Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Number One Best Way to Procrastinate. Ever.

This week, as I was perusing my blog (yes, I sometimes reread my own posts. After I've published them. Navel-gazing, what?), I realized that I've drifted a wee bit from my stated purpose, which is to provide an inside look into the process of writing a novel. Now, this is understandable, and I did warn you at the very beginning that I might stray from time to time, but it's time to get back to the main road. The novel-process road, anyway. 

Also, I wrote that purpose down at the very top of the blog, under my header picture, in big bold letters. It's like having a small elf standing on my shoulder and continuously yelling at me to get my butt back in gear.

So. A couple of weeks ago, while expounding on the pantsing vs. plotting writing styles, I made a nice, neat little outline of my process, because I outline everything. (No, really, I do. Including my insecurities.) And as I was doing that, and linking each item back to a post I'd written, I found a big, gaping hole in the very beginning: research.

Now, I imagine that different writers feel very differently about research, so I can only speak for myself when I say that I FREAKING LOVE IT. Call me a dork, but I'm laughing all the way to the bank. Er, the computer. Researching is a time-honored, perfectly acceptable, even necessary method of procrastination. See, you need to research; it's essential for a rich, believable, interesting story, so when you're doing it, you're working. Except, you're not writing. You're avoiding that. See how that works? Genius.

When I was working on Cloudland, I had a few areas that I knew I'd need to research. As I am not a) a public school social worker (like Sara), b) a child psychologist, or c) an expert on children's grief and grieving, I knew right away that I'd need to find out just a little bit more about all three subjects.

First: social work. I started by interviewing a grade school guidance counselor, which was the right age group but the wrong job, but close enough to a school social worker that it was very relevant. Then, I interviewed a high school social worker - the right job but the wrong age. Between the two of them, plus some research and reading of my own into social work in public schools, I got a wealth of information about their jobs, their training, their methods, expectations and daily work, and much more, and was able to piece together what the life and job of a grade school social worker might be like. I am very, very grateful to both women for their time and help. (And yes, I would have loved to interview an actual grade school social worker, but for a variety of reasons I couldn't easily find one. So I improvised.)

Second: child psychology. Maybe this seems strange, since I wasn't writing a book about the way a child's mind develops. But one of my main characters, Jake, is a six-year-old boy, and I needed some insight into how a six-year-old perceives the world. How does a first grader see and understand his parents? Religion? God? Death? I spoke at length with the guidance counselor about these topics. Then I read some work by Jean Piaget and other renowned child psychologists, until I thought my head might explode, which took about ten minutes. Tops. 

Luckily, my wife teaches first and second grade. Jackpot! She rescued me from dense, dry psychology books and gave me a bunch of articles, plus her own extensive knowledge. I then found a few helpful books at the Boston Public Library, including one absolute goldmine called The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles, which is a fascinating and moving look into how children from different cultures perceive God. It was beyond helpful; it was inspiring. It gave me huge insight into Jake's character and provided the basis for the opening chapters, as well as the thinking behind Jake's decision to try to find his mom. 

Third: how a child grieves, which is wrapped up in how a child understands death. This one was difficult, but again, I spoke with my wife and the guidance counselor, I read books from the library, and finally, best of all, I read through a folder my wife gave me, which contained resources and information for teachers of young kids to use when someone in their class had suffered a loss.

This all took a very long time, as you might imagine. Again, that's part of the glorious procrastinating power of research! In all seriousness, though, besides the enormous insights you get, one of the best parts of researching is when you stumble across an idea, or a piece of information, that captures your imagination and beckons you to follow it. When you listen, and walk down the path that idea offers, it can often lead to surprising, inspiring, and even revelatory changes to the story. During the process of my research, I stumbled on some information about djinn, or genies, as well as the Mexican holiday El Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Both of these ideas helped to shape Cloudland in unexpected ways. 

How?

Well, gee. You might have to wait until it's published to find out.

Which might be a while. Sorry about that. 

14 comments:

  1. It's not really procrasinating. Research is not only fun, but it is essential. To drink in the era of which you write will make your words live it. The same goes for whatever subject about which you write: the more you know, the easier will your take on the characters be. At least that is what Hemingway thought. And who am I to argue with him? His ghost gets feisty when I do! :-)

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    1. I completely agree. Which is part of why it's such a great way to procrastinate, right? ;) And the more I know, the more HUMAN my characters are.

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  2. I'll do you one better. Set your novel in a country you've never been to before. Then make plans to travel there to do research. It will set you back a good six months on the writing just from all the distraction and excitement. :P

    But, yeah, I love doing research for the novels. You never know what obscure fact you'll dig up that will explode with meaning within the story. I love that.

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    1. I was thinking of your blog when I wrote that bit; I remembered that you had pointed out those amazing moments of revelation while researching!

      Different country... what an intriguing idea. I'll just have to come up with an novel that's set in the US Virgin Islands... ;)

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  3. It's easy to get lost down bunny trails when doing research, but it can be fun. :)

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    1. Bunny trails - sometimes black diamonds! ;)

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  4. Day of the Dead sounds so fun - my kids get to celebrate it every year in Spanish class.

    I totally agree that it's wicked fun when a bit of research gets the imagination going - excellent things result. :)

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    1. It's a really cool holiday; at least, it seems that way to me, the outsider! There used to be a great community celebration of it in my neighborhood, which was part of the inspiration, too.

      Thanks for coming by!

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  5. I learned all kinds of interesting things when researching my scifi novel. The problem is when you follow some tangent that's fascinating but completely irrelevant to your story.

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    1. YES. Fair point. I've definitely done that. I have a whole big chunks of research I've never used. I keep hoping they'll show up in another project...

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  6. See, for me research is a love-hate thing. I can get sucked down the rabbit hole SO DEEP that it is hard to get back out... and then I seem unable to NOT include all that great information in the book I'm writing... I am MUCH better off writing without and then researching after the plot is set. Yes, I need to rewrite sometimes, but the other option is WAY too many tangents in the story.

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    1. HA. I love the rabbit hole metaphor, Alice ;) I hear you - procrastination is great, but distraction is the worst. I mean, it feels nice to be distracted at the time, until you realize hours have gone by and you have gotten absolutely nothing done. Oooops...

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  7. RESEARCH! Actually, I can get soooooooooo caught up in the research process it's not even funny. It reminds me of doing papers and such for school. I'd sit at the desk and pull out one of the encyclopedias we had (you remember those). I'd open the pages and begin flipping through the alphabetical listings to get to my section, but get caught up reading...and more reading...and more reading.

    Little did I know I was actually learning, as well.

    Most of my research isn't used in my story because I over-research everything, but it's kept locked up in the memory banks for later.

    Great post, Liz!

    M.L. Swift, Writer

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    1. Encyclopedias? I thought those were just a myth! ;) Oh yes, I remember them, too. We had two whole sets in my house growing up - one for kids, and then the main Encyclopedia Britannica. My brother used to do the same thing you did, Mike. He'd read, and read, and read...

      Which is probably part of why he has a treasure trove of trivia (totally unintended alliteration, there!) and information in his head, and I... well, let's just say my brain often feels more like a sieve than a bucket. I'm guessing that you, like him, have a rich foundation of learning to draw on. And that is really cool.

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