Friday, 2 August 2013

Write, Right and Research. Part 1



A question for all my writer friends: Do you remember when you first decided to write a book?

For me, the idea of writing a novel struck with a sudden and stunning ferocity, a road-to-Damascus-type epiphany that had me wondering if I’d lost my mind somewhere along the safe and orderly pathways of my everyday life. I mean, there I was, one moment engrossed in an Elizabeth George novel, lost in a passage of her typically eloquent descriptive narrative and the next, jerked out of the story and nearly blinded by the thought - ‘I can do this.’  
By this, I don’t mean that I could write with anything like the genius of Ms. George, but that I could tell a story, hopefully, in such a way as to engage a reader pleasantly enough to get him or her to the last page. That was the idea and it wouldn’t leave me alone. By morning, I had the arc of story all mapped out in my mind and by 9AM I was at the bookstore, buying every ‘how-to-write-a-successful-novel’ tome I could lay my hands on. I learned quite a lot from those books, not the least of which is that, unless you’re writing complete fantasy (and possibly, even then), getting your facts in order requires some research. As Elizabeth George states in her book, Write Away: “It’s tough to make a place come to life unless you’ve been there and allowed your five senses to experience it.” Logical.
Except that I live in South Africa and I’d set my novel in the United States. Ohio, to be exact. Okay, I can just see my friend Haggis rolling his eyes and making gagging noises but I needed a state with the death penalty and yes, I could have simply thrown a dart at a map of the U.S. but it would have landed on Ohio anyway. (I tend to slice my golf swing, too.)
Research? That’s what the internet’s for, isn’t it? And besides, I’ve watched almost every episode of Law and Order. How hard could it be?
Ha!
Three paragraphs into chapter 1 and I hit the first of many stumbling blocks. For example, the internet has plenty pictures of the Wayne County courthouse but no amount of Google searches could tell me what type of trees are planted in the pavements surrounding it. What the internet could deliver was a fair number of email addresses of people in that county, so I launched an email fact-finding mission. I got zero replies. Not surprising, really. What would you think if you got an email from someone in Africa, asking for your help in writing a book? Exactly. Thanks for nothing, Nigeria.
The next step, I figured, was to try the personal touch. Telephone numbers are also quite easy to find, so I tried calling people who I though might be willing to help once I’d explained what I needed the information for. Ha, again. “You’re calling from where? South Africa? I don’t think so.” – clunk. All I got was a telephone bill set to exceed my mortgage. I tried one last call – to the sheriff’s department.
The receptionist answered and after a moment or two of silence, heavily laced with skepticism, (I could tell), she put me through to the Deputy Sheriff. I could hardly believe it. Not only was he friendly and understanding, but totally willing to help me in any way he could. Wow! We exchanged email addresses and I was back in the writing business. For a while, at least.
In no time at all I was getting an education in police procedures but deputy sheriffs are busy people, being second in command and all that, so there was a limit, I felt, on just how many questions one could pester him with. Despite large maps and pictures pasted all over my study walls, I still wasn’t getting a ‘feel’ for the place and my writing was flat and unconvincing. Either I was going to have give it up or go see the place for myself. The latter was a pipe dream. My rainy-day savings account didn’t hold enough for a foggy morning, let alone a round trip across the Atlantic. Then, a series of events changed everything.
I hate to use the word ‘miraculous’, it’s somewhat clich├ęd and wholly subjective but as an adjective, it comes pretty close to describing what happened.  
It began with an email from my insurance company advising me that a small retirement annuity had matured and asking me whether I wanted to cash it out or reinvest. The amount was surprising, even after tax. Enough, it appeared, to get me round-trip air ticket, economy class of course, and a stay in the cheapest flea-bag motel available but no money for food or car rentals. My hubby didn’t quite take to the idea of my sleeping on a park bench, no matter how romantic I made it sound. And though he offered to make up the difference, this was something I had to do myself. If it bombed, and there was no saleable manuscript at the end, I didn’t want anyone else to have thrown good money after bad.
One evening, while sitting out on the patio, trying to let go the idea of ‘reality research’ a thought almost literally slapped me over the head. A quick search of the internet revealed that yes, there was a Salvation Army branch in Wayne county. I dashed off an email, explaining who I was etc. and asking if they knew of a family who had a spare room available and maybe needed some extra cash. Twelve hours later I had a reply: “We have a two-bedroom apartment in our complex that you may use free of charge.” Okay. I take it back. If that’s not miraculous then I don’t know what is. God bless you, Major West! 

One last hurdle to go. Most American folk probably don’t know that it’s notoriously difficult to get a visa for the US and I was warned by several friends not to get my hopes up too far. But I did anyway. Having filled in the forms online, and received an appointment, I duly presented myself for the interview at the US Consulate here in Johannesburg. The attractive young lady who interviewed me took all my paperwork and checked boxes on the form in front of her. Then she asked me where I’d be staying. I told her and handed over yet more paperwork. “Oh,” she said, “Wooster. I graduated from the College of Wooster. What will you be doing there?” I explained about my research and her face lit up. “You’ll love it there. It’s a really great city.” And just like that, I had my visa. Now, I ask you, what are the odds that of all the people in the US Consulate that could have interviewed me that day, I get the one person who’s been to college in the very county of Ohio that I plan to visit? A small college, a big planet, and I meet that lady! I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I don’t have a criminal record or unpaid taxes – but still, that m-word haunts me.
And that was just the beginning of a truly incredible adventure. I was on my way to America, more excited than I can begin to describe. 
                                                     ***
So, my writer friends, that moment when you first decided to write a book. Do you recall it? Are you willing to share it? Please leave a comment, I'd love to hear from you.