Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Brian Meehl: RESEARCH (AKA, MUSE LITE)


To All Writers Who Have Yet To Find Their Muse:

Do not despair, you have research! To make an academic, homework-sounding, drudge of a word be as sexy as it can be, let us rename research, Muse Lite.

How can research be museish, inspirational? Well, to throw down another metaphor, if storytelling is a tango between the imagined and information, then imagination’s partner can be very sexy indeed.

A quick example. Do you know about the Spear of Destiny? The Spear of Destiny is the spear supposedly wielded by the Roman centurion who used it to pierce Christ’s side on the cross. Legend has it that whoever holds the Spear can attain world domination. Hitler stole the alleged Spear out of a museum in Vienna when he invaded Austria. He had it in his bunker at the end of the war, and it is believed that General Eisenhower removed it to a subbasement in the Pentagon. Legend also says that when the Spear of Destiny returns to the Holy Land the end of the world will begin.

In my first novel, this information became inspiration for the Plunger of Destiny (as in toilet), and the Plunger’s return to a small town in Kansas, which signaled the beginning of the town’s apocalyptic destruction.

This arcane bit of information about the Spear of Destiny is what we might consider innate research: stuff we pick up somewhere along the way that’s rattling around in our mental drawer just waiting to be put to use, if not in a book then at least in a bar to impress a date.

Which brings me to the notion that research comes in various modes:
Innate
Passive
Active

Innate research you already know (literally): your mental dust bunnies just waiting to be swept off their idle feet and put to good use. This innate knowledge can range from the informational to the emotional.

Passive research is the great bustling present/future world of info and experience that streams your way by accident, coincidence, serendipity, synchronicity, etc. A human being (noun) being (verb) is a walking lint brush passing over the sweater of life.
An example: I’m researching in a small county museum; I make a monetary contribution to the gray-haired curator who escorted me through the rooms; she accepts it and exclaims: “Well bless your heart and half your gizzard.” Bingo, a passive research bonanza.
Eavesdropping: passive research. Dreams: passive research (sometimes muse-dark) Getting dumped by the love of your life: passive research.

Active research is information/experience that you seek out. I know a writer who calls it Lewis & Clarking (which also could define plowing through to the end of a draft). My most recent example of mega-active research was getting in a camper and doing a back roads trek following the Oregon Trail from Independence, MO to Portland, OR. I was attempting to replicate a runaway boy’s quest in search of his father.

Which brings me to one of my pet peeves about a “rule” of writing. “Write what you know.” In a word, bullshit. Yeah-yeah, there’s some truth to writing about what you know emotionally, but if Write What You Know was a worthy commandment, the act and art of research would be as valuable to a writer as his/her appendix.

I prefer, Write About What You Don’t Know Yet. It’s why we do research. Write about what fascinates you, fires your curiosity, what makes you want to know more. Write about whatever will sustain you through hours of research and hundreds of hours drafting and redrafting.

Because of the internet we live in the Golden Age of Research. If you want to visit a toilet museum in India, you can. If you need skateboard slang, you’ll find it on the net. “Let your fingers do the walking” has never been truer.

That said, a major caveat. When doing your research, don’t get snared by the internet. Here’s my list of old-fashioned research to-dos:

1. Step away from your desk; get your boots on the ground you’re writing about; go venturing with your muse. Interview people, visit neighborhoods, poke around museums. Don’t just see the scene, smell it.

2. My first language is English...so is my second. Think of your native tongue as a language you’re still learning. As you listen, eavesdrop, read, keep a notebook of words/phrases that give you better descriptors than you have in your vocabulary. Here’s a few I’ve collected recently: wheedled, doofy, scriptoria.

3. Read your genre. Whatever genre you write, read-research as much of it as you can. Know how other authors are succeeding or screwing up.

4. I read dead people. If you’re doing period writing, read travel diaries/books from the time and place. They’re filled with detailed descriptions and period language. Dead men do tell tales.

5. Dictionaries are fiction-functionaries. Besides a dictionary and thesaurus, no writer’s pod is complete without a visual dictionary, a reverse dictionary, and a slang dictionary. If you’re not aware of these linguistic treasures do some research.

6. Disappearing down the research hole. It can happen. If you’re a research-aholic, like me, at some point you need to say, “Okay, it’s time I started writing about all this cool stuff I just learned! And yes, if you’re oozing information, first drafts can read like research documents. Don’t despair, the Good Lord invented rewriting to cure the recovering researcher. Always remember, research is pre-search.

Perhaps the greatest answer to “Write what you know,” is William Goldman’s famous line, “Nobody knows anything.” It’s a fun little paradox that can only be solved by knowing something you didn’t previously know.

Your job as a writer-researcher-writer is to go forth, find something out, and report back to us.

So be off, indulge yourself in a tango with Muse Lite.

Dancing on,

Brian Meehl

5 comments:

  1. I've taken so many excellent quotes away from this post. Excellent quotes that will keep me chugging along.

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  2. love dust bunny d sweater of life analogies. Thx for tips.

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  3. I love hearing where the idea for Out of Patience came from ... that book has been a big hit in my classroom and was voted favorite pick of our book projects. Because it won, the students created a commercial for it that we aired to the whole school, encouraging people to check it out at the library. I can't wait to share this blog with my students!

    And I do love your proactive approach to research ... inspiration for writing comes at different times, in different places, and in so many different forms. If we don't go out and experience life, how will we ever find new things to write about? :)

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  4. Brian, I read this with delight. David McCullough calls research, "marinating your head". I guess life itself involves all three: innate, passive and active. What goes in will, eventually, ooze out. It will inspire us. The writer's task is to put it in the right places at the right times in the right ways. Or something like that.

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  5. Disappearing down a research hole is all too easy. Words will suck me into a research vortex in a heartbeat. For a book I'm story boarding now I needed some information on the Tuatha de Danaan. (I won't even admit how long it took me how to spell Tuatha de Danaan.) Along the way I had to get really strict or I would have spent the rest of the week wandering down the corridors of research and nothing on the Tuatha de Danaan to show for it.

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