About Writers, blogging, inspiration, Research, Uncategorized, writing technique

On Falling in the Name of Research

by George Salis 

The act of writing a novel elicits a series of revelations punctuated by epiphanies. I will share with you two major eureka moments that occurred during the writing of my debut novel Sea Above, Sun Below.

Connected to the myth of Icarus and other vertiginous tales of yore, my novel features a group of skydivers who fall, metaphorically and literally. I’m afraid of heights but I felt like I needed to skydive in the name of research for my novel. As it happens, I loved the surreal experience so much I would do it again. Strapped to my instructor, we waddled to the plane’s open door, and he stood on the edge while I dangled unfathomably high above the earth and with fear I reached out to grip the metal portal, but the instructor gently pried me from even that precarious perch, and then the insensate suck, the slip from everything into nothing, and I realized this was it, that I was truly falling, skydiving, and the wind felt as though the sky wanted to make my mouth and lungs home, palate-scouring, and the seconds were drawn out into a brief infinity, an eternal moment. From there, the world below struggled between a two-dimensional illusion and the reality of three.

Yet, for all that that’s worth, I was fairly surprised to discover, once my feet were on the ground and I was back at my writing desk, that my skydiving description was quite accurate before I had conducted my research and so I ended up adding only a single sentence afterward: “Up here, while the wind became a chorus of tragic furies, the sun detached from the sky, letting the earth revolve like an orrery.” This is one example in which I learned to trust my own instincts, my own imagination. Was skydiving worth the effort, the confronting of fear? Absolutely. Research still has many benefits and can be a delight in and of itself. I should add that while the experience of falling conformed quite uncannily with my predescription, as it were, I did add a plethora of details from my experience within the skydiving hangar, such as the almost anachronistic bowling balls littering the hangar floor which I learned are used to push out air from the parachutes while folding them back into their packs for the next fall. So, aside from personal development, research can give you all those minute details which enhance a fictional scene, but if you cannot afford to go to Japan, for example, then you should rest easy knowing that you have the power to evoke your own germane version of the country.

Also, do not underestimate academic research, which is often less expensive and no less simmering with potential details, for one’s picture of a place or person will always be incomplete and eventually all that’s left for you to do is continue writing.

Mentally juggling and tallying the oftentimes ambiguous constituents of a novel in one’s head, even with the aid of notes and miscellaneous marginalia, can cause a daunting dizziness. To lessen the vertigo, I offer this lesson: I learned that it’s much more manageable to write each chapter as a short story (with chronology being far from a priority). There are certain aspects the short story is known for, yet there is no reason such aspects should be exclusive to it: an ensorcelling first sentence; a strategic entrance into the very story of the story; a self-containment that can feel like a certain tightness, which is not to suggest that you should avoid digressions (they can be, as Ray Bradbury said in defiance of Shakespeare’s Polonius, the soul of wit); an immediacy of image or action or development; and it allows you to weave your novel as if it were a tapestry, depending on the type of novel you are writing. I’m enamored with stories within stories, stories besides stories, in the vein of The Thousand and One Nights or Cloud Atlas, so my novel contains around ten different threads which were written with the mentality, the focused lens, of the short story, connected thematically, genetically, and more. An additional benefit to this method/perspective is that while you work on your long project, you might be able to send out some pieces of it for potential publication. Before Sea Above, Sun Below recently came out as a whole through River Boat Books, I was able to publish ten pieces from it, and in a few cases I received edits on the stories which ultimately helped the final vision.

It is worth noting that you should rage against my advice as you see fit. By all means, do the opposite of what I say if it works for you. Or better yet, use your finger to write your novel in the fog on a mirror; spin around quickly ten times before you sit down for the day’s quota; whisper your sentences backward to yourself; write your dreams then dream what you wrote. Who truly knows what will help?

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books). His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, The Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is the editor of The Collidescope and is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland.

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17 thoughts on “On Falling in the Name of Research

  1. Thanks for this, George! I wish I could craft a thousand pertinent words of approbation, elaboration, and/or tangential references to your most excellent article this morning; instead I’m reduced to leaden, workmanlike declarative sentences of Captain Obvious provenance. Apologia follows:

    1.) You mention the technique of including shorter stories in a novel (even of approaching each chapter as a standalone short story). I happen to be rereading The World According to Garp at present; John Irving utilizes this technique of story-within-a-story by including “The Pension Grillparzer” within Garp. Far from distracting the reader from the over-all plot or muddying the novel’s themes, “Grillparzer” gives us insight into the protagonist’s fledgling writing efforts, worldview, ongoing concerns, and the development of a distinctive serio-comic narrative voice. So, yes . . . I can well see how that technique might work.

    2.) There is a sentence in Stephen King’s short story “I Am The Doorway” (Night Shift) that always makes me laugh: “The cloud cover is equal parts methane, ammonia, dust, and flying shit.” Here is an example. I believe, of a writer saying to himself, “enough detail–on with the story!”

    Congrats on finishing your novel and getting it into print! (Also: congrats on your Skeptic magazine article. Impressive!)

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you for your great comment, Carl! I’m a sucker for frame tales, that’s for sure. John Barth has a story titled “Menalaiad” that goes 7 stories deep. It’s pure storytelling delight.

      As for flying shit. My God, that’s a sky which seems to herald the coming copropocalypse.

      I appreciate your thoughtful reply, my friend.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Pingback: On Falling in the Name of Research – George Salis

  3. mimispeike says:

    Hi George! You touch upon many issues that bedevil me.

    “. . . write each chapter as a short story.” My plot is very complicated. I try to make each chapter logical and understandable in itself, hoping this assists the overall understanding of my rambling nonsense.

    “. . . not to suggest that you should avoid digressions.” I do not. I believe they add to characterization. I not only digress in the text, my digression overflows into footnotes.

    “. . . weave your novel as if it were a tapestry, with stories within stories.” I picture my story as a cubist painting, combining different views in one artwork.

    On research: I’ve done heavy research, on vocabulary, on style, on details of the late sixteenth century. I – luckily! – took my files in to work and printed them out just prior to being laid off. I have three fat notebooks, a thousand pages of material I’ve collected over thirty years: Life at sea. (I have a pirate episode). I’ve pulled words and descriptions from every sea-going novel I could lay my hands on. Court life. My character is, for a time, an observer of Queen Elizabeth’s court. Vocabulary files. Historical context. I have more bios of Elizabeth I, Henry of Navarre, Walter Raleigh, John Dee, anyone of that period, than any sane person needs. But I don’t pretend to be sane.

    In the intro of book two, my sea-going episode, I intend to have a disclaimer: “I’ve faked this whole thing, as far as knowledge of the sea goes. I think what I’ve banged together sounds damn good. If you find flaws, email me. I’ll be glad to correct them.”

    I’ve researched the Elizabethan era to a fare-thee-well, and where I’ve bent the facts, I’ve done so on purpose, and with a smirk.

    Another disclaimer, I use it in any tight spot: “Folks, cut me some slack. This is, after all, a story about a talking cat.”

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thanks for your reply, Mimi. I had a Goodreads friend named Mimi whose profile vanished. Are you the same person? If so, good to e-see you again.

      I prefer complicated plots rather than simplistic ones. There are plenty of the latter and they’re easy enough to write, I’d say.

      To borrow the emphasis used by followers of Mahound to get him to recite: Digress! Digress! Digress!

      “I picture my story as a cubist painting, combining different views in one artwork.” Beautiful. Who needs story arcs? We need more story Mobius strips, story Kline bottles, story black holes, etc. After going through the rigmarole of editing, DFW claimed that Infinite Jest was patterned in the way of a lopsided Sierpiński gasket. Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men is based on chaos theory and the particles within a colloidal unconsciousness.

      The novel I’m working on now is a story cosmos verging on a story multiverse. With story suns and revolving story planets, some with story moons.

      I hear you, Mimi. Only you know how much research needs to be done. One could research for a lifetime and still not ‘know enough.’ I think a rule of thumb could be to stop researching once you feel comfortable writing in a certain voice or world, etc. while also looking some extra stuff up if need be. If you know anyone who is an expert on a certain top, for example, such as facts related to sea-going, then if you’re lucky you could have that person read it over.

      Otherwise, I would try not to worry so much about getting every fact correct. You’ve done or are doing your best. It’s fiction after all. And, as you said, with a talking cat. : )

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Perry Palin says:

    Excellent blog entry.

    We should write what we know, and if we don’t know something we’re writing about, research is imperative.

    I can be fooled by someone writing about something I know nothing about, say, golf. But poorly researched and wrong writing about one of my interests is terribly off putting. I remember a story draft posted on a writers’ web page where horses and wild deer behaved in ways they would never behave. When I questioned the writer he admitted he had grown up in town and didn’t know animals. Thing is, the story wasn’t about horses or wild deer, but it was ruined for me by the clearly wrong facts in the story.

    I don’t write science fiction where the writer can build his or her own worlds. The worlds still have to work within their own sets of rules. I write about people, usually in outdoor settings, and I have been flattered sometimes by people asking where exactly a particular story takes place. The places are fiction, but they are real enough to make the reader believe at least for a little while.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you for your input, Perry.

      I’ve always been uncomfortable with the workshop injunction (or any workshop injunction for that matter) that we should “write what we know.” It sounds too constrictive of imagination. Was it John Barth who said, in defiance, “Write what you don’t know”? In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather a writer get something wrong in an attempt to write an ambitious uninhibited novel than to writer safely what they know, which for all we know could be how to paint picket fences and clean up dog feces.

      But I hear you, research is important. As I said elsewhere, it depends on what you’re writing about and how you’re writing about it. World-building should have it’s own internal logic unless that log is illogic itself. Intention versus accident plays a role of course.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. victoracquista says:

    Excellent post…thank you!

    It seems to me that we can incorporate any or all of the following:

    1. Make something up completely
    2. Research other people’s experiences and use that secondhand knowledge in
    your writing. (I personally rely on Google searches to help me research story
    elements.)
    3. Draw from your own experience.

    In my upcoming novel there are a number of places in different parts of the world that I have never been to so I had to rely on synthesizing pieces from others people’s descriptions. But the nuances and subtle details (the bowling balls) are difficult to capture without the firsthand experience. Someday I hope to travel to at least some of these locations to see if I “got it right”.

    Of course, settings that are in a different time period than our own do not allow for the firsthand experience; unless we time travel or channel. This gives me an idea for a story about an editor who is able to fact check story details in rather unique ways.

    Liked by 5 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      Ha! 🙂
      Maybe, an unsettling story about about an editor able to fact check story details in unique ways who discovers some things everybody believes are …wrong. Just wrong.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Victor! I write a lot of magic realism/surrealism so I have perhaps more leeway in this regard than writers of realism period.

      The self-exiled Joyce was an extreme stickler about every fact of his homeland of Dublin and even wrote friends, family, and acquaintances about such questions as how many steps a certain staircase had. This, I think, is too much, but he was engaging in something special, the novelistic photograph of a single city stuck in time.

      I hope you were able to write your novel just as you envisioned it. That matters most of all, I’d say.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Thank you, George, for the excellent post. “I ended up adding only a single sentence afterward.” That has been exactly my experience – for Perfume Island, I visited the morgue in Mamoudzou, Mayotte, and afterwards altered just one sentence of what I’d already written. I do like, if possible, to go to the places I write about, but often the effect is just to consolidate my own feeling that what I’ve written is plausible. So for me there are three stages: write a first draft, noting everything that needs to be checked on; then a second draft, making heavy use of Google and altering details as necessary; finally, if possible, gain direct experience. From what I gather, our approaches are pretty similar.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for your comment, Curtis. I hear you. I often use Google as I write to look up everything from etymologies to mythologies. In that way, I do the first and second draft at the same time. I don’t often go out into the wide world to do research but when I do it can be fun. It all depends on what one is writing about, how they’re writing about it, etc. There’s no one formula for all writers to follow, I’d say (and I’m not suggesting you suggested that, just thinking aloud as it were).

      Liked by 4 people

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