PW: Research for fiction writing: do you do it, how much do you do?
CF: I do next to no research, and to be honest, it kind of sickens me the fetishization of the whole “look at me, I do so much research” aspect of writing that you see out there on, say, social media. I come across these accounts of writers who tend to talk more about writing than actually doing any writing and how they take time off from their teaching gig to fly to the Ozarks or whatever to spend a week researching their upcoming novella or what not, and that’s why they write like one or two things, if that, a year. You don’t just write two stories a year because you’re so busy with your oh-so-necessary-research. You write only two stories a year because you have little ability and you need to fill up the time that couldn’t go to writing more stuff because you have nothing, really, else to say
Not for me. I knew, at three, what I was going to do with my life, and everything I did, thought, felt, experienced, was, at least in part, going into that eventual art. If you approach the world this way, and you’re open to everything, and you retain all that impacts you, you’re always doing research, so when the time comes to do your thing, it’s all there. Inside. And I think that’s the key: you have to write from the inside out. You have to get inside the place, the person, the people, the setting—actually feel that you’re there—and then you write from that center towards wherever the outer edges are.
When you play the “look at me, I’m traveling to the Ozarks” game—which, to my thinking, is more of a “look at me” deal—you’re coming at something to write from the outside, and if that’s what you’re doing, the thing you’re going to end up with is going to be utterly pointless. It will have the proper names of the streets of that place in the Ozarks, but besides that being hugely limiting, who cares what the names of the streets are? Couldn’t you make up better and, even, more apt ones? That is, if you’re writing from the inside out, and you know that place, in some way. “Place” isn’t so much geography as feel.
How does one get feel right? Let’s say you know the lay of the land, the flora, the fauna, the attitudes—all of which you can know a million ways without ever going to the place—what you’re then after is spirit. And you can rack up all of the frequent flier miles you want, and just being there, walking about, isn’t going to give you the spirit. That’s going to start inside of you; story and all of that is fleshed out with aspects of that place, but the real place, the real locus of any place, exists with greater solidity in the artist than it does out in the world. You find that, you find your place, you get that place correct—I mean, you probably don’t want to have the Hudson River flowing through Idaho (well, depends on what you’re up to, I suppose)—and that’s where the true valiance, the resonance, comes from. Or some if it, anyway.
Consider Stephen Crane. Guy had never been on a Civil War battlefield prior to writing Red Badge of Courage. Didn’t bother with traveling all over, paying visits, inspecting them. Why? Because he had the taut line, he knew the fish was on it, even if he couldn’t see it, so to speak, with it being beneath the water. For the moment being. But he was writing from the inside out. And how many newspaper accounts or books would Crane have to have read to get certain particulars at the ready in his mind? Not many, yeah? Does that count as research? Not to me. But what Crane wanted was feel. And that’s rather more difficult to nail.
Feel comes from us, in a way. It leeches out of us into the setting. No matter what the setting. So after Red Badge, someone brings Crane out to a Civil War battlefield. He walks out to the middle of it, says, “yep, got it,” and goes back home. Now, do you think Crane would have been better off if you went around researching a place, or was he good to go on that score, and all he had to do was write from the inside out?
I wrote a book of Cape Cod stories called Here, Googan Googan. “Rimer’s Boots,” at one point, was in it, even though the Cape isn’t the primary setting—it’s the kind of Paradise—or, more to the point, necessary Purgatorio—the narrator needs to get back to. But I wrote this Cape book, and it was a way for me to go to a place I couldn’t really go to at that point in my life. You have the spirit, you have the people, you have the characters, and you let them be your local guides, you follow your creations if they’re true.
That’s the trick, though. They have to be true, and you also have to know they’re true. Most writers do something I call “writing and hoping.” They write whatever, and then, based on the reaction of other people, they come to see what they wrote as a given. They hope others will confer quality, accuracy, relevance, on what they’ve done. But what you need to do is write and know. That is, if someone says this, or someone says that, you listen, you consider it, but you know. In the same way, you know when you have a place, when your line is taut, so to speak, and it’s here, fishy fishy, get your ass in my boat.
Now, were I to have spent a summer at the Cape, writing that book, I could have had the exact street names, bar names, beach names. Of course, any plonker can get this from the internet, and you can tour wherever via freakin’ YouTube at this point. But I was able to render that place with more of its place and spirit intact because there’s a difference between fact and truth. The latter is more real, more inviolable. So if you say, “my friend John said this to me,” and then quote him exactly, you have the words, as they were expressed, correct, and that’s a fact, but you often have to do more to get at the truth. And truth is what I’m interested in.
So you give this street a name, that bar a name, that beach a name, all for a reason/reasons—and now you’re the director, the imbuer, the bolster of place, the person bringing that spirit, that feel, more out into the open. You’re using the specs of the place, too—or you’re aware of them, anyway—and you’ve done your version of what Stephen Crane did with those newspaper accounts and whatever he encountered. And you’re writing from the inside out, and trusting your characters, as alive entities, to show you around, and now it all begins to coalesce. And while that aforementioned plonker is off on his latest researching jaunt to get the street names right, you’re busy writing and showing other worlds, and people to themselves through those worlds. Which is the point. I’ve never been to any of the places, in the literal sense, that are in “Rimer’s Boots.” But I’ve been in a more real sense, the locus of truth sense. That’s all I care about, and all I think an artist should care about. Your imagination is where you need to go, and it’s pretty much the only place you need to go to, if you’re fit to take people along on journeys with you.