Where the Sidewalk Ends

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about research and what happens when the concrete information dries up, when reality has to give way to imagination.

As a writer that’s maybe the best moment. I have to leap and hopefully soar within the story because there is no other choice. It’s also a critical moment in the life of the story. Research can be seductive. I remember talking with a coworker a few years ago, and she described this novel she was working on. In loving detail she described the research she’d done on Victorian women. But when pressed to discuss her book and what her Victorian women were up to, she was at a loss. She’d gotten so deep into the fact of the thing, as my old college poetry professor would say, that there was no creative spark left.

I’m taking a break from my fantasy novel to work on some short fiction. Honestly I wanted to practice writing in third person limited point of view (my novel is first person) and short fiction has been the perfect medium to do that. My short fiction is set in contemporary times and although it is certainly speculative, that means I need to know what happened when. Some of what I need to know is pedestrian: what day of the week did such and such actually take place? Or has a blizzard ever cancelled the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade? (That’s just a hypothetical example — no Thanksgiving day parades have been harmed in my fiction.)

Of course even within the realm of fantasy, research has its place. I might need to look up how swords are forged or the various bridles that are used on horses. And I do my best to keep from going down a rabbit hole during the research…..  Which is not to say that rabbit holes don’t have their place! The best ideas sometimes come from research.

At the moment I’m trying to wrap my head around the scholarship concerning granting whales and other cetaceans rights of personhood. I need to grok the information so that my characters can breezily discuss it. I need to understand where it stands now so that I can make a plausible alternate universe where cetaceans do indeed have rights. It has to flow and feel inevitable to the reader.

If I can find the seed or foundation for (in this case) cetacean rights, I can insert it into my story and grow it organically in the service of the story. What that means though is I’m alternately skimming news articles that all rehash the same information, down to the sound bites, and trying to read and understand technical legal processes or philosophical arguments around this issue.

I could spend years trying to understand it all. But I’ve given myself a deadline of Sunday. So that means that I’ll take a spoonful of a PETA sound bite and a pinch of a court case about whales and Navy sonar, add a cup of amazing stories about how freaking smart cetaceans are, mix that with my alternate world and bake up a little short story (just to finish the extended metaphor). If I miss some important legal process or oversimplify the scientific research, who cares? It’s called speculative fiction for a reason. The bottom line for me as a writer is that I get enough truth in there to allow the story to at least skirt the edges of plausibility.


One thought on “Where the Sidewalk Ends

  1. You bring up an interesting issue for writers. In my own research for fiction, I have tended to fall down those fascinating rabbit holes for weeks on end! I don’t regret those excursions, other than the time suck they created.

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