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.