Here’s #4 in Jonathan Langford’s series The Writing Rookie. Don’t miss an awesome usage of the word ‘stroppier.’ ~Wm
Author’s Note: This is adapted from something I sent out as part of an occasional print-blog series that gets mailed to miscellaneous family and friends. Just so you know.
For the complete list of columns in this series,
Writing, it turns out, involves an astonishing amount of research. This isn’t just true for science fiction and fantasy — which I’ve known for a long time, thank you — but even for my current, mainstream Mormon novel, set (more or less) in a place where I grew up and in a time only 4 to 5 years in the past.
In the past, I’ve often thought of research not in terms of positives, what it contributes to the writing process, but rather in terms of what it prevents: i.e., the measures you take to make sure readers don’t think you’re an idiot. Last spring, I remember starting to write a scene where I was about to make one of my characters into a cross-country runner. Then I thought, I really ought to find out something about cross country. Like what time of the year people do it. And so I called up one of the teenagers in my ward who’s into athletics and eventually decided it wouldn’t work right for the plot role I wanted it to fill, and so I abandoned the notion. (Chad wound up playing soccer instead.)
As it happened, before I settled on soccer I searched online until I found a high school in western Oregon where you could choose different athletics from a list and see their calendars for the coming school year. I still have the set of notes I took on times of year for everything from baseball to wrestling. I also wound up checking with someone to find out whether working on the yearbook was a class or an after-school activity, and spent a fruitless hour or so online trying to find out whether forensics (as it’s called in Wisconsin) exists as an extracurricular activity in Oregon or not.
And then there was the great seminary quandary. One of the early scenes in my story featured teenagers starting out their day bright and early by heading off to seminary before school. And then I thought: I know that students in Utah get out of school during the day to go to seminary. How does it work in Oregon? And how are the classes organized? For that matter, how many Mormon students might there be, total, in a high school of the size I was contemplating?
I’d decided long since that for plot reasons, my story needed to be set somewhere with a greater concentration of Mormons than Wisconsin, but smaller than Utah or Idaho. I flirted for a while with Las Vegas before thinking, Duh! You don’t know anything about Las Vegas, besides what you picked up from driving past it twice a year while you were living in southern California. So finally I got a clue and switched to western Oregon, which I knew because I did in fact grow up there in the 1960s and 1970s.
I also decided, just because I wanted to, that my story would be set in a city of about 20,000 that was also a suburb of Portland. And there coincidence raised its startling head. I came up with a name for my city, then-not wanting it to be confused with a real city-searched on the Internet to make sure there wasn’t any [name-I-didn’t-choose], Oregon. And whadda ya know. There it was. A city of 20,000, a suburb of Portland. Set pretty much where I would have wanted to put my city.
So I decided, we can be clever here. We can call the setting for our story Arcadia Heights, which (I verified through another Internet search) is not the name of a bona fide Oregon community. And then anytime we need to know something about Arcadia Heights — some detail we want to seem vaguely realistic — we can look up the [name-I-still-didn’t-choose] city and school district websites, and the local newspaper, and just, um, steal. Yeah. Because it’s stealing when you remove the label, but only borrowing when you leave it on. And we don’t want to leave the label on, because then someone might come along and say, “But there’s not a Garfield Street in [name-I-don’t-even-want-anyone-to-know-I-didn’t-choose], Oregon. And you made our town look bad, and I’m going to hire someone to release killer attack woodchucks on your lawn.” (Except that this would never happen, because all towns in western Oregon, of any size, have a Garfield Street.)
So when it came time for me to find out about seminary in Arcadia Heights, all I eventually needed to do was get the telephone number of one of the Mormon churches in [city-that-happens-to-be-a-clone-of-my-fictitious-city], and then call on Sunday and talk to whoever answered the phone. And it turned out he knew all the answers I needed (60 Mormons in the high school, organized into four early-morning seminary classes — one for each year in high school — all held at the local church building. Perfect).
All of which brings me to my second reason for doing research. Research, or so I now hold, helps to provide the raw stuff of stories. Stories are better not just for the avoidance of errors, but for the breath of reality that well-conducted research can bring to them.
Of course, the impulse to research can get out of hand.
My family, I’m sure, is convinced that we’ve long since passed that line in my case. The tipping point was when I spent several hours searching online in order to find daily weather reports from 2003-2004 (the timeframe for my story, for reasons which arose serendipitously out of my research) so I could make sure I wasn’t having it be all sunny on one of those Oregon days where it rains all day. Actually, what I really needed to know was whether it was likely that a weekend in October might be dry enough that teenagers would go mountain biking. But once I found the weather records, I couldn’t just ignore them, could I? (Sadly, they only give daily minimum and maximum temperatures for Portland and total precipitation: not whether the rain fell during the morning, or afternoon, or whatever. So I have to make it up at that point.)
And then there was the infamous incident of the rock music CD. I’d decided, for plot purposes, that one of my characters needed to have a CD made by an acquaintance at school with songs on it by various artists. But what should be on the CD? I wound up finding a very useful website that listed all the top 100 hits of 2002, then corralled my son and several of his friends from Church into commenting on the various performers. (The irony, of course, being that Nathan, of all the teenagers I know, is one of the least aware of popular music. But he was sometimes able to inform me about the “buzz” surrounding a performer. And the Ballard boys were able to tell me more than that when I cornered them at a ward potluck.) And then I set up multiple Pandora stations, listening to songs I’d never heard by groups I’d never heard of-just to try to decide which songs would be on this hypothetical CD, and which ones my character would like, and which ones he would hate with a passion, and which one he might want to go out and buy for himself after his dad (the bishop) made him get rid of the CD because it was illegally copied. Which was the point of the whole exercise to begin with (from a plot standpoint).
I won’t even describe what it was like renting and sitting through Austin Powers: Goldmember, which was the movie I’d decided my main character and his friends would watch at an end-of-the-school-year party. (Hint: I suffer from vicarious embarrassment for the stupid things that characters do in stories and movies, and I’ve long since passed the age where I think that hearing someone say the words “Preparation H” is automatically funny. Enough said.)
One of the subtle problems with research is that once you’ve put so much time and effort into it, it’s hard not to spend time showing it off. Frankly, I’m not sure if my pirated CD is really worth the space it occupies (about 2-3 pages at a guess, scattered through as many scenes). In the not entirely unlikely event that those pages wind up on the chopping block, I’ll feel pretty stupid about all the time I put into that research. (And yet, I uneasily suspect, also mildly pleased at such evidence of the pains I have suffered for my Arte.)
Similarly with the time I spent watching people at my brother-in-law’s house play Gran Turismo 3 trying to get the background right for my first scene. I’d originally embedded the scene with little invented narrator comments from a (fictitious and unnamed) car racing video game, but became uneasy with that. Hence my research, which, however, has brought its own problems. I’d be grateful if anyone out there could tell me whether a Zonda actually works for the following dialogue (between two 15-year-old boys): “Wait a minute. A Zonda? You’re picking a Zonda?” “Some of us don’t like to pick the same car every time we play.” “But a Zonda? I swear, Paul, you’re an alien.” “Hey! It has a cool name.” (FYI, the other boy’s driving a Viper.)
If research is the writer’s homely muse — as much shrew as muse, truth be told — then careful recordkeeping is her younger, stroppier, and more unpleasant sister.
I started out my writing thinking that I was going to be the kind of writer who kept and followed careful outlines. This, however, turned out not to be the case. Stories and scenes change too much once I actually start writing them — and what I actually write is typically better than I outline. So. Live and learn, as they say.
The thing I quickly found I couldn’t operate without was a clear timeline. Early on, I located an online perpetual calendar, which I still consult frequently. The main thing I did, though, was to start recording specific dates that things happened within my narrative-either scenes I’d already written or events yet to come that had to fall on a particular day. (This involved, among other things, deciding what my first and last days of school were for my particular school district.) As I add more items to the plot, I add more items to the timeline. Simple, necessary, easy to use and maintain.
Unfortunately, my record-keeping needs in other areas take a little more work to manage.
I’m a fundamentally lazy person, so rather than work out all the details in advance-like who sits at my character’s lunch table, or how many siblings his parents have-a lot of times I’ll make that kind of stuff up only when I need to, as I’m writing the scene where it actually appears. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been careful in keeping track of these little details. And so, at about the two-thirds mark in my story (I think), I’ve finally decided that I need to go back, reread everything I’ve written, and take careful notes about all the characters that appear in all my settings (high school, seminary, ward, etc.) and what I’ve had them say and do — together with other little throwaway details, such as which classes my characters are taking.
I’m hoping that this will help me with the composition of later, still-to-be-written scenes. In any event, it’s something I’d have to do sooner or later anyway-at least if I want to end up without egg on my face, assuming the book ever gets published. Surely there are some mistakes I’ll miss, but I might as well eliminate as many as I can beforehand.
Storytelling, to a very great degree, is about creating your own world and universe: a space where things, people and places follow the rules you create for them. We are the gods of the fictional worlds we create.
It seems ironic, then, that research and recordkeeping — trying to get things “right” in relation to our own primary world and consistent in our invented one-play such an important role in writing. Why not just make it up? Who actually cares if you send your characters off to see a movie that wasn’t actually playing in theaters at the time, or if you don’t allow enough time for a certified driver’s ed course, or if you get the requirements wrong for becoming an Eagle Scout?
And here’s the answer: because in this game of fictional reality that we as authors play, one of our fondest wishes is that our readers, even while knowing that what we write is all an invention, will — despite themselves — come to know and care about the worlds we unfold and the characters that people them, so that they have to keep pinching themselves (mentally) to remind themselves which is the real world, and which is the world of our shared imaginations. Which is the image, and which the reality? The true storyteller’s craft is to ensnare the reader too deeply to ask or care.