I used to dread research. Because I associated it primarily with the Panama Canal paper assigned to me by Mrs. Zeganhagen in my ninth grade history class. Hours spent in the library, pulling books of the shelves, leafing through age-spotted pages, jotting down notes on 3x5 cards, fretting over MLA format.
On occasion, I still find myself deep in the stacks. Every story I write is a research project. If I'm writing about war, I read memoirs and novels on the subject, and so do I watch documentaries, read blogs, dig up newspaper and magazine articles, print up photos and artwork and advertisements, anything that might spur my imagination. I've heard that James Michener would read a hundred or more books on Alaska or Texas or Hawaii before he began to write, and though I'm not that obsessive, I immerse myself deeply in research and through it discover history and culture and geography and myth and language that will ultimately give my short story or novel authenticity.
But the research process has become so much more complicated and adventurous than the library. Consider this poem by David Lee, "Loading a Boar."
We were loading a boar, a goddam mean big sonofabitch and he jumped out of the
pickup four times and tore out my stockracks and rooted me in the stomach and I
fell down and he bit John on the knee and he thought it was broken and so did I
and the boar stood over in the far corner of the pen and watched us and John and I
just sat there tired and Jan laughed and brought us a beer and I said, "John it aint
worth it, nothing's going right and I'm feeling half dead and haven't wrote a poem in ages
and I'm ready to quit it all," and John said, "shit, young feller, you aint got
started yet and the reason's cause you trying to do it outside yourself and aint
looking in and if you wanna by god write pomes you gotta write pomes about
what you know and not about the rest and you can write about pigs and that boar
and Jan and you and me and the rest and there aint no way you're gonna quit," and
we drank beer and smoked, all three of us, and finally loaded that mean bastard
and drove home and unloaded him and he bit me again and I went in the house
and got out my paper and pencils and started writing and found out John he was right.
Lee is drawing from that age-old writing maxim: write what you know. But you can flip that on its head and know what you write. Sometimes the research you draw from is accidental (your husband dies, you get drafted, you suffer through chemo or date a sociopath). And sometimes it is intentional. Call this method writing.
You know all about method acting. Christian Bale starved himself, losing more than sixty pounds for his role in The Machinist. Dustin Hoffman famously remained awake for two days to shoot the scene in Marathon Man when Sir Laurence Olivier tortures him with a drill to the mouth. Alfred Hitchcock hurled live birds at Tippi Hedrin's face during the filming of The Birds.
In the same spirit, Hemingway hunted his way through Africa and fished his way through northern Michigan. Sebastian Junger embedded himself with a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan. Susan Orlean mucked through swamps with orchid hunters. I have friends who have visited morgues and prisons and done ride-alongs with cops for material. Maybe Virginia Woolf thought about going to the lighthouse, but I doubt she ever got there or the novel might have ended differently.
I have gone caving for material, climbed trees for material, gone driving off-road for material. I have gone to the gun range to fire an assault rifle and harvest sensory details: the hellish sweet stink of gunfire, the kick of the recoil like a horse's hoof. I have toured a taxidermy studio to clack glass eyeballs in my palm and sniff the formaldehyde and stroke the polyurethane forms.
Red Moon was the most monstrous project I had ever taken on. I realized very quickly how little I knew about the subject matter. One of my characters is the governor of Oregon—and then a presidential candidate. Another works as a government agent. Another is a computer wizard—and another still a medical researcher who specializes in animal-borne pathogens.
I sat down with staff at the USDA, with faculty at Iowa State University. I bought them gallons of coffee and I scribbled my way through a stack of yellow legal tablets. From them I came to understand the slippery science of my subject matter. As I've written it, in the 7th century Scandinavia, as part of a winter solstice ceremony, people slaughter and eat a wolf to take in its power and cunning for the long, dark months ahead. A disease—similar to chronic wasting and mad cow—leaps out of the wolf and into the human population. Fast forward to the present and ten percent of the population is infected with a disease that is like an unleashed id, a wildness that cannot be leashed except with medication. They have been victimized throughout history and nearly decimated during the Crusades, westward expansionism, WWII. They cannot hold certain jobs. They must take an emotionally deadening drug and succumb to monthly blood tests. They are part of a public registry. Of course there is an uprising, and that is where the novel begins.
From my interviews, I came to understand so much about how prions (not viruses, but a protein-based pathogen) inhabit and affect the body and mind, how to apply for grants, how to arrange a lab, how vaccines are developed and how politicized the process is. All together I might have spent forty hours on the phone or across the table from experts who helped me better understand my own material.
I recently moved, and when digging through a box, I discovered an old research paper, written in the sixth grade. The title: Werewolves! In it are many pop references, some shoddy historical chronicling, a sampling of folklore, and then—in conclusion—a ceremony. The ceremony by which one will become a werewolf. I remember, so long ago now, on the night of the full moon, arranging the pentagram in my backyard and saying the words from a book I found in some dark corner of the library. When hair didn't bristle from my skin, fangs didn't press from my gums, I walked back to my house, slump-shouldered, not knowing I was in fact infected.