Friday, December 2, 2011

Researching the Next Book

One of my favorite writers, H.R.F. Keating, wrote a short piece about writing and research for fiction. I read through it avidly, thinking this would be the greatest advice because his books were fabulous. Keating was known for the Inspector Ghote series, which he started before ever having visited India. Those of us who knew India expected amazing gems from someone who had to know the secrets of researching a novel because he clearly "got" India. His advice: Read one book on the subject you're interested in and then start writing. It was really that simple.

Keating wasn't being entirely facetious. He had a capacious mind and he could absorb one book thoroughly on one reading. Most of us aren't that smart and we need to read two or three or more books and then reread them, taking notes and checking back again and again. But his point was valid. The point of the reading is to get to know the subject so that we can write the story. Get to the story sooner rather than later. It's sound advice.

In January I head back to India, to Kerala, where the Anita Ray stories are set, and I already have several ideas for the next book (this will be book four--the second will be out in June from Five Star, which is also considering number three). This means I want to scout out the landscape the get an idea of how Anita or other characters would react in certain areas--restaurants, bus stations, shops, traffic problems, side streets and alleys. I want to see what Anita would see.

After living there in the 1970s and 1980s I have a pretty good sense of how the cities and towns in the area are laid out. But a lot of years have passed, and even though the main thoroughfares are the same, the towns and cities have sprawled through paddy fields and palm groves, with high rises popping up everywhere. Tracking these changes is important to keeping the story current, so for me research is a lot of walking around, grabbing an autorickshaw, and walking into stores or warehouses or lumber yards. One detail I'm dying to use is the lumberyard with huge stripped trunks of teak sitting opposite the old courthouse of red brick put up during the maharajah's time. It's a visual detail that always delights me when I walk past.

Not far down the street is a narrow lane with a roof of signs for the many advocates (lawyers) located there--all the signs are black with white lettering with lots of degrees after each name. The walker (no room for a car) has to cross a narrow bridge over a concrete channel (open drains from years ago still used for rain water) before entering the world of the advocates and hanging electrical lines.

A few lanes after this is a road with businesses pouring into the street, and on one side is the Triveni Nursing Home, an ayurvedic hospital with medical offices. I know a couple of the doctors and admire the way they tend to their patients. I'm pretty sure that sometime in the future ayurveda and its practitioners will figure in one of my novels. In earlier years I passed the Ayurveda College on Main Road almost daily, stopping to stand under the spreading trees to get out of the sun before continuing on my way.

This kind of research--going where my characters will go--is something I learned early. There has to be something real in a story--a place, a character, a situation--or the story will feel thin, not quite grounded. For me place is the grounding. In January I'll be finding new places for Anita and others to discover. And as always, I'll take pictures, spread them out on my desk when I get back, and gaze at them now and then while writing. And we call this work.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Real settings are extremely important to lend fiction authenticity. This is especially true for mystery fiction. Susan, I admire people like yourself who are well-traveled and can provide a story with an exotic setting. It offers credibility.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Thanks, Jackie. Setting is important to me also as a reader. It's something I look for but also something I enjoy most in a good story.

jenny milchman said...

I think it's fascinating how different writers approach both aspects of your post--setting and the issue of "realness". I find that being too tied to reality actually inhibits me, although I agree that striving for authenticity is crucial. Thanks for the post!

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

Keeping current with settings is very important and you are fortunate to enjoy researching to keep it so! Your descriptions are enticing, Susan. Thanks for sharing.