When preparing to write a novel, the role of research can’t be overstated. There are moments of panic in every writer’s life when they realize they don’t know what vermouth tastes like on its own (kind of medicinal and dry, with a hint of a tonic flavor as the result of herbs added to what is basically cheap wine), how many years it takes one to go from law school to full fledged partner (seven, if you don’t ever go home or have any connection to what one might call “a life”) or how difficult it might be to have sex in a moving vehicle while driving (still in the planning stages). Research fills the cracks between a character being anyone and being someone, making them particular, making them resonant with an audience. Even if your reader doesn’t know that the stick shift could prove a tremendous hindrance (or aid) to the mobile love scene, they must trust that you, the writer know that it would cause problems (or move things along at a nice clip). If the writing rings authentic and true then, ironically, the reader won’t even notice the writer is there; if it is inauthentic then it is as if the writer has just arrived, uninvited, and soiled the dinner napkins.
Some research is bookish in nature. Why have I read physics text books, math text books, volumes on black holes, time travel, neurological disease, memory, brain malfunctions, Disney World, phrenology, mold and fungus, anthropology, and literary theory? For the women? Of course, but also because there’s a certain amount of information that I can only get from someone else’s pages. My need to know what soldiers in World War I wore took me to a general history of the period, then to memoirs by soldiers who survived, to museums with photography of the era. In the end there is never enough of this kind of research. A writer must find the line between thorough and obsessive, between useful and distracting. Fanatically reading book after book in the name of research helps many writers avoid the admission that they are not actually writing.
Then there’s the active gathering, the research that is the choosing to go and do. William T. Vollman has made this an art in itself. Sickeningly so. He follows a work ethic and vision of what it means to be a writer that makes others (me) look like Sickly English School Children. This kind of research saddens and scares me. The more academic of us trust the books, the more orbally-endowed trust their eyes, ears, and the sounds of their own screams. Might I write a story in which a character jumps from an airplane? I guess. Will I know first hand what it’s like? Let’s just move on.
At last we arrive at the research at which I excel, the research we don’t even know we are doing: unsought expertise. This research is the most valuable, I find (screw you, Vollman). In our own lives lurks expertise we have not through active choice (“I will go live in a commune for a year so my aging hippie character is really authentic.”) but through life lived (“My aging hippie character is really authentic. Thanks Phish concerts from 1992-1997!”). Paying attention to the little things you do every day, the choices you make without making them, your instincts and habits, the stitching that holds your day together, looking at the moments of yourself can provide more information than you might otherwise give yourself credit for.
In my novel, Numb, the main character can’t feel pain. Bookish research led to a certain amount of information: a disease or condition that fit the symptom, instances of freakish events or religious zeal that led people to pursue such body control/manipulation/mutilation. Articles and text books helped make his nature clear in my mind, but so too did dental work, minor surgeries, and a just plain klutzy nature (“When did I get that bruise?”). When I needed to know what the tug of the needle applying stitches felt like I only needed to recall the stitches given after an assault (crazy woman with an umbrella). That assault also provided some callous police officers and a compassionate non-English speaking immigrant, a man who yelled for help in another language and for which I will always be grateful. It gave me the emergency room odor and fluorescent lighting. It gave me the blinding shine and unearthly quiet of a hospital corridor.
Another character, Mal, is a fire-eater, a showman with a pyromaniac’s passion for life. How to find his view from inside a fireball? I need only recall my inappropriate handling of a unlit pilot light when making some baked oatmeal (I know, yummy) and the ensuing fireball that engulfed my head. I discovered two things. First, the inside of a fireball is amazingly beautiful, a swirl of orange and blue and a sound like being inside a runner’s chest. Second, action films are bullshit. I don’t care how much of a lead Bruce Willis or Governor Schwarzenegger get, they ain’t outrunning any fireball. It takes some enjoyment away from action films when you’ve lost half an eyebrow and more than an entire sideburn.
There is a certain responsibility writers have to provide a full picture, to provide enough for the reader to inhabit the world we present. I don’t ask for detail, just truth: truth in the background of the words on the page. Some writers ignore this at their own peril. But if we have that responsibility they also can enjoy the tiny treasures of their own lives, and to devalue that, to ignore your own expertise in being you is to devalue not only yourself but what you have to offer, and if you do that, why bother sharing it. The expertise we each have, from what we do to what we’ve done, is best allowed into our writing. It is what makes the imagined real, what makes the otherwise useless useful. How else can our fiction be the truthful lie?
And for those who are wondering, yes, the baked oatmeal was delicious, and no, the assault was not my fault.