Questions I have researched recently for a writing project:
- Suture kits and how to stitch up wounds
- Microquakes, subsidence, and local geology
- The effects of psychedelic mushrooms and hazards of their long-term use (lots of this via my work computer, yikes)
- Fungal behavior generally
- The properties of copper, where it comes from, and the various ways it’s stolen
- The stages of death from congestive heart failure, and how it’s treated at each stage
- Home hair dyes, including instructions and the names of colors
- Local bus schedules
- What Bengali terms of address to family members a man who grew up in India might use
- What weird situations a home health nurse might encounter; what the ordinary procedures are and what equipment is needed for them; who staffs the clinic that’s the nurse’s home base
- Phases of the moon in the summer of 2021
I have a hard time getting students to incorporate research into their creative writing, even the quick Wikipedia kind, but I can’t write much in any genre without internet access–and having friends to interview about mundane details is also a big help. In poetry, specificity is everything. Studying scientific processes helps me understand the world and myself; the textures of unusual words make the language pop. In fiction, people need to have jobs other than mine, and they need to walk around and be doing ordinary things when plot twists surprise them.
My process so far for the novel underway involves writing many pages in a mad rush then hitting pause to reflect on what the characters might think or do next, as well as what I’m missing about the properties of this fictional world and its residents’ patterns of behavior. I had worked out a lot before starting, but when I hit the 20,000 word mark I realized my plans were pretty vague after the opening. I’m at around 45,000 words now, not rereading too much but plunging forward, trying to hack out the basic shape of the story before I go back and make necessary alterations, because my sense of how it all needs to unfold keeps changing. I also know I’m falling into bad habits sometimes: for instance, I’m prone to summarizing action in a first draft and have to go back and dramatize it, as well as making the sentences much cleaner and the detail richer (which means my 45K words probably represent well over half the novel, plot-wise). It’s a lot like the discovery process you experience in the first draft of a poem–you need to see where it’s going before you can revise it, fit all the parts together smoothly. If you know everything about your destination from the outset, the results might not possess that essential element of surprise.
Another thing my writer-spouse thinks is unusual in my process: I do a ton of work that won’t go into the book. For Unbecoming, set at a small college, I mapped out the entire curriculum and every professor’s teaching load just to figure out when two key characters could meet for coffee (surely overkill, but that’s how my brain works, especially post-chairing). In my current project, space is really important, so I’m developing an increasingly detailed hand-drawn map of my fictional county. It’s not Yoknapatawpha by a long shot, and I’m not intending that Tolkienish move of including a map if this ever becomes a real book. I just need to know where stuff happens and how long it takes to drive there. It’s too much exposition to explain it all in prose, but I need to know it makes sense.
I am drafting poems occasionally, particularly when I get stuck on the novel for a few days. I’ll be driving my son back to college in a week, so there’s lots of planning to do, as well as the usual pile-up of recommendation requests and “do this now!” emails. No other publishing news these days–August is always slow–but I have a virtual reading from Unbecoming scheduled for September 16th “at” A Novel Idea bookstore in Philadelphia (sign up for the Zoom here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-lesley-wheeler-author-of-unbecoming-online-tickets-117838653585). I also received a super-nice note about The State She’s In from Denise Duhamel, a distinguished poet whom I don’t know personally but whose work I’ve long admired–I’ve taught her books a few times and even ran an independent study on her complete works maybe a decade ago (!). I am so grateful when someone reads a book of mine and sends me a note or gives me a shout-out–it reminds me to reciprocate, which is one of the pleasures of #thesealeychallenge. (One more week to go!)
I’ll sign out with a George Carlin bit I’ve been thinking about a lot. Tensions around the novel coronavirus feel high, even among people with whom I mostly agree. Obviously the anti-mask campaigners are dumb and toxic. Within the rainbow of behaviors sane people exercise, though, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions: whether it’s okay to drive to a lake house for a few days, or order take-out, or take part in a small, socially-distanced event with some friends. Whether it’s better parenting to send your kids to school, too, or keep them at home, and what policies schools and universities should have in the first place. I have opinions, like everyone else, and they’re conditioned by my experiences and temperament, like everyone else’s. Because I’m prone to depression and anxiety, for instance, I have a bigger fear than others would of the psychic costs of isolation to children and teens. I often feel judged for being too slack on one hand or too uptight on the other–which is my problem, I know, I’m too keen a reader of what other people are thinking–and I keep sliding into being judgmental myself. My strategy, besides taking lots of deep breaths, is to remember Carlin’s point about how myopic it can be to draw bright lines between right and wrong. The very high costs of this virus in the U.S. are largely the government’s fault–systemic–not the fault of the dog-walker who gets too close to me on the trail. It’s important not to make a terrible situation worse, but none of us is sure of the exact right answers to pandemic math. We need to be kind to each other, not least because we can’t always see the factors that lead people to make the choices they do. I’m working on resisting the reflex division of the world into idiots and maniacs.
(Funny that I remembered that bit as “assholes” and “morons”–my inner NJ driver resurfaces, I guess.) And since I went down another research rabbit-hole looking for Carlin bits, here’s something that’s earlier and spikier. I read this as Carlin seeming to play to the middle at first–mocking all kinds of extremism–and then showing his hand. There IS a limit to tolerance of different approaches to the world.
6 responses to “Maps, teaching schedules, and other demented pre-writing adventures”
Children’s writers have to do a lot of research that never reaches the page. I assumed all writers need to. Sounds like you’re making good progress.
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Hi Lesley, I love this post. I am working on my first novel, and your process resonated with me. I am using my hometown Berkeley CA as the setting, but the problem is, we left for Canada when I was 7 and I don’t remember much. I use maps of the area, but it’s hard to find one that reflects the timing (1940-65). In any case, it’s such a wonderful adventure, writing a novel, if if only my writing group reads it. I only have about 30 minutes a day to write, and I do enjoy that time. Today dialogue just fell out of my mind onto the page as if I were transcribing a scene before me. I often feel that something or someone is writing through me. Anyways, I enjoyed this post tremendously, and thank you for the two Carlin clips–so important to laugh! Take care, Madeline
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Thank you, Madeline! I love that experience, when you feel like a conduit for the words rather than fully their maker.
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1. I adore poet research. Longer forms have to be more comprehensive, which is nerve wracking. 2. I read someone say that COVID is like negotiating consent with your entire acquaintance (and strangers too!).
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Research? For literature? I thought I was nutty to do this with and for poetry, but I read your post and it turns out I’m not alone! Translating a short Li Bai poem this summer I felt had to spend the better part of a day reading about 8th century Chinese wine and customs, and about all that came out of it (other than a feeling of some ground under my feet) was a decision that he’d likely drink from an opaque cup.
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That’s a wonderful detail about the cup! And I do think many of the poets I admire are research-minded, using writing as a means of discovery. Curiosity is a trait I always like in human beings, too, whether they’re writers or not.