Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Creative Scrutiny of Research Part Two: The Reader Asks How Do You Research? Subsection A: Primary Sources (Or, can I travel please?)


 “Since everyone was going to die, he could be of great value, right? He could be research. A human textbook. Study me in my slow and patient demise. Watch what happens to me. Learn with me.” Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

Most of us would probably agree that interviewing or visiting a primary source is the most exciting kind of research and, often, provides the best detail. 

For instance, it’s difficult to describe the ambiance of Los Angeles unless you’ve driven the massively crowded highways or stood looking down at the beach, waves pummeling the sand. 

I have family in Los Angeles, which helps with the research.


Laguna Beach, where I once stayed with some very good friends.
The scent of sea air, the stench of an open market, the decay of dead…anything. All of these I find difficult to describe unless I’ve actually smelled them.

Probably past putrefaction, but the smell clings to the air.


 When I wrote Sweet Karoline, I did the most research of all my books. Anne travels from California to Italy to small town Canada. She delves into her past, where her roots take us into First Nations history. I drew on my previous travels to describe the settings. Reading over my travel diaries, looking at the pictures I took, brought back the emotions from and reactions to the places I'd visited. Because I'd actually experienced these spots, I could write more viscerally.

A lot easier to describe a gondola ride when you've been there.

Since 90% of our communication is through body language, interviewing a subject is infinitely more revealing than reading their report or biography.

"I have impeached myself."

I’ve found that I am very able to get detail and fact from looking at pictures on the Internet or reading travel books or descriptions of people and places. I absorb more of the information this way, because I take the time to learn. I intellectualize. 

What I get from travel or personal interviews is the feeling.  This is where I use my intuition. My large-scale awareness, rather than the minutiae, takes over.

It's better to write about things you feel than about things you know about.
- L. P. Hartley

I can literally close my eyes and picture myself in that place, that situation, sitting beside that person, using every sense. The smell of body odor or fear; the taste of the spice market; the vastness of the sea; the feel of ancient bricks beneath my toes. I am more equipped to pass on that scene to my readers. I am part of that landscape and thus describe it from the inside. That person has been a part of my life somehow, whether for a long or short time, so I can speak with more authority about his/her life. Those places, those characters, are part of my DNA, my subconscious, that place within me from which the words flow through my fingers onto the page.
I have a theory of my own about what the art of the novel is, and how it came into being....It happens because the storyteller's own experience...has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his heart.
- Lady Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
So of course there is a catch. In-person travel or interviewing isn't always possible. It's just too expensive. Not all of us have an expense account, let alone a big one, nor a contract that offers to send you to exotic locations for your next opus.

What to do? Read my next blog, of course.

All my links, books, and other tidbits are conveniently located here: www.catherineastolfo.com

"Research is to see what everybody else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought." Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
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