Friday, February 18, 2005

The Dirtiest 8-Letter Word

Remember yesterday I was all psyched about this new story idea I had? And I was thrilled because the idea came to me so completely, so stocked with specifics that it was like a puzzle all fitting together to make the prettiest picture. Well, there's a little snag in my Grand Plan. Turns out it's the quintessential example of too good to be true, leading down the primrose path to you don’t get something for nothing. OK, how many points do I get for using three clichés in one sentence?

Anyway, I sat down and started to brain-dump on this Great Story Idea, and the horrible truth snuck up on me like a three-footed cat. This story idea is great, but in order to pull it off, I’m going to have to do some serious (cue da-da-dum music) research.

Let’s get some things straight right off the bat. I loved school. I loved learning things and writing papers and reading text books. Well, okay, I didn’t love it so much at the time as I do now that I look back on it all fondly. But I do love nothing more than heading down to the library, pulling stacks of books off the shelves, pouring through them and scribbling notes all while my brain is just sucking up information about medieval daily life or the French and Indian wars (there was more than one of them – did you know that?) or how to use certain herbs to concoct a sleeping potion. Research does not scare me. I know how to do it and I like to learn new things.

But research has two major downfalls for me. First, I’m one of those 110% people. When I get it into my head that I want to know about some topic, I will read every single thing I can get my hands on about it. I once wrote a story set in Colombia and I now know more about that country than people who live there! This can be a good thing – having the drive to become a mini-expert in the field so you can inject realism into your writing. Except that it takes a lot of time. Time that I should spend writing. Or sleeping. Or reading. I haven't learned the art of knowing when enough is enough, when I have the details I need to make my setting realistic and have started to cross into who cares what color thread Betsy Ross used to mend her husband's socks.

Second problem – sometimes what I have to research is not that easy to actually, well, research. Either the amount of information about it is so overwhelming I can’t decide what’s worthwhile or where to begin, or the subject is so elusive that unless I interview real living people, it’s hard to glean any pertinent information. And if I don't happen to know "people" to interview, I'm really up screwed creek. I'm not one for cold calling. "Hello, Mr. Hickles? You don't know me, but I read in the paper that you once wrestled a bear. Would you mind if I come over...?"

Specific examples, in my case. This new story features a hero whose family members are FDNY firemen. Major Research Hurdle #1. Do you have any idea how much stuff there is out there on FDNY firemen? It’s a big organization with a long, proud history. I could spend the next six months researching this stuff easy. So how much is enough? How much do I need to know to make the story realistic without going into info overload? Not to mention that fine line between reality and fiction – if I want to reference a fictional fire company, it’ll take me days to make sure I haven’t inadvertently used one that really does exist. If I want to name a comrade who fell in the 9/11 tragedy, I have to make sure that I'm not hitting too close to home.

Second example, my hero is from a large Italian family. Now, I have friends who are Italian. But they aren’t New York City Italian. And if I want to make sure that my hero and his family members don’t come off looking like ex-cast members of Goodfellas, I’ve got to be careful to avoid stereotypes. How, exactly, do you research something like that? "Hello, Mrs. Piccolo? You don't know me, but I got your number from the NYC phone book and I understand you're Italian. Do you have a few hours to talk to me about...well, everything in your life?"

I wanted to set the story in Brooklyn. Why? Because it seems like a place where my hero and heroine would have grown up. Somehow I can't imagine that an Italian guy whose family has a history with the FDNY would live in Cincinnati. But I’ve never been to Brooklyn. And I’m not going to have the chance to get to Brooklyn any time soon. Maybe it’s not the best place for this story. But then, where? Where do I go?

When I realized the scope of the work I’m going to have to do to get up to speed enough to write this story, I started to become overwhelmed. And a lot less enthused. Which really irritates me because I like the premise and the characters already. I don’t want to not do this simply because I don’t know enough. I just need to figure out how to get the details I need without taking graduate-level courses.

Do you think they make Cliff Notes versions of “The Life of an Italian Fireman Living in Brooklyn NY”?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Was searching for "leading...down the primrose path" because this morning I was walking in an arroyo filled with taller-than-me hairy primroses and I realized what the originator meant! It was like "having blinders on" -- I couldn't see anything beyond the path itself. I also wondered where the phrase first appeared and who said it, and expected my research would provide an answer. Instead, I met a "kindred spirit"!