Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Have You Been There?

by Elizabeth

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Amy Tan. In fact, it's a regret that I won't use her name as a comp when I query later this year, because her audience is precisely my target audience. In fact, I hope she'll be a reader! But I will not make the rookie-cum-hubris mistake of comparing my work to someone with her level of success. Still, I'm a fan, of her work, of her talks (I saw her in Dallas a number of years ago, and it was one of the most enjoyable writer events I've ever attended; Joan and Susan saw her earlier this year), and of her methods.

Patio dining at Restaurant DeGolyer
One fun thing I always remember is her trying to convince her husband that she should get to write off meals in Chinese restaurants as research. She got shot down, and that's good enough for me to not even try. I presume she continues to "research" at lunchtime nonetheless, and just the other day I did the same, visiting my favorite chat counter that plays host to a couple of key scenes in my WIP. I didn't bother to keep the receipt, though. Meh, it was cheap anyway.
The view from my table

Another place that my character haunts is the Dallas Arboretum. Both Joan and I have sung its praises before, and when I visited the other day, its glory was in full bloom. My characters spend a lot of time eating (write what you know), and so I "researched" by plopping down at a table at the lovely Restaurant DeGolyer and chowing through a delicious Cobb salad. I let my mother-in-law buy, so no tax dilemma at all. The weather was gorgeous, by the way, a gentle breeze countering the sun's rays, and we spent a leisurely hour enjoying our meal.
Go Broncos!
Another locale in my novel is a junior high school gym. The same day I enjoyed my bacon-y salad, I attended an awards ceremony at my daughter's school, in "the big gym." (They have a small gym, too; this is Texas, where athletics are taken seriously by almost everyone but my family.) Even with chairs set up and a podium erected and not a ball in sight, it was a good reminder, just enough of a whiff of old sweat and dirty socks, to remind me of what the place is like. I plan to revisit the scene in my book to make sure I infused it with a sense of place now that I've been reminded.

Write what you know, we are told, and I have worked hard over the years to come to the understanding that the order speaks most to emotional knowledge, and that it doesn't rule out permission for me to write about a Congressman or children in Thailand or even the inner life of a woman who calls India home and always has. But place matters, too, details, and getting them right, and sometimes the easiest research is first person. I'd been going to the Arboretum and the chat counter for years before they happened to land in my story, but had I not, I would have visited to ensure I got the details right. Thailand? I'd love to go if a character figures in some future work, but that's also what the internet is for. Sure, it can be a time-suck, as every single one of my blog partners has or would assert, but it's also a great tool when you can't actually get there. But the scent of hydrangea can't transmit through wires, and the echo of trilling voices bouncing off linoleum floors might be lost on YouTube, and the precise tang of cherry vinaigrette isn't offered by Google.

If you can't get there, you can still write it. But if you can get there? Go.

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