In this quest to be a real, published author, I’ve been creeping on some of my favorite authors’ websites. Barbara Kingsolver has an entire FAQ section. One of the tips she gives to writers is about research.
Reading her advice resonated with me. One of the reasons I didn’t go to graduate school was because I was convinced that life could teach me more of what I needed to know than school could. Don’t get me wrong. I know that school is great. But I knew that I wanted to be an author when I was in college. I had so many college instructors who took the same path: high school, college, grad school, teaching. BLAH!
I wanted some experience. I want to know what it is, not just how it is described in a textbook.
So, I didn’t go to grad school. There were times that I questioned this choice and myself, did I give up my only chance? Reading Kingsolver’s advice made me feel better about my choices. There are some things I know because I’ve chosen to take risks and have experiences.
Of course, as I was reading through this, one project I’ve been concentrating on came to mind. I’m writing a story that takes place in Dingle, Ireland. My father’s grandparents are from Dingle. I’ve never been there.
On her website, Barbara Kingsolver explains:
Hooray for you, for knowing the difference between primary and secondary sources, in a world where many seem to think watching a nature show is the same thing as being in nature. It isn’t. The nature show leaves out the smells, for one thing, and the seventeen hundred hours the camera crew sat waiting for the rhinos to mate. Another person’s account of a place – whether it’s Henry Thoreau or Youtube – is only part of the story.
I almost never set a fictional scene in a place unless I’ve been there. Fiction is an accumulation of details, and if they’re wrong, it’s an accumulation of lies. Readers are not fooled. Fiction is invention but it’s ultimately about truth. If I want to remove you from your life and whisk you into a picnic on the banks of a river in Teotihuacán, here are some things I need to know: what grows there, what trees, what flowers, in that month of the year? What does it smell like, are there bees? Birds? Is it dry or humid, how does the dust feel between your teeth? What’s in the picnic basket? What does candied prickly pear fruit actually taste like? Passing on someone else’s account of these things, from reading about them, would likely render a flat, one-dimensional scene, no matter how I injected my own additions of plot and character. The sensory palette would be limited. I can only paint with all the colors if I’ve seen them for myself.
The difference between amateur and professional research is a willingness to back away from other people’s accounts of what is, and find your own. There is no “googlesmell.” – Barbara Kingsolver
I’m writing a story that takes place in Dingle, Ireland during October, and I’ve never been there.
I need to go to Ireland.
I’m so tempted to fake it. I’ve come a long way in this story, but I know that it is “a collection of lies” (in some ways) because I’ve never been. I don’t know what Ireland smells like, tastes like, feels like, sounds like. I can only guess at what it looks like, but even then, I don’t have the right picture. I don’t understand it’s light. I don’t know how vibrant the green is or how grey the skies are.
I need to go to Ireland.
So, I’ve decided to shelf a big portion of this book. I’ll keep writing certain aspects of it, but I’m determined to get to Ireland. And, thankfully, I have some other projects to work on: projects I know; projects I won’t have to fake.
What is the most interesting research you have done when working on a project?