Where do you get your ideas for a story? If the story needs research to develop them, do you do it before you start writing or while you are writing?
—Diane Craig, Lakeville, Minnesota
The simplest answer to your first question, Diane, is that story ideas often seem just to arrive. I suddenly have a first line for something. This has happened quite often, probably most of the time. Or, in somewhat more complicated cases, there’s an environmental cue or a conjunction of a bunch of different ideas at the back of my mind that suggests a story is waiting to emerge.
Here’s an example of what I mean in the second case. I used to be afraid of the water. After years of taking my kids to swimming practices and going to swim meets, I hadn’t gotten over that nervousness. When my son graduated from high school, he told me it was time I learned how to really swim. I was dubious, but we got in the pool. After a while, without telling me what he was going to do, he grasped me in some sort of lifeguard hold and towed me the whole length of the pool. We were flying. It was absolutely exhilarating. I knew I needed to be able to re-create that sense for myself and so I started swimming lessons and became a regular, absolutely hooked lap swimmer.
During that time, I was also aware of a lot of personal stories of women with fertility problems. I didn’t connect the two things until one day when I was swimming after a particularly tiring day of teaching and I realized how restorative it was. I remember thinking there was a story lurking in all of this that had something to do with the experience of grief, the physical response to it, and the possibility of catharsis. The story wasn’t really there for me until I suddenly had the image of a woman who was desperate for a child and whose husband was dying. Once I had that image, I was off to the races with “Swimming,” one of the stories in Watching Oksana. People who’ve read it might remember the moment when Tri, the lifeguard, tows Nora down the pool. I also borrowed some of my other experiences in learning to swim for the story.
“Swimming” was one of many stories that needed some research along the way. In its case, it was actually a little dicey and most of the research came after I had a pretty well revised first draft of the story. I had a consultation with the writer Lorrie Moore as part of a Loft program in Minneapolis. She’d read that draft and had some comments on it, the main one that the story was missing a scene. I asked what and she said the scene where the dying man and his wife have sex. That brought me up a little short. She then went on to say it was needed both to make the story complete and also to take the reader somewhere new. I told her it would also be taking the writer somewhere she hadn’t been, but Lorrie had no sympathy. She said something like Emily, that’s what writers get hired to do.
This left me contemplating mechanical issues related to illness that I was pretty clueless about. I needed more information than I had so I did two things that were equally embarrassing. I asked the surgeon who’d done a biopsy (benign) on me how he answered questions for terminally ill cancer patients who asked about sex. He looked blank. But the next thing I knew, he’d done his own research and gave me copies of a couple of medical journal articles he’d found. As it was still in the days before you could find the answer to pretty much any question on the Internet, I also headed off to the library and looked for every book I thought might be useful. There was something about the way the library checkout line was arranged that meant I had to leave all my books in a pile in one place and get in line somewhere else. The next thing I knew, the checkout librarian was reading off the names of all those books and asking who was checking them out. I don’t remember why this was necessary, or if it actually was, but there were definitely a lot of people watching me go up to claim my books. This is just the sort of sacrifice required of writers (!), though I should add that the revised version of “Swimming” with the added scene was the work sample that won my NEA fellowship.
I guess I couldn’t resist telling that story, but it does illustrate how the research question can surface at any point in a story’s creation. Obviously, in writing a big historical novel like Suite Harmonic, a lot of research had to precede almost all of the writing. I had to know what it was I was putting together. I did write a prologue and first chapter, neither of which is in the finished book, before I’d done any but the most preliminary research, and I did that to give me a sense of the tone and of the place I was trying to create. But I very quickly realized I was writing blind until I could fill in the historical record, which had demands that kept expanding and expanding. Even so, once the initial years of research were done and I began writing in earnest, more research questions emerged. Some of them resulted from my writing a scene based on John Given’s letters and realizing that its logical progression required more information than I had, which sent me scrambling again for more research answers.
I also decided fairly late in the game that I wanted to dramatize John’s experience in combat in the eastern theater, that it was necessary to bring the story full circle to John the veteran soldier who’d replaced the green soldier of the book’s early chapters. I started hunting anew and spent a lot of time, in particular looking for the Irish names in the regiments John was connected with and then exploring in those soldiers’ records and pension files. And, of course, I had to learn all about the battles and skirmishes that were part of the closing days of the war on the eastern front—the Siege of Petersburg and the final surrender of Lee at Appomattox. I also didn’t stop hunting for genealogical ties that would flesh out the Given family stories until after I’d finished writing the book. So the research for Suite Harmonic both preceded its writing and accompanied it. It was even the case that I kept referring to records as I wrote the battle scenes to make sure I was getting the action as accurate as I possibly could. It was actually sometimes hard to know in working on that book where the efforts of research and writing diverged.
In general, there’s probably not a story I’ve written that hasn’t required some degree of research along the way, whether it’s checking on minor facts, or learning the terms a given character might use, or just verifying things—say, by walking down to a fence to check exactly what a clicking fencer sounds like or using a fencing tool to internalize what clipping barbed wire to a stake actually feels like. Or maybe a story requires exploring car ads to find out what model car might best suit a man in a mid-life crisis, such as the one Jefferson Shalli experiences in “Moving,” another Oksana story. I could find unlimited examples from stories that required research at some point along the way. So I guess the main answer to when the research gets done is this: you do research whenever a story requires it.