Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pleasures of Research: Often Unexpected


Donn Taylor

            One of the joys of fiction writing is the research one does to make sure the writing is accurate. Some of this comes through to the reader through settings that have the ring of truth and through avoidance of anachronisms and other errors. But for the writer—or for any other researcher—much of the pleasure comes from things that may not make their way into the completed manuscript. This pleasure comes from discovery of some odd truth one would never have suspected when he began his research. Once in a while, though, such a discovery leads to an entirely new project.

            Such was the case with the journalist Ronald Downing back in the mid-1950s. His London newspaper had him researching the yeti, the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. His research led him to an obscure Polish refugee, living in England, who was said to have actually seen those strange creatures. The first interview revealed a story more remarkable than the yeti, and other interviews over the next year produced an equally remarkable book.
            When the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, the Soviets arrested Slavomir Rawicz, a young lieutenant of Polish cavalry. He was one of the lucky ones. Instead of being summarily executed, he was tried, sentenced, and eventually sent to a Soviet labor camp some 200 miles southwest of Yakutsk, in Siberia. He and six other prisoners escaped from there and walked—yes, walked—south past Lake Baikal, through the Gobi Desert and China, through Tibet into Nepal and eventually into English hands. Several died along the way. And in the Himalayas the survivors did see, in passing, creatures resembling the fabled yeti.

            Thus what had begun for Ronald Downing as one project became an entirely different one, and he told Slavomir Ravicz’ story in a book titled The Long Walk (The Lyons Press, 1956, 1997). It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read, and I revisit it every few years.
            My own adventures in research have been less dramatic, but also filled with unexpected discoveries. For The Lazarus File, a novel of spies and airplanes in Colombia and the Caribbean, I spent hours researching the Colombian terrain and weather. Somewhere in there I stumbled onto the photograph of a lone house on top of a barren hill. The image stayed with me and eventually grew into one of the chief features of my fictional landscape, one that recurred throughout the novel.
            In researching my latest novel, Deadly Additive, I was surprised to learn that during the 1980s, then-communist Nicaragua’s airline was largely owned by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and that Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas were tutored by the Abu Nidal terrorist organization.
            There is also satisfaction in research that prevents embarrassing errors. Some years ago, my critique group had a good laugh over a novel whose protagonist drove west out of Houston, Texas, and found himself immediately in the desert. (Five hundred miles of prairie and Texas Hill Country had apparently disappeared from the earth.) A quick glance at any atlas or encyclopedia would have saved the author that error.

            I came close to making the same kind of error in The Lazarus File. The story told of several detailed flights in the Douglas DC-3 aircraft, one of the most common aircraft used by drug smugglers. I remembered an old movie in which James Stewart looked out the pilot’s window of a DC-3 to see if his gear was down, and I thought that might be a good detail to add. But caution prevailed. I managed to track down a flyable DC-3, talk with the pilot, photograph the instrument panel, and sit in the pilot’s seat. Lo and behold! The landing gear was not visible from the pilot’s seat. That incident also taught me never to use a movie as a research source.
            I’ve been talking about research from a writer’s viewpoint, but anyone can enjoy the pleasures of research, and it doesn’t have to be writing-related. There is a certain satisfaction in just finding facts like, for instance, that Texarkana, Texas, is closer to Chicago than it is to El Paso, or that President John Kennedy’s 1961 use of the term West Berlin with Premier Khrushchev (instead of simply “Berlin”) convinced the Soviet leader he could do as he pleased in East Berlin. And there is satisfaction in learning, while the Soviet archives were actually open, the truth about questions Cold War historians had argued over for years. (See, for example, John Lewis Gaddis’s We Now Know.)
            Research does provide deep pleasure, but superficial research contains a danger voiced long ago by the poet Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

            In our researches, either for writing or for pleasure, let us all drink deeply and avoid the embarrassment caused by shallow draughts.

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