Between the Lines: When research tries to eat you

Any author will tell you that writing a novel involves research. In fact if you aren’t quick on your feet, they’re liable to corner you and tell you all the marvelous things they learned that were peripheral to their novel and so never got into the book.

This has always been a problem for me when I write stories about people who aren’t like me, set in places far away or in the past, yadda oy. I do an immense amount of research; some would call it over-researching. Sometimes I think I’m just being insecure. Or maybe I’m being respectful and thorough.Yeah, that’s a good excuse.

Walking on Sunshine by Jennifer StevensonFor Walking On Sunshine, fourth and final book in the Slacker Demons series, I had four main characters, all of them very different from me, and three secondary characters from other cultures.

Baz was the easiest, as he was King Ashurbanipal—in the real world, a man who (we assume) has been dead for 2700 years. I got to make up stuff about him. I got most of it from Wikipedia, but there were some hoary textbooks available on Googlebooks, too.

Ashurbanipal, King of the Universe

I put this image on the backside of a lynx-fur coverlet.

I put this image on the backside of a lynx-fur coverlet.

Assyrian deities superimposed on the QBL Tree of Life (totally nuts but cool)

For Yoni I got to research the lives of famous rock stars and other celebrities who have crashed and burned—or who have, contrariwise, achieved spectacular success without destroying their lives.

For Sophie I got to look up stuff that the young and the jet-set do for fun, and tons of vulgar French expressions current among same.

For Veek, though, I amassed a motherlode of research. I can’t possibly tell it all to you here—for one thing, your back is to the exit, and for another, this cocktail party is way too short. Here are some of the topics and links that carried me off down the rabbit hole for months at a time.

This was an eye-opener: Did you know the US occupied Haiti for a while? Big mess.

The Haitian spelling for their own language. I used a fair bit of it, and consulted several sites and knowledgable persons. Here’s just one site:

One plus One is Three: the divine twins

One plus One is Three: the divine twins

Haitian & Haitian-American vodou
Just a sample of the sort of rabbit-hole that swallowed me up many times: the sacred twins.

Vodou burial practices
A proper vodou burial takes nine days, a point that shaped the pace and timing of Walking On Sunshine.

I also visited the exhibit on Haitian Vodou at the Field Museum last winter, a heartbreaking and uplifting experience I’d recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the history of this religion. The exhibit was assembled from the Marianne Lehmann Vodou Collection, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lehmann, a Swiss-born collector married to a Haitian man, donated the entire collection to the people of Haiti, and also endowed the museum in Haiti where the collection normally lives.

The scent of sarsaparille features in two love scenes in this book.

The scent of sarsaparille features in two love scenes in this book.

French titles, and rules for passing a title from one generation to the next

Petit Trianon

Masses of images of the Petit Trianon!

Le Marais Poitevin
I grew up in a marshy part of Illinois—that is to say, most of the upper half of the state—and fell in love with the Marais Poitevin by long-distance.

Martin-pêcheur - a kingfisher found in the Marais Poitevin

Martin-pêcheur – a kingfisher found in the Marais Poitevin

Bird life on the Marais Poitevin

Flowers of the Marais Poitevin
Note, this is a PDF that must be downloaded to be viewed.

Grand houses on the Marais Poitevin

Rail bumming and graffiti
One of the coolest things I found? While researching how, during the Great Depression and at other times, homeless people traveled the western hemisphere using freight train lines, I ran across a site for kids who do graffiti on boxcars and the like. This was fascinating and alarming. I must have taken 30 pages of notes. Rail bumming was relevant to my story. Graffiti had nothing to do with it, of course. But if you go there, I bet you’ll get sucked in, as I did.

Okay, I have to stop now.

Have you put weeks into research that led you farther and farther away from your story—and into fascinating places?



Between the Lines: When research tries to eat you — 6 Comments

  1. Oh, hell yes. Researching music led to the whistled language of La Gomera.

    Researching Rabbi Nachman’s influence in Poland during the Napoleonic era led me deeply into Hasidic mysticism. (There are links, but internet wasn’t enough, and I had to dive into books, which have bibliographies, which lead to more books . . .)

    Female opera writers during the French Revolution. Georgian toe dancers (these are men only). A single folk song that has versions from the Balkans to Persia. Architectural motifs in lintels. Except for the first (which I stumbled on in a travel memoir and had to delve into and use) I explored them and then had to force myself to lay them aside. But I think everything we read sinks down into the subconscious ooze and becomes Story in one form or another.

  2. Research has swallowed me whole several times, and I trust that Sherwood is right about everything composting enough to give rise to Story, because otherwise I’ve wasted a heckuva lot of time. Had fun, though.

  3. And you have -relapses-. It does not get better! Years after finishing my Antarctica book, I feel a distinct pang that I did not case all the relevant books on the continent, over at Powells!

    • I didn’t study it itself so much as studied around it so to speak. I read about the people influenced by it, the mystics themselves, and the cultural influence. I read a number of books for what turned out to be a single conversation in one chapter, but I deeded an underlying understanding for motivations.