Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Research Road

                                                                        




LaDene Morton


Today I’ve invited novelist LaDene Morton, self-described Research Junkie to share with us how she found the path to writing success. Her novel, What Lies West, was a WILLA Award Finalist for 2010. The award is presented every year by the Women Writing the West organization. Not only is LaDene an accomplished novelist, she is a former Women Writing the West Catalog editor and currently serves as Vice President of the Women Writing the West Conference scheduled for October 11-13 of this year.



Research Road - LaDene Morton


I love a good journey. I don’t mean conventional travel, which really only implies motion through space over time. Though I do adore a good road trip. Or train trip or boat trip for that matter. No, the journey is far more about where you start, where you end up, and how that interstice between the two points changes you.  Most writers I know are all about the journey, whether it’s the hero tale they’re telling or their own quest for self through the writing. I’m right there with them. But of all the journeys my writing has provided – real, metaphorical or imagined – the one that’s been the most rewarding took me down the Research Road.

I came to writing as a researcher, of policies and data and other prosaic matters of the social order.  So when the story that would become my historical fiction novel, What Lies West, was but a glint in my mind’s eye, I turned to research. Set in the mid 19th century and covering the exploits of one woman who travels west from Missouri to Oregon, there was a lot of real and literary territory to cover if I was going to write the book of my imaginings. I needed to know a lot.  No, I needed to know it all. So I began something that seemed to me an exercise justifiable from every angle – I amassed a library. Writers are indulged their libraries. They’re essential. So I built mine. Books on the trails, the Gold Rush, logging, maritime history, period clothing, the military, Native Americans…the shelves filled quickly.


What Lies West, WILLA Award Finalist, 2010


The pages, however, did not. Still, I knew this research would be helpful. The book would be better for it. I would be a better writer for it. That is, when I finally got around to writing. The problem was, I didn’t get around to writing. Not for the longest time. My excuse? I was researching. I was still in search of my personal Holy Grail – the one detail, that unique personal account, the one fillip that would propel my story from the ordinary to the sublime. I had become a research junkie, and like other addicts, it turned out that no matter how much I learned – and I did learn a lot – it would never be enough. For a brief but critical time, I felt like my beloved Research Road had betrayed me. It was nothing more than a blind alley leading to a dead end.

With nothing more to gain from research, out of desperation, I finally started writing. Just a bit at first, then a bit more, then before I knew it whole chapters. Only when I had reached enough altitude in my writing could I look behind me at the Research Road and really see where it had taken me – to the place where I finally had to turn around and go back to what had started the journey in the first place. The story I wanted to tell. I’ll be forever grateful for that not-so-short cut that the Research Road had given me. It fueled my imagination, offered endless possibilities for the story’s direction, and gave me confidence in my choices. However, the best lesson was about not getting distracted and straying from the path. Pull off for a while and reflect if you need to. But stay on the path.



Thank you LaDene. I feel sure most writers of historical fiction will find insight in your wise words.




10 comments:

  1. Boy, does this ring a few bells, LaDene. Thank you both for a most re-assuring post! As the saying goes, 'you are not alone.'

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  2. You are so right, LaDene--for those of us who love research, there's never an end! I think of my research as a matrix out of which the story grows: the more research, the greater the story potential. But we have to write, too. And sometimes it takes a while. I began the research for my novel, A Wilder Rose, in the late 1980s--earlier than that, really, when I count the nudges that pushed me onto the Research Road. But other writing projects intervened and the research didn't begin to produce the story until 2011. Kudos to you for knowing when your matrix was "enough" and it was time to let the story grow!

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    1. Jumping in here - Susan I thought I was the only one to maintain ongoing - as in decades - research projects. Good for you for persevering.

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  3. La Dene, Yep, right on with research. Books are still my favorite research tool. I do use the Internet for quick info, but give me a book and a quiet corner to really find something that makes our work shine. One of the neatest things I ran across, though, came from a blog post by a fellow writer, who had already done all the research on phrenology, a popular medical tool in the 1900s, and I thought how cool and this would be so useful in my WIP, so I let him know how much he'd helped me. In the end we never know where we'll run across that one tidbit of info that smacks us upside of the head. Thanks for a good post.

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  4. I agree so much with this post, proving how engrossing and enjoyable research can be. When researching for my novel, LONG ROAD TURNING, I asked a western Kansas rancher to show me the stone quarry on his land, and to demonstrate the process of quarrying stone (used for fence posts and such.) On the way, bumping over the open prairie in his pickup, he stopped to show me a bonus to my research. Down in a brush-filled gully was a dugout that had been there since the 1880s. Once it was his ancestor's home. He kept it up as a place to escape during a tornado, or winter blizzard when his ranchhouse couldn't be safely reached in time. There was a bed inside the dugout, a very old cupboard, a chair. In a deep hole in the dirt floor was cached canned goods, candles, matches, and other necessities for survival.

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  5. If I might add on to my comment: Whether doing book research, and/or physical research, an author never knows what wonderful finds will turn up -- things they didn't expect but that add so much to the story they want to tell.

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    1. Irene, Velda - that is so true! I'll add that I happened to be in an area I researched for The Dividing Season and decided on a whim to stop at the historic hotel that was my "pattern" for the hotel my protagonist "ran away to." It is right on the Texas coast - Tres Palacous Bay. I got to talking with a couple of "geezers" (if I may use that term) and come to find out they both had first hand knowledge of a WWII Prisoner camp in that area. It was the VERY thing I'd been researching. AND there, by happenstance I had not one, but two who had been to the camps, knew prisoners, people who hired them....the whole nine yards. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

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  6. Dear LaDene and Karen,
    Thank you for this thoughtful blog and a thank you to the commentators for their stories. I use the internet and have an extensively used library, some of which I load up when traveling.
    One tool I especially like is visiting museums. In Benson, AZ I found Jo's ballroom party dress of ivory striped silk with a red velvet jacket. At the Fort Huachuca historical museum, I filled up on the role the fort played in my characters lives. The Bisbee museum's story of the real Jo's runaway Ford was thrilling to see and borrow from. And, yes, it is easy to get far down that research path before, reluctantly, turning back.

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  7. Arletta - it seems we all share a fascination with the research process - it's the writing part that stumps so many, me included.

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  8. What a great post, LaDene! I fully concur with you and everyone who has commented :) I also get lost on the journey down Research Road and forget to write. But I believe that as writers we intuitively know when enough research has been done and when to begin writing. Although I do need to work on some more research...

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