Research is one of my favorite things about writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. It’s kind of like starting out on a trip and stopping at a historic site that looks interesting. Turns out, one of the best restaurants ever is just two miles back that way, toward town, and they also have the cleanest restrooms you’ve ever used. After dinner (that’s lunch for you Yankees), you have to check out the cool shops in the next town over, and while you’re there, you hear about the best scenic views anyone has ever beheld, just ten miles in the opposite direction of where you need to be headed.
Hours later, it’s getting dark, and you realize you’re actually further away from your destination than you were eight hours ago when you stopped at that really cool looking historical site. You’ve seen some great stuff, snapped a few awesome selfies, wowed family and friends with the greatest Facebook posts anyone has ever seen, come up with ideas for four short stories and a new book, blown up Twitter, and mentally stored away enough blog material to keep you posting for weeks. But, you’ve dawdled long enough to add an entire day to your journey.
The research for Cropper’s sequel (its working title is Cropper’s Daughter) is nearly at a point I can start writing. As part of the process, I got to spend some time with my great-aunt while I was back home in South Carolina last month. She’s in her nineties and more active than I am. She was gracious enough to share stories of her time at Limestone College during the early 1940’s. She also had pictures, programs, letters, and other memories of a time long gone. Societal rules were clear. Expectations were to be met with appropriate behaviors, not excuses.
Much of that world is foreign to us today. It seems harsh, narrow-minded, and even cruel to our more modern sensibilities. Many of us are quick to pass judgement on a society long gone without ever taking the time to understand its people. What made them who they were? How was life different for them than it is for us? What were their hopes, their fears, their limitations? What made them see the world as they did? When we know the answers to those questions, we know a lot more about ourselves. Those people shaped us. Whether directly, or by shaping the people who shaped us, or shaping the people who shaped the people who shaped us. As enlightened as so many feel today when they denigrate our past generations, they forget that those people are us.
That’s what makes research so important. The image can’t be clear and sharp without a firm grasp of the details. Facts are important, but the details tell the story. It’s a fact that social standards were different in the Deep South of the early and mid-Twentieth Century. The details show us why, and they give us a foundation to build our mental pictures on. Without the details, facts become opinion, and the story becomes not an accurate portrayal of a society within a fictional world, but a miasma of the writer’s perceptions and opinions. That’s not always bad. Sometimes it makes for great reading. But it teaches us how the writer sees the world, and while that’s comfortable, that’s not what makes a great piece of writing.
The great ones make us look at ourselves, especially when we don’t want to. We keep turning pages, unable to take our gaze from the mirror even as the image we dread sharpens into focus. We turn the pages faster and faster, wanting to see what happens, wanting to be through with it. And then, just like the kid who screamed through the entire roller coaster ride, we stand up, stretch, and think, “Cool! I want to do it again.”