated by what I saw, couldn’t get enough.In the course of writing my novel, I visited that Mecca of dysfunction seven times and ended up with a lovely character named Honey Belmont.Now in this case, I lucked out because the main theme of the book is the destructive and redemptive nature of family.Polygamy fit right in.But what if it hadn’t?Would I still have come up with an excuse to go out there?Would I have changed the novel to accommodate my curiosity?Made some sort of justification for all those road trips?Maybe.Probably.I have to be careful about what I look at when starting a book.

There was another happy accident during the writing of my most recent novel, Point Dume.The book was initially about a blue-collar community in Malibu that is slowly destroyed by the obscenely rich.I opened the book with a quote about native and invasive plant species and how invasive plants can choke out and kill off the natives.About a third of the way into that novel I found out that the Mexican drug cartels are growing marijuana in the hills of Malibu California—for real.Of course I stopped everything and threw myself into research mode.I made some contacts and spent a summer in Sequoia National Forest working on Operation LOCCUST, infiltrating cartel grow-sites, working with law enforcement to locate and destroy watering systems and breaking down the infrastructure of the camps.I had to know everything there was to know about pot farms.I flew in Black Hawk helicopters and slept in the barracks with the other guys on the mission.It was dangerous and unbelievably fun.Then I came home and smoked eight kinds of marijuana—all in the name of research.Finally I sat back down and worked the cartel activity into my novel.Would I have gone out on the marijuana mission if it did not directly fit into the theme of my novel?Absolutely.It was way too much fun to pass up.I was lucky that the subject complemented the themes of my existing work but if it hadn’t, would I have rewritten to justify my need for adventure?

And so here I am at the dawning of my next novel.I have my main themes: Migrant issues, US/Mexico border, drugs, racists.It’s going to be a gentle, light-hearted little book.I’ve got a lot of my characters up and running.We’ve cast off—Helm alee!

But here’s the problem: there’s the oil spill in the gulf.I’ve already jumped on a plane and spent a week down there checking things from Florida to Mississippi.I justified the trip by saying that perhaps my new book needs an oil spill.(It does not).The shark population of the world is being decimated and our oceans are in terrible trouble.I’ve been to Rwanda!Can’t stop thinking about Haiti.The state of education.Poverty.North Korea.The war.The President.Environmental devastation.Dangerous chicken products.Mean people. You can find a story in every topic.

I need to be forcibly restrained.There is a state of isolation where only my characters and their stories exist.The outside world doesn’t interfere in that place; there are no distractions.I’ve been to this place before and it’s wonderful.But they keep changing the entrance and the trick is finding that secret door.

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KATIE ARNOLDI has published three novels. The first, Chemical Pink, was a national bestseller. Her second novel The Wentworths was a Los Angeles Times bestseller as was her most recent book, Point Dume, which was published in May 2010 and released in paperback on 4-20 2011. Katie was the 1992 Southern California Bodybuilding Champion. She was also a competitive longboard surfer, an enthusiastic backcountry survivalist, fanatic scuba diver and a constant traveler. She has an extensive knife collection and is currently writing another novel.

21 responses to “Where’s That Damn Ivory Tower?”

  1. Brad Listi says:

    Just want to jump in here and be the first to tip my cap to a woman who owns her own Taser.

    • Gloria says:

      Where does one procure a taser? Do you have to have a license to carry a taser? Training? Do you have to charge them? Do they take batteries? Is it relatively easy to accidentally taser yourself (such as it is easy to accidentally get a facefull of pepperspray)?

      I have so many taser questions.

      • Katie Arnoldi says:

        Every girl should have a taser. I bought mine online. You have to go through a police background check–just like you would for a real gun–and then they send it to you. The first time I got mine, I took it out in the yard and shot it at a tree, just for practice. I was standing too close to the tree and one of the probes bounced off the trunk and came back and hit me. It feels really terrible to be tasered. Be careful not to shoot yourself.

        • Gloria says:

          Note to self: do not shoot brand new taser at tree. Or, presumably, wall. Focus on soft things like a pillow. Or the cat.

          Got it!

          Thanks, Katie!

        • Katie Arnoldi says:

          Gloria, I like the idea of you stalking and taking aim at your pillows. And very funny about the cat.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Thanks Brad. I love my Taser. It gives me a nice false sense of security.

  2. Rachel Pollon says:

    Goodness, you’re inspirational. I’m still in bed. (With the intention of writing, of course — I’ve got my laptop on my lap and my pillows propped and everything.)

    Anyway, I’m with Brad, owning your own taser is rad, and also I really look forward to reading your book on Mexico. I love Mexico and with all the research you do it’s surely to be very authentic.

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Rachel, I love writing in bed. Sometimes I’ll work from bed for days at a time. Then I get up and go roam around. I love Mexico too.

  3. dwoz says:

    I feel bad for the cougars and coyotes. In that desert.

  4. Gloria says:

    This is so fascinating and incredibly useful. Thank you.

    But I have to ask: fried olives?

  5. Katie Arnoldi says:

    I know, fried olives. I had them in a salad last week. Surprisingly delicious.

  6. Thanks for the essay! I’m in that limbo state right now–having just finished the copyedits on my novel. I have to admit I’m somewhat jealous of your ability to research–the means. I have two kids and limited funds–so right now, my research is limited to the public library. BUT I have to acknowledge that these same seeming research restrictions prove to provide reservoirs of writing material. It’s an interesting process–the filling up process to find out what comes next. I’m somewhat impatient.

    • Gloria says:

      I have two kids and limited funds, too. I feel ya.

      I wonder if there are any research grants available for single moms who are writing a book. I’m not kidding, either. There are grants for EVERYTHING. Just don’t get swindled into those online grants sites that tell you they want money to give you a list of grants. That’s bollocks. I have it on good authority that this information is available for free. I just don’t’ know how to find it. 🙁

      • Yes, there has to be! I’ll ask around and let you know what I find. This is the only one I know of and it is legitimate though not specifically geared toward single moms:

        • Gloria Harrison says:

          There’re grants for everything, like I said. For single moms, for being a parent of twins, for being a woman… It just depends on what you want the grant for. I even heard that a significant portion of my undergrad loans could be paid off if I get my graduate degree under a special “first generation” grant – which I would qualifiy for because I’m the only person in the history of my family who’s ever gotten a college degree. (Well, the only person as far as I can track. There’s been so much indiscriminate sex in my family for so many generation that the tree goes straight up, and it’s almost exclusively women.) The thing is: it’s a full time job itself, finding grants, writing them, etc. I wrote a small grant for an event at my children’s school, which was funded, and it’s still not done. There are follow up reports and fund reconciliations, etc. But it’s totally worth it – especially if it means you and the brood could go on a month-long paid holiday to Romania to study vampires! Or something.

          Thanks for the lead; I’ll be really interested in hearing if you find out any more information.

      • Yes, there has to be! I’ll ask around and let you know what I find. This is the only one I know of and it is legitimate though not specifically geared toward single moms:

    • Katie Arnoldi says:

      Congratulations on finishing the novel. That’s such a big deal. When is it being published and what’s it called? Finishing is so great. Now you put all your energy into worrying about the future of your new book. That’s what I do. Here’s my pattern: 1. fight to get into the book. 2. Struggle through the book. 3. Sometimes rush to finish the book. 4. Turn the book in. 5. Worry about the book. And then repeat–over and over.

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