Archive for July, 2012

Full Body Research

July 7, 2012

I’m actually a loyal Law & Order girl, but a few years back I discovered a program called City Confidential. For the most part it’s just another true crime show, but what intrigued me was how it introduces the viewer to the city where the murder/kidnapping/other scandal takes place. I got an overview of the town’s history, its shameful secrets, its pride, its quirky exports, and a nutshell of the collective personality of its residents. By the time the narrator got to who was murdered, I was already anticipating what effect it would have on the town – oh, man, they’re gonna have a riot (or, in another episode, a cover up.)

I loved how different the cities were – one came from a long tradition of Appalachian music, another was built on lumber, a dairy farm town, the raisin capitol of the country, and so on. One city was wealthy and conservative, another a hippie Mecca, another divided between the right wing protestants and the Wicca covens. Grudges, superstitions, old boy loyalties effected the police procedures, jurors, judges, news coverage, and the rumor mill. Everything from sports rivalries to flood damage made the story more poignant. There was no way to separate a city from its history.

Seeing another City Confidential episode recently made me want to make my novel’s “home town” buzz with life. I started thinking about community rivalries and biases, regional slang, holiday traditions, and pet peeves. I thought about successful writers who make their cities come to life like Dennis Lehane in Mystic River or J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, the island community in Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and all of the foster homes in Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.

I love doing traditional research, but sitting in front of a laptop screen or with my head in a book can become isolating. It would be fun to have the time and funding to do what the City Confidential writing staff did and immerse myself in a town, eat in its diners, chat with its town historians. 

And then I realized that I did that very thing every week.

I live in Wilsonville, but I sing with a madrigal group in Sherwood, Oregon. I rehearse there once a week and, at their annual Robin Hood Festival, my choir serenades the knighting ceremony. Sherwoodians who have given back to their community are recognized by being dubbed a “Sir” or “Lady” by the king and surrounded by fair maidens and merry men. The ritual is corny but also touching. A window into what is valued by a group of people. I wasn’t planning to set a story in Sherwood, but it got me thinking again . . .

In Ren garb (R) with fellow Sherwood singer, Debbie Ryan (L).

The best kind of research involves all the senses. I had a rich feel for Sherwood not by reading an article or looking at archival photographs, but by walking through it.  If my novel was set in this town I’d know exactly how this senior couple dressed alike or how that junior high dance team fidgeted before going on stage, the kind of slogans the small business owners printed on sweatshirts, the exact pitch of children’s shrieks coming from the bouncy inflated castle.

Yes, I reaffirmed it for myself, the best kind of research uses your whole body and mind. Great work if you can get it. So go get it! I’ve done some odd things in my life just to see what it felt like (don’t worry, nothing violent or perverse) and it was worth it. I spent a year at the age of fifteen painstakingly learning Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” so that I could feel what it was like to sit down at a piano and really let loose. (It feels great, by the way. I’ve forgotten how to play the song now because eventually I stopped practicing it, but I’ll never forget the sensations.) I took archery at a community college for a semester in my twenties because I wanted to write about a girl who could shoot and needed to feel the bow and arrow in my own hands. I never got very good at it, but I did feel the string pressed to my cheek and hear the tick of the bow arching and the soft thwack when my shaft hit the hay bale (or the turf several feet short) and I felt the pain of accidentally striking myself in the arm when I extended my elbow too far. All part of full-body research.

Other things I have done that I could not have imagined without experiencing them with my whole body: dressing in a toga and playing a small part in a Greek play (the nerves in the dark wings before I went on stage, the warmth of theater make up and lights, the camaraderie of curtain calls choreographed with a line dance – things I missed out on in high school because I did music instead of drama); spending 48 hours making a stop action animated super 8 movie (three and a half minutes of film, moving a lump of clay around a fraction of an inch per frame); snorkeling over a coral reef (rather daring for me since I’m a little claustrophobic about breathing); being the stage hand for a play in which I had to make the sound effect of a light breaking by standing over a crashbox in the wings and hitting a light bulb with a hammer; creating haunting music with a bell choir (swinging the F and G in a gentle dance and feeling their trembling hushed as I dampened them on my shoulders); playing a wench in a pirate reenactment troop, raiding an ale house, holding the punk for the firing of the cannons (wearing a corset, shouting at the top of my lungs, feeling the rattle of the cannon blast in my bones and the smell of black powder smoke.)

You may have a list far more interesting than mine of things you could not comprehend by books or Internet alone. You may have, but I’ve never climbed a mountain or built a table or ridden a motorcycle or hitchhiked through Europe. Possibly you’ve never let a newborn fall asleep in your arms (for me, yes), ridden a horse in a parade (no), walked a dog that doesn’t mind you (for sure yes), knelt in an unfamiliar church (yes, strange), read in a poetry slam (no), ran a marathon (ummm, no), or competed in a sand sculpture contest (that sounds cool).  Think about it. What does your next manuscript call you to try? Whatever I need to do next, I don’t want to do it only with my gray matter – I want to jump into it with all my cells. (Oh, and by the way, my next project will be a YA fairy series and as research I plan to walk to my neighborhood cemetery at midnight on May first, a night known as especially active for the Little People.)

(first published in the Willamette Writers Newsletter in 2011)


July Give-Away

July 6, 2012

The winner of the June Give-Away was Silke from Salzgitter, Germany. The July Give-Away, in honor of the approaching Willamette Writers conference, will be a grab bag of well-loved (as in used) copies of books on writing that have helped me.

Send me your name and physical address via the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website to enter. Good luck to all!