In The Beginning…Research!

I’m going to try to make a case that Dr. Mark Fischer of the College of Mt. St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, is normal, and it’s going to be hard. Working against me is the fact that he’s a brilliant professor of physics. Also a researcher, he teams with eminent colleagues like chemist Dr. Diana Davis and mycologist Dr. Nicholas Money to garner significant grants from the National Science Foundation, which ups his scary-smart quotient. As if all this weren’t bad enough, he plays the trumpet semi-professionally on the side (website: )
On the other hand, he’s funny, generous, affable, and doesn’t talk down to a person who assiduously avoided taking physics in high school knowing she was not smart enough to get it. This person wishes to remain unidentified. Anyway, Mark is married to a nice woman, has two non-dorky children, and he’s popular with students. Yes, on some days his hair does look a bit like a reddish version of Einstein’s, so how about we leave it at this: he’s altogether too brainy, but doesn’t meet any clinical standard for insanity. (Well, maybe when he’s had a spot of scotch with Dr. Money, but is it really fair to count that?)

So why is Mark often miles from his home or office, getting his car stuck in mud off some back road before 6:00 a.m.? Picture him lumbering down an obscure trail clutching a GPS in a patch of woods, searching the hollows for some small camouflaged plastic box under a decomposing log. All so he can pull out a little notebook tucked inside and write his trademark four initials. But here’s his idea of glory hallelujah: If he’s met his goal and beaten others to the spot, he’ll go on to write the code after his initials that will keep him in a great mood all day, FTF. First to Find.

Mark is a geocacher. He collects FTFs. Thirty-nine of his 1635 cache finds in twelve states and six different countries are FTFs. For those readers who know nothing about this subculture, as I didn’t a short while ago, geocaching is a mammoth worldwide game, played outdoors and in public places. Anyone may play, anytime. It’s a combination of “treasure hunting” and orienteering. And for Mark, it’s a passion. A conversation with him at a dinner party gave me the idea for the novel I’m working on now. Geocaching—think of it as treasure hunting—will represent the puzzle of finding the self, and the search for what has been hidden from us. The book will use this puzzle game to represent the human puzzle of our own pasts and our own roots. (Remember that relinquished baby I mentioned in my last post?) I’d better not fudge anything about geocaching or the conceit won’t work, leaving the novel shallow and inauthentic. Mark’s my first resource. A video introduction, reading, talking with geocachers, learning to do it on my own: that’s next.

One thing I know about researching for background, setting and character authenticity is that faking it sounds like faking it. It doesn’t ring true, the difference like hearing a recording in an auditorium instead of live music. The kind of details that capture a place or an activity, are often created simply by using the specific nouns in a specific lexicon. So I need to know if a job my character is doing would use a flathead or a Phillips screwdriver—especially if s/he knows and doesn’t have to learn along the way. Or, instead of mentioning the profuse white flowers on Cape Cod dunes in June, if the character has lived there a while, s/he would likely say beach plums and not confuse them with wild salt spray roses (pink) that might be tangled in with them. Remember how Hemingway eschewed adjectives, going for the strong precise noun? (There’s lots to say about adjectives, but that’s a different story, different post.)

I’ve found it most effective to have intimate knowledge of settings (have lived there if it’s a place, or, visit, take notes and pictures, and be able to identify everything down to the flora and fauna.) If I’m imagining a primary setting, then to create it down to drawing out, say, the floor plan. Place the furniture. Assign colors. Know the pictures on the walls. What’s the feel of the room? Gloomy? Airy? Cluttered? Whether or not an author uses everything s/he knows, it seeps into the writing and informs it.

I’ve found I have to genuinely know a setting, occupation, activity, before I can hear a character’s voice in my head fully and write in his/her point of view, especially a primary character or one engaged in a backdrop activity. I don’t think I ever use all I learn—or already know—but the knowledge infuses the writing voice. A writer doesn’t have to “write what you know”…but we do need to be willing to research deeply before and while we write. It gives us a chance to live some different lives for a while, and that’s something beautiful. To research this novel, I’ll need to become a geocacher.

One Response to In The Beginning…Research!

  1. F T F



    In writing about research, you’ve come full circle to another discussion of the importance of details. (What was it Hemingway said about writing? “The sorrow and remorse, and how the weather was.”) When you got to mentioning the choice of which pictures to put on the wall, it occurred to me that here the writer’s task mirrors the job of a set decorator on a movie crew. Locations and sets are filled with physical details. If an actor touches something, it’s a prop. Everything else is the responsibility of the set decorator. A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to interview classic set decorator Emile Kuri (SPELLBOUND, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA). He stressed that what you put on the walls is much more than mere decor. Everything must serve the higher purpose of telling us something about the character who lives in that dwelling. (One simple example from Kuri’s work: In A PLACE IN THE SUN, young up-and-comer Montgomery Clift glances at the boss’s desk and sees a check for big bucks awaiting the fellow’s signature.) To this day, I kick myself for not asking Mr. Kuri to survey his own living room wall and tell me what it told him about Emile Kuri. The sorrow, the remorse… (It was sunny outside.)

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