Hear the word “research” and what comes to mind? Laboratories teeming with pink-eyed rodents? Spreadsheets filled with statistics? Undergraduate student volunteers taking tests to predict how likely they are to do x or y when faced with an impossible choice? I’ve discovered a new form of research that doesn’t involve any of these scenarios and is opening my eyes to new experiences, contacts, and stories.
I’m researching scenes for my novel. I can imagine only so many settings and events I’ve never experienced, before I start to worry that readers will catch me out in some horrendous gaffe. Mystery writer Robert Dugoni said he referred to a type of gun in one of his novels, which a knowing reader pointed out hadn’t been made when the story took place. It was a gotcha moment for the reader and a red-faced one for the author.
In an earlier blog I described the lodge — a taxidermist’s and thrift-store shopper’s paradise — where we stayed while investigating Central Washington settings. But I haven’t talked about attending a line dancing extravaganza at a senior center. A writing buddy came with me. As beginners, we were placed in front of about fifty experienced dancers and given thirty seconds to learn each new dance. Those standing behind us already knew them. We lasted an hour. Despite the broad public exposure to our backsides and our lack of coordination, grace and rhythm, we had so much fun that we’re now searching for a regular class for the fall. A case of research leading to a possible new fitness activity.
In contrast, last week I visited a locale I don’t want to return to, namely the Northwest Detention Center. This long low building located in an industrial area in Tacoma houses detainees who are waiting to be deported. Before we got there, my husband worried that if anyone saw me taking photos of the place I’d end up in a cell too. However, since we were there just before the afternoon visiting hours, the guard house was empty and the only people we saw coming and going were men dressed in business suits. I pegged them as attorneys. The low point of the trip was seeing two women and children, who were there to visit a relative in lock-up, dressed up as if they were headed to a celebration. Maybe having a chance to see their loved one for sixty minutes was a celebration of sorts.
I’ve also done research by interviewing people who knew a lot more about a particular subject than I did. They’ve helped me write scenes involving horseback riding, puppy obedience school, and a television newsroom. These interviews should help me avoid glaring errors in my story, but more importantly, they have made me appreciate the expertise of friends and acquaintances. Everyone has something they know and do well and they are happy to talk about it.
It should be obvious to whoever is reading this that my setting isn’t glamorous or exotic and that the scenes involve ordinary activities. It’s even more obvious to my husband, who accompanies me on my fact-finding missions. He has asked me to consider using a European capitol, say Madrid, as a setting for my next book. I’m hoping I have another one in me so I can grant his wish.