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.
Well, gee. You might have to wait until it's published to find out.
Which might be a while. Sorry about that.