For the Love (And Loathing) of Research08/10/2012
Well, no. Not exactly. I love reading, of course, but I’m not much of a nonfiction fan, and digging through piles of newspapers is not my idea of fun. I don’t skim well, and huge old books intimidate me. So when I launched into the project that is now Silhouette of a Sparrow, I pretty much panicked about how much research I was signing myself up for. Research is boring! I wanted to run away. Never look back. But the story poked at me, the idea wouldn’t let me go. The research scared me, but I wanted to write the book anyway.
So while I struggled through that mess that was my first draft, I diligently showed up at the Special Collections room at the downtown Minneapolis library and sifted through photos and articles. I read books about the ’20s, the history of the area, and the Audubon Society. Meanwhile, I wrote snippets, scenes, chapters, and started to fill in a patchwork of a story.
After a couple of months, I called it quits with the research. And then I wrote. And revised. And wrote some more. I changed the main character, Garnet, from a ten-year-old to a twelve-year-old to a sixteen-year-old, and finally the action of the story belonged to her and not to her mother. I delved into her desires. I rearranged the plot, added and subtracted subplots, added and subtracted secondary characters. All the while, when I ran into a moment where my research failed me, I left blanks in the manuscript, writing notes to myself about what I needed to learn more about and charging forward with the story.
Gradually I filled in those blanks with details about the food they would’ve eaten, the clothes they would’ve worn, the celebrities they would’ve idolized. I referenced my bird book constantly. And I started to take excursions.
I live near the area that the fictional Garnet inhabited eighty-some years ago, and this corner of the world has a very active historical society. Not only was I able to swim in the waters of the bay, I could also take rides on a trolley and tour the lake on a steamboat, asking questions of the knowledgeable staff all the while and snapping an excessive number of photos. I learned that in those days, the trolley driver did his work behind a pane of glass, while a conductor took fares and helped passengers. I learned how many whistle blows signal the boat’s crew to get the engines moving forward versus backward, fast versus slow, and to stop. I also made a point of riding every old carousel I could find, soaking up sensory experiences—the blur of the lights, the swell of the music. I learned a lot about my book in the process, but I also learned something about research.
I already knew that research makes a book—historical or contemporary—rich. Adequate research can create a context that is more than a backdrop. Time and place become a vital part of the character, influence her yearnings, move the plot forward, set the tone of the piece, and ensure that the reader can slip easily into the world of the story. What I didn’t know is that research can be fun. The best research, the kind that involves being out in the world doing things, seeing things, talking to people, is rewarding in itself.
I’m not sure if I will write historical fiction again, but I am taking this new attitude about research into all of my writing projects. For my middle-grade novel, I re-learned Algebra and tromped around a sheep ranch. My picture books can require anything from catching tadpoles to climbing on fire trucks. Writing is about being curious about the world around you, and inspiring that curiosity in your reader. It is about exploring new worlds, whether those worlds are long ago and far away, or in your own backyard.
And that’s not boring, it’s exciting. It’s the most exciting thing there is.
Molly Beth Griffin’s young adult novel Silhouette of a Sparrow comes out in September.
All photography rights reserved to Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society.