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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  1. I try even in fictitious settings to have as much accuracy as possible. If it's in the SE corner of a state, I want to be sure crops, etc. were in that area at that time. And historic details are really important to me. You've done some amazing research, Donn, because your books def ring true.

  2. Research is my favorite part of writing, so much so, I sometimes don't know when to stop. Thanks so much for your fascinating stories and taking the time to make sure the details are correct. Loved Deadly Additive. :)

  3. Thanks for the article, Donn. Also, thank goodness for the many images on the Internet. When doing research, often a picture is truly worth a 1000 words and they keep me from having to store those 1000 words on my laptop. Some of our research appears to overlap. I'm using the Hezbollah-Nicaragua connection you mentioned in a story I'm currently writing.

  4. I love research and do much more of it now than I did when I was trying to write mystery/thrillers. Back then I found out the hard way that watching Law and Order does not constitute "research."

  5. Research is a fav thing of mine, but it gets hectic at times keeping track of everything. Even now doing edits and getting ready for the release of my novel, The Redemption of Caralynne Hayman, I changed a few things after checking with a lawyer who also happens to be a cp. Research is vital. Great post, Donn. Certainly enjoyed it.

  6. Researching is one of the best parts of writing. I love having the internet, too. What an amazing thing to be able to see a country from across the miles. I've discovered so many wonderful treasures while researching--it's quite addictive. Great post! You mad me curious about The Long Walk, too.

  7. Thank you for a most informative and entertaining post, Donn! As one who loves research, I would echo Angie's comment about knowing when to stop. I especially appreciated your injunction to check for accuracy. Once I wrote a story in which I included a particular kind of animal. Thanks to an astute writing mentor, I was spared embarrassment when I learned that the animal I'd used in my story does not exist in the geographical setting of my story. Accuracy in research keeps the reader in the fictive dream, something we all must ensure as novelists.

    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
    Truth through Fiction ®
    Harbourlight Books-2012

  8. Don, just alike always, your thoughtful works were a pleasure to read. I really should do that more often. Your blog site is first class.

  9. Thank you Linda, Angie, and Linda. Happy researches to all!