Saturday, December 8, 2007

The distractions of research—the advantages of autobiography

A few years ago I made my first attempt at writing a novel. It had the seeming virtue of not being autobiographical at all, being set a generation before my own birth in a region I hadn’t lived in and featuring people in exotic professions I had never worked in. One character was a real recognizable public figure and another was burdened by a long and noble family history which I figured to detail as part of the backstory. Also I imagined the book to be in a kind of thematic conversation with two other novels I admired.

That’s a lot of complexity in theme, setting, character and plot and required a LOT of research—the time and setting of the present story, the life and times of one character’s ancestors for several generations, all the biography and commentary on the controversial historical figure, all about the unfamiliar professions and all the criticism of the two other novels I meant it to be in thematic conversation with.

I was in hog heaven. I love research, and it’s what I’m trained for. The wonderful thing about research is there’s never enough of it to do. Research is at heart an infinite journey. Just take a subject like, say, Gettysburg—a battle that lasted three days in one little town. (That wasn’t the setting for my novel. I just happened to be reading about it recently.) I defy you to even produce a complete bibliography on the subject, let alone read a fraction of the work. You couldn't even read all the existing historical fiction about it. And if you have ever been there you know there are armies hardcore buffs and legitimate scholars wandering around with what they suppose are still new lines of inquiry.

All that research I was doing for my novel felt like necessary work at the time, but it was really a distraction from the real work which is to regularly and ceaselessly add sentences to the draft of the novel. Lots of things go in to making a novel, but none of them is so important as that—just add sentences. Going to the library is no more responsible a way to honor the impulse to write than is checking to see if the oven needs to be cleaned.

The novel I’m writing now has the seemingly dubious quality of being autobiographical, but at least it doesn’t call for much research since I'm relying on my own experience and inventiveness. I still need to do a little bit sometimes—Did that make of car have chrome on the dashboard and did it have gauges or idiot lights? Wikipedia and Google are great resources for that, but as much time as they save on trips to the library, it can be a day-destroying break with the creative spirit. Email may save time compared to the U.S. Postal Service, but checking my email when I’m supposed to be writing is a bad habit. The same goes for “just checking on Google real quick for something.”

Not only does the research distract me from using my time well, it might also distract me from what my story actually is. I was thinking about this because today—a Saturday, so I have permission not to write—I got distracted "just checking Google real quick." Two hours passed, but it’s a Saturday, so no harm, no foul. But I also got real interested in some little unexpected details and anecdotes I found. I started thinking maybe I could incorporate them into the book. Maybe if my character went here, happened to be there, was standing in the path of that historical force . . . Plot complications accumulate. And that can be a good thing, but it takes a discipline and critical eye probably sharper than mine to see how much is too much. I tend to get lost in these side paths and lose sight of the goal.

No comments: