I always love it when writers talk about the research, or lack of research, that they do for a novel.
I’m what I will call-- for the sake of this blog post--an “In-Betweener.” I don’t write historical fiction that requires immersion into a time period. Nor do I write contemporary dramas with little to no background.
My current manuscript, The Angels’ Share, covers three generations and is a mesh of backdrops that require facts and accurate timelines but also leave room for the story. The interesting thing is that my characters have minds of their own. One owns a bourbon distillery. One is a monk. One is a negro girl in 1950 in Kentucky. And one is a modern-day civil rights professor who investigates the mysteries of the past. Whether I wanted to or not, this manuscript required some research.
Where is the sweet spot in research? For me, it’s a combination of reading, going and doing. Here’s my process for keeping it fun.
Step One: Find Some Bourbon
I started with the bourbon because frankly, it was the simplest. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a breathtaking drive, full of horse farms and tobacco fields and the rolling hills that are home to me--a home I left twelve years ago. When I returned as a researcher, I saw the entire painting with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
The Bourbon Trail is a marketing creation to drive tourism for Kentucky--and as a marketing gal myself, I see this clearly. Yet having grown up in the Bluegrass State, I know the good stuff when I see it. With nice brochures, beautiful photos, and a promise of booze, Kentucky cleanly packaged the desire in me (and thousands of others) to visit bourbon distilleries. And so I started in 2006 visiting them all: Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. By 2009 I’d been to all of them except Jim Beam, the granddaddy. I’m saving that one for my July 2011 trip—and will make the long drive from Texas, my current home, to Kentucky, with a smile on my face.
Step Two: Visit Some Monks
In July 2009, a long-time friend agreed to join me at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery in the middle of Kentucky (and the middle of the Bourbon Trail) that houses Trappist monks. We’d considered a writing retreat and staying for a few days. Yet after 15 minutes of silence, we realized that the strict requirements of the monastery were not for us--we had too much talking to do!
Yet we were both struck (and struck is the only word I can use here) by the simplistic austerity of the monastery. It was magnificent, yet stripped. It was silent, yet spoke volumes. The monks were pleasant, yet detached. (What use did they have for mere mortals, when they had a direct line to God?) By visiting Gethsemani, I saw what it truly meant to be a monk. And I couldn’t have written about that without seeing it.
Step Three: Shoot Something
I’m a pacifist. I like peace and love and hippies. Yet when a character in The Angels’ Share reached for a pistol, I knew that I had to know more than “she reached for the gun. She shot it.”
I called on my good friend Mr. Martin, one of my Texas buddies who just so happened to be traveling from Houston to Dallas with a 9mm, a 45, and a revolver on his person. (I know, right? Only in Texas.) Could he meet me at the gun range at 5:30 p.m., I asked, in Dallas? Of course, he answered. He’s leaving for a South African safari in ten days, he said, and he needs the practice too.
And so tonight, I shot a gun. I shot the 9mm and the 45--the revolver, he told me, was "a little out of my league." And now I know what it feels like to see sparks flying off your 45. I know that a 9mm shoots straighter if you don’t close your eyes when you squeeze the trigger. And I know that even though I am stronger than I thought I was, a gun is by far louder and more powerful than it ever looked on television.
Fiction, no matter what anyone says, is a little nugget of truth wrapped up in narrative, a trigger that begins as something very real and then transforms into something else—something completely created. When you need to back up your literature with solid facts, you’ve got to find your starting point, retrace your steps, and base your fiction in fact.
For me, I’ve gotta go there, feel that, or do this. That’s my research, in a nutshell. But it’s also my life. I’m not a writer who sits at home and thinks. That’s why I shot guns tonight. Not because I want to kill something, not because I’m a right-leaning conservative (because I’m not). But because I live my life and I love my life. Don’t you?