Thursday, September 1, 2011

For the Love of Research

Last week, I stated on twitter that I easily do ten hours of research for every one hour of actual writing.  I wasn’t surprised that I heard from six other historical writers that said, ‘yes, that’s about right.’ I also heard from another half dozen writers in various genres who basically said, ‘you must be out of your mind.’ You do have to enjoy your subject and enjoy research in general. You also have to be willing to tuck 90% of what you learned into the Trivial Pursuit folder in your mind, because hours of research may give you one great chapter-or one great paragraph-or just one great line.

But here’s a secret.  Researching can be a lot of fun.  (Shh... Don’t tell, or everyone will start doing it.)

My dive buddy---I had the camera
The site of my upcoming novel, Ragtown, is now under Lake Mead, making it difficult to actually walk the wash area that was once a tent city and home to thousands of Hoover Dam workers and their families. I still wanted to go there.  So I slapped on the dive gear and visited Ragtown-- even donated a set of ankle weights and a dive knife to the site for future researchers to ponder.

Boxing night at the Hard Rock
I have a scene in my novel that revolves around a boxing match. I read everything I could about boxing in the 1930’s, and not saying I am an expert (ask me anything about Ray Sharkey or Max Schmeling), but I learned quite a bit. Still, I needed to ‘be there’ to write the scene effectively.  Luckily for me, I live in Las Vegas, where boxing matches are a dime a dozen.

Not a zoomed photo
How can you write about the intense yellow eyes of a Bighorn sheep unless you have looked into them?
I write about the prostitutes who worked behind the Railroad Pass Casino in 1931.  The small shacks are long gone, but I felt I needed to walk the path from the casino that led to 'Whore Row'.  How far was it? What was the view from there? I’m not unfamiliar with walking in the desert and I usually find something interesting that I didn’t expect. Yes, I found the proverbial dead body in the desert that day.

(Sorry, no picture. The Coroner wasn’t thrilled that I asked.)

My most recent adventure? What I call ‘eating rocks.’ I am currently working with Craig Childs, possibly the greatest nature/adventure writer of our time, a man who the New York Times calls “a modern-day desert father.” He bleeds sand and cries cactus juice. He suggested that I ‘taste the desert’, or at least the area near Lake Mead where my story takes place. Be a part of the landscape. Put a river rock in my mouth and see what it feels like.

I was hesitant, even though I knew it would involve a day at the lake, which is hard to say no to. And Craig is brilliant and hasn’t steered me wrong yet.  So I did it.
What happened? I will leave that for my protagonist to explain.

In the meantime, check out the 'modern-day desert father' Craig Childs at his website:


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this very much. You show that research can be fun if you step away from the computer and get out among nature, like you, and the desert father, Craig Childs.

Natalie Kenney said...

Love it Kelly! You know I'm all about the texture of things. I wonder if a river rock tastes different than a desert rock...

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

You just had to suggest that, didn't you? If Craig sees that, he'll have me out sucking on rocks all over the country.

Anonymous said...

Amazing! That is the kind of research I love to do, but it can require money and since I can barely afford rent and food... story of my life. So for now, at least; I will have to hope others have experienced the things I am writing about and are willing to answer my e-mails. However, if it's something around town... :)

Love this post.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid of that diving stuff ... I must look like a bachanal to sharks. Can one substitute pebbles on pizza for rocks? Really looking forward to the read on this novel, Kellinator.

Suzanne Shumaker said...

Wow, you go all out in your research...don't worry I'll bring some pacific coast rocks to the rock tasting party (hot sauce?)...

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

All rocks welcome. We could line up rocks from across the globe and see if Mr. Childs can identify them by taste.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This was fascinating. I guess when we hear the word research we have such boring associations that it's difficult to move past it. But there are fun aspects of research. Totally boss! I wanna taste a river rock now!

Cat said...

I don't understand why writers of other genres scorn you. I write historical novels and fantasy and I research about the same amount of time for either genre. In fantasy I just call it world building. A different label for the same stuff: getting to know my world, my setting.
Lovely article.