A Personal, Subjective Account of How to Research and Write a Whole Novel Set In a Place You've Never Been To
1995 was a great year. I’d just quit a job in a dramatic flurry that even I was proud of. I hadn’t run out of money for smokes yet, and I could spend Mondays sitting in the park, eating cherries, watching people and writing crap. I stepped back into journalism for five minutes, long enough to interview the musician I’d spent years adoring (Prince) and then back out again, thumbing my nose at the newspaper that let me do it. Then someone gave me some money to write a couple of novels, which, at the risk of understating, was the BEST F--ING THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME, BAR NONE. Yeah, 1995 was yummy.
1996 wasn’t bad either. I wrote the first novel about things I knew about (Jamaica, women and men stuff) and did a bit of research when I needed to (rape trials) and then danced around publicising it, hoping for reviews (good ones), making peace with the fact that not only had I written the damn thing, now I was required to read it in public and do interviews (oddly excrutiating even though I’d spent the last ten years interviewing people myself). But life was good. And when it wasn’t, I’d go look at Novel 1 on my bookshelf, slotted there in between Toni Morrison and Stephen King, and that made things just fine.
Until I realised something.
I had to write Another One.
Not any book, either. I had to write the novel I was commissioned to write. I had to write the book that got me the publishing contract in the first place. See, my second novel was originally a very short story, written when I was 18. Publishers liked it enough to give me a two-book deal. Now I had to deliver.
Very fast, I realised that I had three problems, specially designed for me, by my own imagination and ambition.
Problem 1: It was an American story. Small town USA. So I’d be writing out of culture. I’d done the tourist stuff in NY, gone to Disneyworld, ate cheesecake in Wisconsin. But I’d never lived in America. I spent some time trying to set the thing in all kinds of places, places I knew better, but the story refused to go there.
Problem 2: It was a man’s story. So I’d be writing out of gender. Sure, I knew men, lots of men, but oh my god, I didn’t have a penis. I tried to make the character female. As my feisty Jamaican grandmother would say: Not a rass. It wasn’t happening. Every time I tried to give the man breasts he started complaining in my left ear. I had DREAMS about this character claiming his masculinity.
Problem 3: The protagonist wasn’t just male. The damn man slept with men. So I’d be writing across sexuality. I tried to make him straight, but he called me a homophobic wimp.
Oh, this book so wanted to kick my ass.
So I decided to kick its ass, instead.
For what it’s worth, here are some ideas on how to do it…
1. Start By Doing Writer Things. You know what I mean. Working out the plot. Deciding whether it’s first person or third person. How many viewpoint characters there’ll be and why. Subplots. Character work. Where you’re going to start. Stuff like that. This is the most important bit. You can research for years, but if the work is crap, the research will be for nothing. So, do writer things.
2. Know What You Know. When I finally calmed down and actually had a look at the short story that was the heart and soul of what was to become a novel, I slowly began to realise that things weren’t as bad as I feared. I mean, I had the idea, right? So obviously the thing had something to do with me, my passions, my concerns, and most importantly, my experiences. So I made a list of the things I was worried about and then asked myself to be really honest about what I knew about these things.
(a) I’m not American, but…I spent 15 years in the Caribbean, in America’s backyard, sucking up cultural imperialism
(b) I’m not American, but…I’m writing a character who lives as a black person in a small town, and I’m a black person who knows about the small town blues
(c) I’m not a man, but… I watch men, know men, touch men, talk to men…
(d) I’m not a man, but…if I make him a creative man, like I’m a creative woman, I’ll have something to go on…
(e) I’m not a man, but…this man is a black man, and I’m black…
(f) I’m not a gay man, but…I am a bisexual woman…so, yippee, make him BI and then continue to immerse myself in queer theory (finally, a practical reason for hanging out in gay clubs!)
(g) I’m not an American, bisexual man…but I am human, and he’s human, and he’s going to be dealing with issues like alienation and loneliness, and loss and joy and pain and fear and love…and I know something about all those things…
Or let’s put this another way – when you’re trying to write across race, gender, culture, place, sexuality, when you’re trying to write about something or someone you don’t know about, it may help you to tell yourself the truth about what you DO know. If the truthful answer is: ‘I know nothing’, then you might want to think again. For example, I know nothing, zip, zero, about being a working class Chinese transsexual living in Australia. Equally, nothing about being an Iranian woman working as an engineer living in Russia. And if one day my imagination insists that I need to write a novel involving those two characters, you better believe that I need to find something there that’s familiar. Then I’d need to take the next step, which is this…
3. Get Over Yourself. Make peace with the fact that some people are going to be pissed. Black people might argue that their culture and perspectives have been historically appropriated and that what you’re doing is more of the same. The gay community might laugh at what they call your arrogance. White people might ask you what a black writer knows about ‘em, and on and on, ad infinitum. They might have a point. These are communities that have – by anyone’s reckoning – had to fight for a voice. Then again, you might pull it off. The point is: don’t go into this just to thumb your nose at your detractors. Do it because it means something to you. No one can take that away from you.
4. Admit What You Don’t Know. Then Find Out. I humbled myself really quickly on the altar of What I Didn’t Have a Clue About. I spent some time thinking about the huge nature of that which I didn’t know. And I admitted my prejudices, painful as it was. Admitted that often I think about America as the Land of the Farce and the Home of McDonalds. That sometimes I get really angry with men for being selfish, uncommitted, sexist pigs. That maybe I exoticised gay men and indulged in generic stereotypes. Writing’s a funny thing: it shows you up, it reveals the things that you believe, in spite of yourself. If somewhere in the back of your brain you feel oh-so-guilty about all the stuff that white folks have done to black folks, chances are, you’ll write one dimensional, goody-two-shoes black characters who are always wise and wonderful. And that’s just not true. Or if you think, at the bottom of your heart, that two women together is just the sexiest thing in the world, chances are any scene you write involving these hapless women will operate simply to turn YOU on, and any gay woman worth her salt will feel icky when they read the thing. Or if you’re writing this book to prove that men are bastards, we’re going to see that agenda. Black people are more than some amorphous mass of creativity. Gay women aren’t all lipstick lesbians. Men can be really gentle, and sweet, and strong, and there are plenty of them you can take home to mother. So tell yourself the truth, and don’t beat yourself up for it. Tell the truth, then let it go…or more specifically, do some research…
(a) Finding Out 1: History
Don’t just think you know. READ. Give your work a historical context. Reading history contextualises everything. It makes the work authentic. Don’t just read the ‘easy’ history either. Scrounge around for ‘alternative’ histories. There are history books, then there are accounts of tales untold. Don’t take for granted that everything in history books is ‘true’. I just read a historical account of slavery that insisted slavery was abolished because British people started feeling bad. Sure, Brits started feeling bad. Many of them fought tooth and nail to free slaves. But I also know that the sugar trade, the primary reason slaves were kept a-working, was becoming economically unviable. I also know that slaves spent hundreds of years attempting to free themselves, and that their defiance was also a factor. I started my research for Orange Laughter by just reading American history. Widely. The thing was eventually based in North Carolina and New York. But you better believe that by the time I was done I knew about the Depression and the founding fathers and the South-North divide and…well, as much as I could.
(b) Finding Out 2: Autobiography
Autobiographical writing is a gift. When you get sick of reading the dry history, the best remedy is to go read real people’s voices, accounts of real lives, with all their subjectivity and specificity and detail. If you were born without a vagina, read about what people with vaginas say about vaginas. Reading autobiography taught me that one of my characters could actually teach mathematics in university in the sixties, even though she was black and female. I found out how to bake bread on a gas stove; what the inside of a Southern church looked like in 1932; exactly how to soak a rope in salt water so that it hurts a 12 year old kid when you hit him with it, and how that kid might feel when he got hit; what herbs to give a woman who’s just had a premature baby. Remember, you’re looking for specifics.
(c) Finding Out 3: Go There.
OK, the title lied. Of course I went there!! If you’re writing about a place you’ve never been, there’s nothing like going. The rewards are tremendous. But my advice would be not to go until you know what you need to find out. By the time I spent two weeks in North Carolina and two weeks in New York I knew I was going to both places because it made historical and practical sense to base my story there. Organise yourself in advance. Know what questions you need answered. Make a list of the places that you need to go and how to get there. Make contacts with people before you get there and ask them for some time. Contact church sisters, community groups, the local politician, librarians, the police, youth groups. People love novelists, so make sure you tell them what you’re doing. Identify the libraries that specialise in your subject area. Walk around watching, eavesdropping, noticing, always with a notebook. Look for details. The colours and sounds and textures and tastes. I sat by rivers and tasted them, examined walls and carpets in nasty motels, hitched rides and stayed in strange people’s houses, had to flee a KKK bar, ran my hand across church bricks, finally realised that grits are NOT like ribs (for some reason years of reading American fiction had given me the impression grits were meat) but actually like porridge…(god, that would have been embarrassing – this is the gift of research – you also find out about things you didn’t KNOW you were ignorant about…). Cameras are good as well. You can’t rely on your memory for everything.
(d) Finding Out 4: Interviewing
Books are about people, so talk to people. You’d be surprised at how accommodating people are. Don’t be embarrassed. Ask honest, respectful questions. Do your research before you talk to them, so that they don’t waste a lot of time explaining the kind of information you can get in the library. If you already know something about how a plane works, you can concentrate on getting them to talk details and feelings, which as we’ve already said, is the life-blood of fiction. Be politely stubborn. Sometimes people will be difficult. I had to bat my eyelashes at a LOT of New York policemen to get them to take me into subway tunnels and tell me about the lives of the homeless people living there. The police were being resistant because their head honcho, one Lt. Reynolds, had been interviewed by crime writer Patricia Cornwell the year before, who, according to him, then ignored all the info he’d given her. Not that she didn’t have the right to poetic licence, of course. But I think he was a little hurt – and I wouldn’t have gotten anything out of the man if I hadn’t hung around his office finding out how miffed he was before I went in to see him.
Find people like your characters and turn the tape recorder on. Eavesdrop – not all exchanges are consensual! Use interviews as an opportunity to find out if the things you’re writing make sense. I realised very quickly that a lot of the stuff in my first draft was laughable.
Me: Would a rural black woman be able to adopt white children in 1930s North Carolina?
Venerable Old Man Born in the Thirties: Nope.
Me: She isn’t doing it officially. They’re kind of abandoned kids…
Me (desperately): But anything is possible, right?
VOMBITT: Nope. Girl, you know anything about North Ca’lina?
Me: Nope. (planning immediate plot change)
Me: Could a black kid and a white kid be really close friends in the 60’s?
VOMBITT: Until what age?
VOMBITT: Are they a black boy and a white girl?
Me: No. Boys. Why?
VOMBITT: Cause if they was, they woulda cut that right out by the time they got to eight.
Me: (phew…I can keep that in)
Me: Are grits meat?
VOMBITT: (laughs so hard he nearly chokes)
( I let him take me for breakfast so I can taste the damn stuff…)
5. Finish By Doing Writer Things. Do be careful that you don’t get obsessed with research, which can be a way to avoid the actual writing, not to mention the edit process. When you’ve researched and drafted, re-draft. Check narrative for drive; characters for consistency and motivation; plots for clumsy coincidence; language for over-writing, show-off exercises that compromise clarity; shoddy punctuation – all the things that make the difference between a work with promise and a fully-realised novel. Then ask somebody. Take it to good editors, to objective friends, to teachers. Take it back to the women and men who helped you research it in the first place. Give them freebies. Get their blessing. Just cause it feels good.
Real Letter from Lt. Reynolds:
You got it right. Not like Patricia Cornwell. I guess some writers are OK. You can come back anytime.