The Goldilocks Rule of Research by Gregory Zeigler
In this cycle of February posts, Free Range Partner Pam wrote about what she had learned from her travel. Partner Dave wrote about his writing process. I though it might be interesting in this post to discuss travel and research as a part of the writing process.
My first book, Travels With Max: In search of Steinbeck's America Fifty Years Later (2010) was ... well, a travel memoir. I retraced Steinbeck's journey for his non-fiction work, Travels with Charley. In 1960 Steinbeck drove and camped around America with his dog Charley trying to determine, "What Americans are like today."My 15,000 mile drive accompanied by my dog, Max celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Steinbeck's trip. I blogged while on the trip. The blog became the basis for the outline of my book, and the outline became the foundation of the final work. The journey was obviously chronological. (Flashbacks while driving pulling a camper trailer are generally considered to be bad things.) And the book is mostly chronological. The travel was the book, and the book was the travel. Easy peasy.
I invite you to check out my award winning short film, "Steinbeck Country" on vimeo.com. (Search for Zeigler/Steinbeck Country.)
Cover art for Rare as Earth by Jane Lavino depicting controversial Bears Ears National Monument.
Travel as research for works of fiction becomes a bit more complicated. I think it was Margaret Atwood who when asked how much research she did for her novels, answered, "Only as much as is necessary." An assertion not to be taken lightly. The novel I'm currently in production on, Rare as Earth tackles issues as wide ranging as climate change, fracking, the heavy metals extractive industry, government roll-backs of environmental protections, the reduction of national monuments and the young Greta Thunberg acolytes who are striking school to protest climate injustice. My story opens in central Pennsylvania and concludes in Southern Utah.
I was doing a writer's residency in Pennsylvania at Kiski School when I began my new thriller, so researching that part was easy. Although I wanted to visit Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah where much of the third act action takes place, I was never able to fit in a trip there. But I have camped, hiked and backpacked extensively in that extraordinary area so I relied on my memory, my photographs and Google Earth to fill in the gaps.
I guess the point I am trying to make is, travel to an area where part or all of a novel is set is desirable but not absolutely required. It may be that your time and resources as a writer are better invested elsewhere.
Research of documents—again following the Handmaiden's Tale author's advice—must also only be as much as necessary. I began Rare as Earth with a fairly detailed (for a novel) description of fracking but soon my story moves on to other pressing issues. So whereas in the early stages of the writing I was devouring any information about fracking I could lay my eyes on, in the latter stages I was avoiding it.
Research materials on the subject of fracking that were essential initially became distracting once I had nailed the subject and moved on. And that's the hard part. It takes discipline. Not a virtue I possess in large amounts. I had become interested in fracking and its myriad deleterious impacts on the environment and health so I had to discipline myself to stop researching it so as to attend to other downstream demands of my story.
Call it the Goldilocks Rule of Research. It's important to get the research "just right." And that may or may not include travel to the areas where your story is set.
Jane Lavino's amazing cover for Rare as Earth will feature this wonderful endorsement from author Anne Hillerman.
This ripped-from-the-headlines story of the fight to protect Mother Earth gets extra traction from its setting in the beautiful Utah wilderness. The skillful blend of dialog, action, and fascinating characters makes Rare as Earth a highly entertaining thriller.
Anne Hillerman, New York Times best-selling author.