Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Research Phase :: The limits of memory and the joys of learning something anew.

I'm fond of quoting Werner von Braun: "When I don't know what I'm doing, it's research."  It's a great quote and often gets me out of a jam when someone is pressing me to tell them what I'm up to ("Staring out the window" is a bad answer, especially when the inquisitor is ones spouse. Just trust me on that.)  

To be brutally honest, though, research is generally a process of reminding myself how many things I used to know and re-teaching myself how to do things I once knew. When I decided that I wanted to write a character who was a mathematician, for instance, I found myself at wits end when I dug below the surface of my math skills to discover some of the more basic portions of my education had escaped under dark of night.
This is a bit of a problem in a business that tells you to "Write what you know." What I know isn't always as accessible as what I can dig up via diligent research and by tapping what my friends know. Frankly, I would discard that saying entirely and supplant it with "Write whatever you can learn in the time allotted."

Or maybe "Write what you can get away with."

But I digress.

Whenever I picture the inside of my head, it looks like the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones & the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Every time I learn anything, be it random trivia or how to drive, it gets boxed up, labeled and lost in the darkness. Things that will help me win at Trvial Pursuit are kept nearest the door. If it's something that would help me pass an algebra test, the paperwork is promptly lost and the box pushed as far into the corners as possible.It's just the way my mind works.

On the bright side, my friends often tell me that I'd by the guy they call if they're on a game show and get a question they don't know the answer to. Fair enough. Like I said, that stuff is kept near the door and the lazy oafs that manage the warehouse are only too happy not to have to walk into the far reaches where physics and chemistry are stored.

I've long suspected that this is how most writer's minds work. We hoard and value the minutiae that the rest of the world ignores and store it away in dimly lit warehouses. Otherwise useless facts pile up in the corners. Crate stands atop crate, leaking into the crates below until we're walking through the place one day and trip over something entirely new, a melange that we can then sort into story form.

Except that once in awhile, the story requires that I light a torch and wander into the unmapped reaches of the warehouse, in the shadowy forests of the forgotten and neglected where the quadratic equations have gone feral and stalk the wandering passages of Proust.

Sometimes it's just easier (and safer) to re-learn something than to go digging for it. I won't go so far as to say I have to reinvent the wheel, but I do periodically have to relearn how it was done.

Currently on the research list is learning the ins and outs of owning and maintaining a Glock, riding and maintaining a classic motorcycle (or car, that part of the story is still in flux) and the particulars of how collagen denatures over time.

Believe it or not, all of these things are things I once knew at least a little about. I grew up in Missouri, which has a thriving "gun culture" so you get a bit of that by osmosis if nothing else. Ditto for motorcycles and classic cars. Denaturing collagen seems like a bit of a dense subject, but really it's something you do every time you make either soup or soap from animal fats.  I used to have a pretty decent understanding of how it happens on a chemical level and even how it happens naturally over time in leathergoods or in the case of my story, the leather covers and parchment pages of old books.

It seems like a waste of time, but it isn't. Every time I do it, I find some aspect of things that I didn't know last time. Or expose some facet of things that I was doing wrong all this time. Learning anew or learning something entirely new lends depths to my understanding of these facets of the story and of the character.

All the same, I keep thinking I should figure out a way to clean out that warehouse one of these days. Heaven knows there are enough memory tricks and meditation programs and sundry nonsense on late night infomercials and the self help sections of libraries and bookstores.Some of them might even work. Might even give me readier access to the far reaches of the warehouse.

But where's the fun in that?

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).