Also known as, My First Time.
That’s inaccurate. I’m sure when I was eleven and writing that brilliant novel about talking dinosaurs I reread my Bakker and encyclopedia.
But what we’re talking about today is the first time we set out to learn about something expressly for the writing.
For me, it wasn’t until I was a junior in college. Until then, I’d written with my imagination alone, sticking to what I knew, or to fantasy worlds where I could make everything up. Not very sophisticated of me.
I was writing a short story called The Hidden One, about the nymph Calypso and her encounter with Odysseus. Calypso was a weaver, and she used a golden shuttle. I wanted the story to sound like the rhythm of the loom, but I didn’t really know what that felt like. All I knew about weaving I’d learned watching old west reenactors at the local Indian Mission’s fall festival. I needed to research!
Started on the internet, found some pictures. The internet is a wonderful place, filled with information of all kinds. I wasn’t as savvy with it then as I am now, and moved on to the university library – the research mecca. Lost in the stacks, I found a multitude of volumes about textiles and history. There were diagrams of the exact kinds of standing looms used two thousand years ago, explanations of weights, warp, weft, and shuttles. Patterns and schematics – I could build my own Greek loom! I didn’t – but the space it would need, the time and care weaving would take began to form in my mind and with it, the character of Calypso. I realized she had to be patient and tender beneath the passion and anger and fear built into her story.
I walked down town to the yarn shop. The had looms set up, and although none of them were exactly right, the science was similar, the rhythm was similar, and I put my hands on the wood and wheel and felt the back and forth, heard the clack-swish-clack, and I realized I could make it sounded like a heart beat.
To this day, The Hidden One is one of my favorite stories, and I know it’s because I found the heart of the story and the character and grounded them in touchable knowledge. Not just books and internet, but in something I found a way to experience.
Experience is the best kind of research. It doesn’t have to be exact – none of us are werewolves or fighter pilots. I write better boys despite being mostly a girl. But there are moments that can translate from hand to mind to story, where you take a grain of solid research and elaborate.
Or, lie. It’s what we’re good at.