Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Life and art

Barbara here. In her Monday blog, Aline talked about the pitfalls and joys of research, which can suck hours, even days, out of one's writing schedule. She mentioned the delights of wandering from link to link on the internet, an armchair adventure that can consume an entire morning with ease. As an aside, I confess these armchair adventures can consume entire mornings with ease even when I don't have the excuse of research. Yesterday I managed to restrict myself to two Facebook quizzes and one amazing pet story, but some days I am a sucker for every come-hither headline.

Aline also mentioned the joy of spending hours talking directly to experts. It's all research, right, and we learn such fascinating things. Who else has a job where they can explore antique dolls one day and post-traumatic stress another? Rarely a dull moment in the life of a writer. Such research also serves as busy work and a nice distraction when we can't think where on earth to go next in the novel.

But one of my favourite types of research is physical location scouting. One can learn a lot about a place by researching on the web. Google Earth, maps and Street view can show us the layout. Numerous websites can tell us more than we might ever need about the history, culture, and make-up of a place. Online videos, photos, and travel blogs can round out the objective statistics with visual and personal input. It is possible to write an entire novel set in a place without ever having laid eyes on it. Possible, and sometimes necessary, but never ideal.

In my view, there is no substitute for standing in that place, surrounded on all sides, hearing, seeing, and breathing it. No amount of imagination or conjuring can make up for the specific, concrete reality. I always try to visit the places I write about, even if it is just one scene in the book, and that visit almost always adds a dimension or rich detail to the story. A small example occurred to me today. I had taken a two-day road trip to the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal to check out the location of my current book in progress. If my character was going to spend 300 pages in the Laurentian wilderness, I needed to know what she was going to encounter. I'd been to the Laurentians many times, but never that place. Never with a writer's eye.

I had in mind a particular village, but in driving around, I stopped for gas and discovered a much more picturesque and interesting village near by. I walked around to take pictures (another aspect of my research) and wandered over to look at what I thought was a classic French Canadian graveyard beside the little white church. As was typical of rural Quebec, the graveyard was presided over by a large concrete statue of the Virgin Mary cloaked in blue. I read tombstones, always a potential source of last names. Imagine my surprise when they weren't Sauve or Paradis or Levesque, but Majic, Solinski, and other long Polish names.

Here was an interesting twist. A Polish settlement in the middle of traditional, French Catholic, rural Quebec. I don't know what I will do with this tidbit yet, maybe no more than a mention, but maybe a major character will emerge with that background. There were many more delightful discoveries on that trip. The sound of a creek gurgling over fallen leaves, the moss clinging to boulders... All of it adds not just authenticity and accuracy to the story, but also a richness and texture that internet and book research cannot.

And the best part of it all, I get to go on mini-vacations and experience places I wouldn't normally see. Up close and personal, as I try to see them through a writer's eye. And what could be better than that? If it takes up a couple of days or even several weeks, it's worth it in the end. If not to my writing, at least to me!

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