This is the first of a two-part blog series on what it takes to research a novel. This first post is about the factors that make me decide what to write about, which will inevitably require research.
My novel Green Bay Outsiders is finished and my editor has returned her edits, which I am going through now. As I prepare to launch the book into the world, one item remaining on my to-do list is to write the acknowledgments page. It’s not the most thrilling part of the book to get through, if you’re a reader, and I would wager to guess that most readers DON’T necessarily go through it. The acknowledgments section, though, isn’t really for readers–it’s a catalog of all the resources and individuals who helped bring a book to life by virtue of serving as research sources–so it’s really a thank you page, of sorts, for everyone who helped an author out with the book. If though, as a reader, you’re curious to know how an author researches a novel and just what sources they turn to, then this blog post series is for you.
First of all, when I began writing a long time ago I was simply interested in “making up stuff”. I wrote in a ringed notebook with a pen and made sure to stay well within the range of my knowledge because going outside it meant, well, that I might have to stop writing because I wouldn’t know what to write. Or I might have just blatantly kept going knowing full well I had no clue what I was writing about.
But of course that latter situation is not the basis of good, professional writing and when you make a decision to draw readers onto your email list to tell them about your writing (as I, eh-hem, have done), you darn well better know your stuff or, at least, prepare to jump into the learning factory when something comes up that you’re not familiar with but need to know about for the book or story you’re writing.
Why I Love The Learning Factory
I had to visit the learning factory to research quite a bit for Green Bay Outsiders. I had never been to Green Bay (or to Wisconsin, in fact) in my life. And due to scheduling considerations, I could not plan a trip there in the near future.
I also was writing about a young man who has a strong interest in fishing (I haven’t done much fishing in the past 20 years). And then, just for good measure, I also gave this character an uncle who fought during the siege of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War. I was born just as the Vietnam War was ending, so I didn’t have much experience with the war either.
As I’ve written before, my stories take place in very particular times and locations. It was a conscious decision for me to write that way, driven somewhat, I would suspect, due to my lifelong interest in learning. At one point in time, I expected to become an English professor, and I spent a lot of time during my graduate school years in the library. That aspect of my life has stayed with me.
It would be easy for me to write about a middle-aged man in the Washington, DC metropolitan region because that’s who I am; and I suspect I’ve had more than a couple personal experiences that could make their way into a story. But my writing journey is not intended to be a personal one; I’d prefer to stay off the stage, as it were, and develop characters and situations that have nothing to do with my personal circumstances.
Billy Maddox Takes His Shot is about a Border Patrol Agent in southwestern Arizona. And Green Bay Outsiders is, as my readers no doubt know by now, about a young man, recently graduated from college, who is disillusioned with the promises of adulthood promised by his parents and the other adult figures in his life, and who basically has to decide whether to throw off the mantle of everything he has accumulated to date and go forth into the world. In the blurb I just wrote for Green Bay Outsiders, I compare my main character, Carl Daniels, to Chris McCandless, for those readers familiar with John Krakauer’s book (and the movie it inspired) Into the Wild.
Why Arizona? Why Green Bay?
A logical question, one might ask, is–How do I decide what locations and time periods to write about? When it comes to Arizona and Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, the decision was one of fascination. As I’ve said before during an interview about the novel, I stumbled across a work of photojournalism in Washington, DC’s Union Station years ago entitled Dead in Their Tracks. The book included images of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, and photos and interviews with Border Patrol agents and migrants who take their lives into their hands in an attempt to journey into the United States.
As a result, I began researching the issue of border migration, which ultimately led to a two-week research trip to Arizona where I did everything from go on ride-alongs with Border Patrol agents to interview individuals politically connected to the migration issue on both the left and right. Above is a photo I snapped of the desert after stepping out of the truck of one Border Patrol agent with whom I’d been traveling that day.
By virtue of researching the border region and of speaking to different agents, I began to envision a character who worked for the Border Patrol and for whom searching for migrants crossing the border was a personal issue as well as a professional one.
Green Bay: A Coming-of-Age Novel
When it comes to Green Bay and why I chose to write (and research) a story about Wisconsin, I almost didn’t have a choice.
When I was thinking about writing my next novel, all I had done by that point was Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. And there was a scene that I’d written without even thinking about it–where Billy’s supervisor, Carl Daniels, talks about being raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Carl is a pretty fascinating character in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and I just couldn’t get away from thinking about his past, and what he must have gone through to get to where he was.
Carl was not from Arizona; he had clearly pulled up his roots–a decision behind which there is usually an interesting story–to make his home and his career in the American Southwest.
And so it was natural for me, one day, to sketch out some ideas about this young man, Carl Daniels, and what must have inspired him to leave home.
And so to answer the question–Why write about Green Bay?–I can only say I took a part of one story and turned it into another novel. What was really interesting was that, while I was writing the novel, the Star Wars offshoot films, Rogue One and Solo were developed and released. I happen to be a big Star Wars fan (though I’m on the fence about Jar-Jar Binks!) and found it fascinating how Disney basically took the same approach.
Rogue One is the story of how Rebels captured the plans to destroy the Death Star as it is portrayed in the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, which was released in the late 1970s. And then Solo is, in my opinion, the very underrated film about Han Solo’s youth on Corellia and what happened when he finally left home to make his way in the world. Clicking on the image above will take you to a post I wrote about the similarities between Green Bay Outsiders and Rogue One. In hindsight, Solo likely has greater parallels with my novel since both are based, not on a situation such as stolen Death Star plans, but on a character, in this case Han Solo, and then telling his coming-of-age story.
So that’s it. That’s how I chose to write about Arizona and Green Bay.
In an upcoming post, I will write specifically about what I had to research about Green Bay Outsiders to finish the novel. In the meantime, take a look at the question I have for you below. I would love to read your comments.
What is your favorite series (can be any genre) with characters and situations that appear across a variety of novels or films? Leave your response below including how well you think the authors or filmmakers carry one character or situation over from one story to another.