I have files with titles such as “Accidental Shooting Settlements” and “Art Authentication” as well as “Pricing Art” and “Parrot Questions.” I finally deleted the one on 1989 Aerostar vans. The struggling old van made it through Shaman’s Blues and Snake Face and retired, with no one commenting on how I’d handled its various mechanical problems. That’s how it should be. I want to hide my tracks. Readers usually shouldn’t be paying attention to my research, but since this is a blog about writing, I’m going to go backstage and show the process.
Readers notice all the scholarly articles in The Calling. This book may look as though I worked harder on research compared to the rest, but in fact it was the easiest. I didn’t venture outside my areas of expertise, and I set it in places I knew well.When I lived in Norfolk, I’d visited a number of alternative healers there and several psychics in Virginia Beach—out of pure curiosity, with no idea they would end up as background for a book. An important character in this story is a professor in health sciences and so am I. To find the material on alternative medicine and research in the field, all I had to do was relocate the right articles. I knew where they’d been published and I remembered the content.
More often, I don’t realize how much I’ll need to know about a subject until I’m into the first draft of a book. I immediately start keeping research lists, things to look up or ask experts about, and I dig into these questions as I go along.
When the character of Jamie showed up in Shaman’s Blues, I read books about current Australian Aboriginal culture in order to understand his roots. I studied Aussie slang and was blessed with an Australian critique partner who could tell if I got it right. And then there’s his van. It’s close to being a character in the next book, Snake Face. I took notes during Car Talk. I looked up timing belts and timing chains, I looked up the last year that these vans were made with carburetors, and I looked at pictures of their engine parts. A musician who had toured with a band read the manuscript to make sure I portrayed life on the road correctly. And I consulted a couple of lawyers about a major plot point. I double-checked some details of the medical treatments and outcomes for a particular injury. And I searched out the name of a Greek drinking dance. This is, I think, typical in the creation of a book, more typical than the ease with which I could pull together the seemingly obscure scholarship in The Calling.
For Soul Loss I reread some books on neo-shamanism to refresh my memory of a strange workshop I once attended as part of a conference, and I researched Tarot cards and Cochiti Pueblo beliefs about the dead. I also had to find out what was involved in setting up a festival. For Ghost Sickness I had to study up on parrots, since several play roles in the story, and also looked into rodeo injuries, and many matters related to art. Even though I’d set the story in familiar places, I revisited the Mescalero Apache reservation and took a careful, observant walk through Truth or Consequences to make doubly sure that certain events could happen as I wrote them. I could go on and on. It’s amazing what I discover that don’t know—or what I’ve forgotten that I thought I knew. But that list with the heading “Look Up” eventually gets crossed off and ideally readers have no idea I had to work so hard on that van. All they need to care about is the character driving it.