This is the second of a two-part blog series on what it takes to research a novel. This second post specifically discusses what parts of Green Bay Outsiders I had to research to complete the book.
As I’ve written before, the first early joy of writing comes from the complete freedom of it. There is no reason why you can’t write a story and steamroll over any plausibility issues with imagination…simply because you can. You don’t think much about your readers or what they may say about what you’ve “made up”. You simply enjoy the experience of writing because no one is there to tell you “no”.
Until one day you decide that you need to get the facts right!
When I started writing Green Bay Outsiders, I faced a significant challenge from the outset. I’d never been to Green Bay. As of this writing, I still haven’t visited the city. What that meant was that, at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, I would have to do some pretty serious research.
Which Came First, The Story or the Research?
We’ve all heard the one about the chicken and the egg. Which came first? When it comes to storytelling about a place or an environment that is unfamiliar, do you start with the research to ensure you don’t waste your time writing something that needs to be retracted, or do you start with the story and figure that you’ll catch up with the research later?
When it came to Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, my first novel, I went about it the completely wrong way. I started with the research.
Why is that wrong?
Because at the end of the day, you honestly don’t know where your story is going to go if you haven’t written it yet and so, if you start developing a story by starting with the research, you may end up digging up information that you will never need, while skipping research for topics that will end up being critical to your narrative. It’s easy to get all up-in-arms and defensive about your project if you’re preparing to author a story about an unfamiliar topic. It’s easy to say…I’d better figure this out before I write about it.
But like I said, it’s the wrong approach. It wastes time and energy. It’s typically the approach of someone who’s never written a novel before or of something who has self-doubt about their fiction project.
How I Started Writing Green Bay Outsiders and Decided What to Research
Fortunately, I remembered what an ordeal writing and researching Billy Maddox Takes His Shot ended up being. There was a lot of clumsy back and forth between the two that I decided I was just going to relax and write the next story (the one that ended up becoming Green Bay Outsiders) and whenever I became stuck then, ah what the hell, I’ll come back to it later.
And that’s what I ended up doing! So as I began writing, I realized I was getting into scenes and situations, and writing about characters that would ultimately require me to research a number of different topics:
- Craft beers (for the first scene of the novel, which takes place in a bar in downtown Green Bay)
- Marines who served during the siege of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War in 1968 (Jack Billings, the uncle of my main character, Carl Daniels, is a Vietnam vet who fought in Khe Sanh)
- Walleye fishing in Green Bay (Carl is an avid fisherman as is Uncle Jack)
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (Uncle Jack’s war buddy, Bob Brown, contracted lymphoma as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam)
- Downtown Green Bay and the local university (since this is the setting for a significant amount of the novel)
- Human resource professionals at hospitals (Carl’s father is the chief human resources officer at the local hospital, St. Vincent’s)
If this list looks daunting, it is! Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with this list to start with–if I had I probably would have run for the hills and never written a word. Most of these points though, arose, as I went along and found myself stuck in different parts of the story.
I ended up doing the research after the fact. The good news by doing the research this way was that I knew EXACTLY what I needed to find out based on the specific gaps in the story, so I didn’t end up endlessly poring through books, tomes, videos, looking for a lot of general information, etc. Whenever I considered a resource, if it had details that would help me fill a gap, I used it. If it didn’t have details to fill a gap, I didn’t use it.
My Approach to the Research
Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start with beer…..
The first scene of every novel should do something to create a fundamental tension that will carry through the entire story–an inciting incident, it’s called. I also wanted to ground the novel in the city of Green Bay (where, again, I’ve never been) and, through some random online searches about what’s “hot” in Green Bay, came across craft beers as a thing. Because the first scene in the novel takes place in a bar (a fictional one, mind you), I did some research about craft beers and made the owner of the bar a brewer of craft beers (who’s won award from the Brewers Association). Most of the research that I did here was reading online articles including “How to Brew Beer and What it Costs“, “Craft Brewer Defined” and, most interestingly, “Why You Should Add a Pickle to Your Next Beer“.
The second area of research about Marines who fought during the siege of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War also required a lot of online research. Some examples about Khe Sanh include “Stars and Stripes: The Bloody Battle of Khe Sanh: 77 Days Under Siege” and “HistoryNet: The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh“. I also watched some of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War.
I am fortunate to also be friendly with someone who was studying the experiences of American war veterans while serving as a fellow of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veterans Experience Office. She provided me with a well-informed map entitled “Journeys of Veterans”, which detailed the various stages of a veteran’s life journey.” It was invaluable to go through all these identified stages and to map them (loosely, admittedly) against the personal experiences of Carl’s Uncle Jack.
I also needed some details about the recruitment of and role of Marines during the war. Most of what I learned didn’t make it into the novel but I owe the Marine Corps University Research Library in Quantico, Virginia a debt of gratitude.
Walleye fishing required tons of online research that inevitably led me to also learn about the stressed ecosystem of Green Bay in the early 1990s due to overfishing and the role of predatory mussels, many of which came into the bay attached to cargo ships plying between the bay and the Great Lakes. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources actually had a quota on fishing in the early 1990s. The main river that cuts through Green Bay is the Fox River, and I learned about an organization called Friends of the Fox River that was working to keep the river ecosystem alive and well-preserved.
I ended up realizing there has been a lot of tension between industrial and environmental interests in Green Bay so I decided that the young woman who has a romantic interest in Carl worked for a real nonprofit organization called Friends of the Fox River and was a big environmentalist. I actually think Friends of the Fox River is a volunteer organization but my novel is fiction, after all, so I hope no one will get upset if I slightly mis-represent the organization by giving my female lead a paid position there!
I also interviewed the owner from a bait shop in Green Bay, Smokey’s on the Bay, to learn more about walleye fishing trends and the equipment that fishermen use. The Ranger fishing boat that Carl takes out on the bay when he’s “trying to get away from it all” was the direct result of that interview.
Getting back to the Vietnam War aspect of the book, I did some reading about Agent Orange and, in particular, the number of ailments that war veterans suffered as a result of their exposure. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a disease of the white blood cells, was one, so I gave it to Bob Brown – Uncle Jack’s best friend. I needed to figure out what kind of treatment he would require and what kind of symptoms someone in his position would struggle with, so I turned to an obscure memoir named No Such Thing As a Bad Day by Hamilton Jordan who was one-time chief of staff for U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Jordan served in Vietnam and contracted non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In his memoir, he takes readers through his personal account of struggling with the disease and what treatment he received. It was an invaluable resource!
I also read tons of New York Times reports and Congressional Research Service reports about Agent Orange and learned, depressingly, about how how in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs could not effectively advocate to point out the causation between exposure to toxins in Vietnam and their carginogenic effect on veterans; as a result, many veterans suffered from various ailments for years without compensation from the U.S. government.
To wrap up, I focused on two primarily research sources for information about downtown Green Bay and the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, and for human resources professionals who work at hospitals. Deb Anderson of the Archives and Area Research Center at the university was an amazing resource who provided details about campus in the early 1990s, as well as what housing communities and blue bars were around Green Bay at the time. She had access to details I couldn’t have come up with on my own.
And then, finally, with no way of figuring out how to research human resource specialists at hospitals (the Society for Human Resources Management sadly turned out not to be that helpful), I resorted to LinkedIn and sent out several invitations to human resource officers at hospitals around the country. One replied and I very much thank Christine Tierney, the chief human resources officer, of Pennsylvania Hospital who graciously gave me 30 minutes of her time for an interview. The information she shared helped me fill out Carl’s father’s professional background.
So that’s it! This is by no means the full list of resources I went through to find out enough details to write Green Bay Outsiders. But it’s most of them; research is never the sexy part of writing, I would imagine most people think. Fortunately, though, I love learning and, although I’m less patient with figuring out who to interview or where to find research resources, I am persistent. So as soon as I find the right interviewee or book, I’m excited to get going.
Green Bay Outsiders will be out soon. In the meantime, this wraps up my research process and gives you a glimpse under the hood of how some authors research their material to make sure they get it right in their books!
Click here to read part I of this two-part blog series on research.
Do you enjoy researching new information? What do you do for a living, or how do you spend your time, that requires you learn something new?