Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Research"--No, Really. Research!

by Elizabeth

So a few years ago a friend and I paid the premium price to go listen to Amy Tan speak at the Dallas Public Library. The extra bucks we forked over for our tickets paid for a pre-talk reception with Tan, with a little booze, a little food, and about 100 other souls clamoring around hoping for Joy or Luck or whatever it was they came for. Maybe the wine, who knows?

Amy Tan is a terrific speaker, by the way, and if you ever get a chance to hear her, I exhort you to take it. Much of her talk came from one of her books, one that I'd read not too long before that night, and I didn't care a bit. One of the things she discussed was trying to convince her husband that she should be allowed to write her recent Chinese dinner expenses off her taxes, because it was research as the characters in her work-in-progress were dining in such a place. No dice, he said, which was surely a good idea. The guy is a tax attorney, after all. But still.

I'm not planning any tax evasion, just to keep the record clear, but it is true that our experiences often leech into our novels. At least in my case, and I can't imagine that they wouldn't for nearly everyone. Even those of us writing nothing to do with our present day lives--Kim's novel ends decades before she is even a glimmer of existence, for instance--still have our works colored by our experiences. Sometimes, we seek out those occurrences--again, Kim visiting Ontario is no accident, and the sights and sounds and smells she absorbed flavor her work, and purposely so. Sometimes something we encounter informs our work--Joan has mentioned strolling a London street, gaping with wonder at a beguiling church, and years later, she is writing about architects and thieves. Both Julie and Susan delved into family history and geography for the kernels of their novels, and we've discussed how the land and the people--I'd argue experiences--have enriched and informed their books.

Pamela and I are probably most similar in that what we write is most conducive to the Amy-Tan-write-a-good-meal-off-your-taxes school of fiction. Our stories so far mostly take place in the world we inhabit today, and our characters might be as likely to meet a friend at Taco Cabana as we are. (I love Taco Cabana and force Pamela to go there with me when we two get together to talk books. It's exactly halfway! Along with about 50 other restaurants, ahem.) So far, though, my guacamole has come out of my pocket and not the Treasury's. And it will stay that way.

But writing about women not so different from myself does beg the question: how much like me are they? What things that I've done, have they done? More interesting is how they react, and how it affects the trajectory of their story. Further, what about stuff haven't I done, that they have? And there's the rub. How much of that can I write without doing it myself? And do things my characters do give me license? (No one's gone skydiving yet--but if they do, do I get to/must I?)

I have a character in my WIP who resents another character for reasons that she later comes to realize are sort of ridiculous. One of the ways she will come to see her folly is by re-framing actions the first character has undertaken, seeing them in the light of positive rather than critical. And one way she does this (I swear it makes sense in the story) is by spending a full day on personal luxury--massage, mani-pedi, facial, lunch at a tony place where three hundred dollar shoes are de rigueur. So I'm thinking, that's what I need to do. Suffuse myself in luxury, all day long, literally from head to toe. See what it feels like to be pampered without cessation, and then translate that for my character, onto her skin, into my manuscript.

And pay for it, of course, all the way. I promise, Uncle Sam. I promise, Lou.

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