Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Coert: The Writer on the Factory Floor

One of the best things about being writers is that we often have no choice but to become experts in fields that might never have otherwise interested us. If a character turns out to be a gun owner, we have to convince someone to teach us how to shoot. If the character runs a restaurant, we need to learn how to cook all the dishes on the menu. If the character needs to pick a lock, we need to download how-to manuals off the Internet, buy practice locks from the hardware store, and drive ourselves insane trying to figure out how to keep the damn torque wrench steady enough while we nudge each of the pins above the shear line. For example.

Research is vital to my work because I’ve discovered that I like to build scenes—especially the important ones—by using processes as a structure. If my readers can learn about dove hunting or theatrical make-up application at the same time as they learn about the lives of the characters, it makes the scene more interesting. As significant, it’s easy to camouflage essential plot information or emotional revelations if the reader’s attention is focused on, say, the various types of wine racks on display at a regional trade show.

Research has obviously become easier with the Internet, and with sites like YouTube providing visuals in movement, it can be easy to convince ourselves that the information at our fingertips is enough. But just because it’s easy and pretty good doesn’t mean that we should become complacent. Over the course of researching for various novels and short stories, the best thing for my fiction has always come through primary research on the ground. People enjoy talking about themselves (as this post can certainly attest). When they think someone has taken a legitimate interest in their lives—You’re writing about what I do?—it can almost be impossible to shut them up.

For a while, I thought that a character of mine needed to access a safe deposit box, but my only experience with safe deposit boxes came from heist movies. I wanted my own version of the details, so I went to my local bank and asked if someone might help me, a fiction writer, represent the process accurately. The next morning, I spent an hour with a bank manager as he walked me through every step. He introduced me to the deposit box manager; he showed me the vault—yes, a vault, with steel bars and a big circular door that was locked every night and surprisingly threadbare green carpeting. He walked me through the sign-in procedure, let me pull out a box so I could feel the heft. I saw the scrapes on the walls where years of careless box-handling had gouged the wood. At the end of our meeting, he gave me his card and told me not to hesitate to call him if I had any more questions.

Incidentally, I can’t imagine another scenario in which a bank manager would want anything to do with me. I still haven’t mustered up the courage to let him know that the safe deposit box chapters had to be cut.

But while initial research is certainly helpful, I don’t believe that research should be simply a matter of gathering information before sitting down to write. I’ve found that the most helpful aspect of research can often be finding out how wrong my initial attempts are.

In my latest manuscript, my main character, Jason, is the son of a chicken processing plant owner. Once thought of as a potential heir to the business, Jason has squandered his inheritance and his father’s goodwill. The novel opens with him working the deboning line on the factory floor as his younger brother has assumed the leadership role for which Jason once seemed destined. I knew Jason was dissatisfied with the direction his life was headed, and I knew he felt stuck, and I knew it had been a while since he and his brother had been on friendly terms. What I didn’t know was the environment he worked in, so while I was able to get a pretty detailed idea of what the chicken breast deboning process was—thanks in part to the animal-rights posters on YouTube—I couldn’t put myself in the room.

So, I managed to finagle a tour of a poultry processing plant. A friend of mine works for a restaurant company, and he told the plant manager that I was a new employee and was interested in seeing where the restaurant’s poultry came from. In contrast to my experience with the bank manager, this time I had to pretend that I wasn’t a writer. The people at the plant weren’t interested in having anyone write an exposé, whether it be fiction or not, so I borrowed my friend’s company logo polo shirt and kept my notebook in my back pocket. Did I feel bad about this deception? A little. But my friend needed to see changes in the plant anyway. Even more important, the novel explores how Jason eventually becomes a con artist, so I figured that a little con on my part wouldn’t hurt.

Among the things I learned on my tour: to control bacteria growth, the temperature of a processing plant is federally mandated to be no warmer than 52 degrees. As such, there is a loud and steady drone of cooling fans. There are small forklifts constantly moving product, the USDA quality control guy wears a yellow hardhat, and in rooms where the birds are stored before processing, the temperature is 29 degrees. The floors are slick in places because of an anti-freezing solution.

The line workers don’t wear jumpsuits; they wear white smocks over multiple layers of clothing—hooded sweatshirts, down jackets, etc. They also wear hairnets and, if they have facial hair, thin mesh masks. As a visitor, I also wore the smock and hairnet, although because my tour-mates and I had come from the scalding Houston summer outside, by the time we’d spent an hour on the floor, we were all freezing. Our noses were bright red, our toes were numb, and I kept my hands under my armpits for warmth.

Some of the details that my first-draft mind pushed into the text were just factually incorrect. For instance, during an early scene where Jason’s younger brother pays him a visit on the factory floor, I wanted to show the difference between the two of them. I had Jason wearing a sweaty and blood-stained jumpsuit while his brother was in a tailored pinstriped suit. A number of things are wrong with this scenario, the most obvious (in retrospect) being that there’s no way the factory would exist in temperatures warm enough that anyone would sweat at all, much less actually become sweaty.

After my initial disappointment at having gotten so much wrong, I realized how much better the real facts of the factory were than what I’d come up with after my YouTube research. The sweaty, blood-stained jumpsuit is the type of contrived detail that emerges in a first draft. It was supposed to be meaningful—of course his brother would be well-dressed while he was sweating and gross. But because there was no way a real USDA approved plant would be hot enough for anyone to sweat, I was forced to imagine that someone so used to spending eight hours a day in the 52-degree factory might have trouble acclimatizing to the normal temperatures of the outside world. Now the detail of the factory became thematic, something more to do with his person than with the superficial difference between Jason and his brother.

In addition to the specific details about the plant’s operations—where the birds came from, how many workers on a line, the layout—I was also able to use some other sensory material to build on the thematic difference between the brothers. Because I learned that the cooling fans are everywhere, now when Jason and his brother interact on the floor, there’s nowhere they can go to escape the constant drone, and they have to shout to be heard. It may seem obvious and contrived in summary, but within the flow of the text it comes off as an organic way to show the difficulty the two brothers have in communicating.

As if that weren’t enough, the plant manager also provided me with a line of dialogue that made its way into the manuscript the moment I got home. We were walking by the trimming line, where five men and women trimmed the excess fat from chicken breasts destined for restaurants like my friend’s, and the manager pointed to a man whose knife moved far more quickly than the rest. “See that guy?” the manager said. “He’s so fast he could cut out your heart and show it to you before you hit the ground.”

For the purposes of analogy that I hope becomes clear, please allow me a slight tangent: My wife recently received her MBA, and because she spent six years in the workplace before going back to school, her experience with her coursework was different from that of her classmates who started school straight from undergrad or with limited experience in the business world. For my wife, the material she learned had real-world application. She recognized solutions to problems she’d already encountered, whereas for her younger classmates, the subject matter was purely theoretical.

This is the reason I’m fond of continued research after an initial draft. Some research before a draft is necessary, of course, but when I do follow-up research, I know what problems have already presented themselves, so I can go into the research with my mind already primed.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how to defuse a bomb.


  1. Great essay, Coert!

    My book is not historical or anything but I'm always amazed by how much time I spend researching--for instance, a lot of my book deals with high school debate, which has involved me researching the year's resolution, interviewing a high school debate team, and watching clips of Debate Nationals on U-Tube. Even though I debated in high school, I never "got" it. Now, finally, it's all making sense (fifteen years too late), thanks in large part to the internet.

    As a vegetarian, I can't even imagine what it would have been like to be at that chicken plant. Chills! How brave of you to check that out in person. I am looking forward to reading your book!

  2. Man, I am so behind; I just now got to read this, and I really enjoyed it! I am such a big believer in hands-on research. Not only do those little bits of truth add authenticity- like you pointed out with your shouting, cross-communicating brothers- they inform your characters, too.

    I think it's super funny that a bank manager would be thrilled to let you in the vault, but a chicken plant manager, you have to disguise yourself.

    It says a lot about the way our foods are processed in the United States, doesn't it?

    PS- to defuse the bomb, cut the red wire.

    Or is it the blue one...?

  3. Could this blog be any more useful? Holy smokes. Thank you all for starting it! I started reading last week.

    What a great post about research. It's one of my favorite things to do--I couldn't have written my second novel without it, that's for sure. Sometimes the trick is knowing how much to put in and how much to LEAVE OUT.

  4. Great point, Coert! I spend so much time these days telling students that not all experience happens ONLINE - the idea that they can't get all of their research from youtube or wikipedia needs to be drilled over and over. I'm going to direct them to your blog for real life examples of why. Thanks