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Question of the Month: Research

by Susan Henderson on March 6, 2017

What kinds of research are you doing for your writing projects?

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Most of the research I did for the book I just finished was on dead people: bodies, dead bodies, the weight and feel of things, bathing the dead, embalming.

I watched YouTubes of surgeries and autopsies to listen to sounds of cutting and the sounds of the room itself. I learned about tools and machines. I talked to morticians and I listened to people who had lost loved ones.

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My favorite research books were Mary Roach’s Stiff, a collection of essays about what happens when you donate your body to science, and Richard Selzer’s Mortal Lessons, a book of essays I’d first read in middle school when I found it on my mom’s bookshelf. That book is pure poetry.

What I discovered as I delved into the research was this: the more you study and write about death, the more you are examining what it means to be alive. And this became something I wrestled with via my narrator, an embalmer who would rather spend her time with the dead than the living. So I gave her the uncomfortable task of leaving her basement workroom and stepping into the world of the living, where she feels so vulnerable.

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There’s research for this new book, too. But I’ll keep it to myself for now. I always love the spectacular alone time with a book in its earliest stages, when no one in the world knows what’s in your head and what’s developing on the page. Some people like to share and get feedback early in the process. I don’t.

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I’ll end (as usual) with the books I read since my last post:

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Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories

Jose Saramago, Blindness

Elizabeth Crane, The History of Great Things

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things: Poems

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog

Jim Crace, Harvest

Natashia Deón, Grace

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Elm Leaves Journal, The Dirt Edition (Winter 2016)

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Empty Mansions

Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, Whole30

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book Three

And two re-reads of poetry collections:

Jim Daniels, Punching Out

Cornelius Eady, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze

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In the comments, share with me the research you’re doing, or have done, to find a way into your stories. Also, share any good books you’ve been reading, or just share about your life in general. It’s always good to hear from you.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Julian Gallo March 6, 2017 at 12:33 pm

I’ve done a lot of research on particular novels — and even short stories — that I’ve written, depending on the subject matter. Not very intensive, though, or at least it’s not that ‘present’ in the book/story. Sometimes it’s just enough to lend the story the realism it needs, to get the facts right (even the little things that one may not think of off the top of the head), since most of the time a lot of what I research is hovering in the background. I try to keep the focus on the characters and the story itself. I may do research, compile tons of notes, but only use a fraction of it in the end.

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2017 at 12:37 pm

I found that I loved researching so much, it was hard to go back to writing. But I agree with you completely, in the end, you don’t want to share all you’ve learned but simply listen to the characters and the story, using only what drives their scenes.

Glad you’re here, Julian!

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GC Smith March 6, 2017 at 1:35 pm

I’m currently a little over 70K words of the first draft of a novel: To Live And Die In Dixie, murder set in the world of stock car racing. My normal method is to write the story and research during edit processes. I use (???) and (XXX) to mark holes in my draft that need filling. The book is a sequel to my earlier novel White Lightning and has the same protagonist, many of the same players, and new antagonists. The plot intertwines NASCAR racing with right wing/religious fundamentalist politics . I know a lot about NASCAR so research there consists of mostly making sure references are up to date and accurate. On the political side I’m using the idea that returning NASCAR to its roots, White, southern, male can serve to springboard an obscure group to power, first in the South and eventually National power. My research there will take some delving into racist, sexist, xenophobic movements and perhaps some biblical stuff. Some can be obtained simply by keeping my ears open to what is currently going on in the U.S.A.. I’ll need to check up on some police and legal procedures and processes to ensure accuracy. Most of the stuff that I’ll need can be found on the internet. My thirty five years as a Federal bureaucrat dealing extensively with State and local political entities will not hurt.

Fortunately, what I’m writing is everyday stuff and doesn’t require arcane research. But, if it did, I’d enjoy the process.

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2017 at 1:43 pm

That’s brilliant to just lay a marker where there’s a hole in the story and not break your flow. I need to borrow that idea to keep myself from jumping on to the internet when I ought to be writing. Work can so quickly turn into horsing around!

How do you like working inside a new story with the same protagonist?

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GC Smith March 7, 2017 at 1:08 am

“How do you like working inside a new story with the same protagonist?”

I’m finding it a bit difficult. How much reference to things from the earlier book or conversely how little reference is puzzling to me. I’ll get it worked out while editing but it won’t be easy.

I do like working with the characters from the earlier novel, but the first time they held more surprises for me, and I’d think also the reader. That knowledge also relates to my to much -to little puzzlement referenced above.

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Fascinating, how you’d have to wonder how much someone remembers from a previous book, and what if they read this one first. I hadn’t thought of that. Or the idea of finding ways to surprise yourself.

Except for Little House on the Prairie (and that was a while ago), I haven’t tended to read series, but my husband really loves the Sharpe series (by Bernard Cornwell). And he loves the ease of following a character he knows well but who is thrown into new situations and exploring different aspects of British history.

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Gerard Smith March 7, 2017 at 4:16 pm

I read some of the Cornwell/Sharpe series years ago and enjoyed them. As an aside, there is a British writer Tom Sharpe who publishes some of the funniest stuff I have ever read. The man was thrown out of South Africa. I highly recommend his stuff.

Continuing characters are common with the crime genre and I’ve worked it out with my other books that feature a private eye, Johnny Donal. It’s a challenge, but fun.

Billie Hinton March 6, 2017 at 2:10 pm

I’m doing structural edits on a novel and just pulled out a subplot thread that began because of research I did while writing the first draft. I clearly remember the day I found the information that led to this subplot and how excited I was, and now I’m carefully cutting the whole thread out of the novel because, in the end, it was something that distracted from the main story.

It’s interesting because it could have taken the book in a completely different direction but I think I had to put it in to find out if that’s where things would go. In the end I needed someone’s fresh eye and grasp on structure to tell me it was not adding to the story. But in a sort of underground way that subplot helped form one of the characters and his backstory, so it was worth the time putting it in and now taking it out again!

Books: I’ve been re-reading some of Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series, remembering the read-alouds of these stories we did when my kids were young. In Moominvalley Midwinter Moomin wakes up while his entire family hibernates and has a big discovery about snow and darkness. His Moominmama doesn’t wake up until at the end of the story he gets a cold and sneezes – and she wakes up and makes him ginger/honey/lemon tea and spends time getting the house ready for spring before the rest of the family awakens. It is bittersweet reading as my son is flying around the country visiting graduate schools to make his final decision. I think he might end up at Cornell, so the whole snow thing could very well be a part of our lives next winter. :)

And I’m gearing up to get my first three bee hives going this spring after completing beekeeping school this winter. I feel sure this will make its way into a novel at some point.

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Amazing –isn’t it?– how much work we end up throwing out. And how much of that thrown out work often leads us to the magic of the book. I keep hoping to learn a way to write faster and without all the dead-ends and crumpled-up pages, and yet, there seems to be a logic to the journey once you live through it to the other side.

I love your point, though, about the dangers of research cluttering the story or causing it to veer off course.

What you said about snow and darkness sure intrigues me. Wonderful news about your son! And did you know beekeeping is one of the fantasies I have about the other life I might have lived?

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billie hinton March 6, 2017 at 3:50 pm

I didn’t know about you and bees! They are fascinating creatures and I’m stepping into it with some fear and a lot of awe and responsibility. It feels like a mixture of science and therapy and magic to me and I’m looking forward to it.

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2017 at 4:37 pm

Yes. Yes!

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Jennifer Haupt March 6, 2017 at 3:31 pm

What a great question! I spent a month in Rwanda interviewing genocide survivors for my novel coming out in Spring 2018. That was ten years ago. Then, I decided to add another plot layer relating to the Civil Rights era in Atlanta so there was plenty of interesting research to do with that. For my next novel, I’m researching something lighter: music!

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2017 at 3:35 pm

I am so ridiculously excited for your book to come out! Let me know when there’s a cover to peek at! And part of what I love about being a writer is how we can sink so deeply into one world, and then for the next, sink into something entirely different.

My new research is not light (because I love to root around in the dark) but it’s different and wakes me up all over again.

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Ric Marion March 6, 2017 at 7:41 pm

Morning, Susan,
My latest effort had me in close contact with a friend who does home security. I think he was more excited by my questions than I was. Always fun, figuring out just what a motion camera will film and what strange movements will set them to record.
Busy here as Spring approaches. Leaving next week on a one way flight to San Francisco. Our youngest, after two years, wants to come home. I get to drive cross country – just the two of us. Adventure awaits. Another son making wedding plans for this summer. And clearing out Mom’s house, she is safely and happily enjoying life at the Home. She will be 94 soon.
Had to move my bookcase – new flooring – 8 foot long, 8 foot high, mostly hardcovers, I think around 800 or so. Fun job, so many memories can be recalled, college, young kids, turning points and dead ends, all by flipping a few pages of a well worn life.

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2017 at 8:07 pm

I like your motion camera analogy.

We have crocuses here in New York, but it’s also unbearably cold. Looking forward to spring and getting out of the house more!

I love hearing about your non-writing life, right down to sorting through the 800 or so books. Enjoy that cross-country trip with your youngest. Sounds kind of wonderful.

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Aimee Bingham March 7, 2017 at 12:57 pm

I’m currently researching sewing terms, fashion designers of the 50s and 60s and movie stars from the same time period for a short story I’m writing that takes place in a notions shop.

Currently reading Sisters in Law, about the friendship between RBG and Sandra Day O’Conner. Just getting started, but it’s one I definitely want my daughter to read when she gets older.

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Susan Henderson March 7, 2017 at 1:04 pm

Ooh, I love that. Do you know what the story’s about yet? I find that I often work from the setting and into the story, so I’ll learn about a space and what kinds of things go on in that space and then I start to wonder what might happen there. For example, my book opens with an accident at an old grain elevator, but I didn’t have the idea for the accident until I started studying a building and asking… wonder what people do inside that building and how it looks and how it smells?

So great that you share books about strong women with your daughter. I used to do the same with my boys… I wanted them to know all about strong women and the things they dreamed of doing with their lives (i.e., not about being rescued by princes).

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Vicki Madden May 1, 2017 at 10:30 am

I’m happy to discover this blog and especially this post. I love the research process. I’ve recently completed a long essay exploring the mystery of my mother’s birth, in which my grandfather forced my grandmother to have a c-section in 1935 in rural Montana. No one knew why. During the process, I found that youtube has amazing resources, including the video of a c-section surgery done in London in 1930. One section of my essay is a step-by-step narration of that operation.
When I am writing things with less research (like a memoir piece I am working on now), I feel a bit depleted at times. And it’s research that gets me excited again. Thanks for reminding me of that!

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Susan Henderson May 1, 2017 at 11:13 am

Vicki, Welcome!

I agree that research can get me excited in the work again when I feel either my writing or my connection with the piece has gone flat. It’s like it gives the author a back door to enter to re-engage with the piece from a new angle, rather than feeling like you’re massaging the same ideas and sentences again and again, hoping the work will become stronger.

How fun that we’re both writing about rural Montana! I’m fascinated by your grandmother’s story, and how many women had their birthing process taking over by men. Let us know when you place the essay, and if the essay grows into something bigger!

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