Friday, March 16, 2018

Writing With Your World Rocked

Research is a little like an iceberg. A lot of it doesn’t show. How do you decide how much research to put into your work?

I love facts and figures. It's been a thing of mine since I would read a volume of our partial set of World Book Encyclopedias in the kitchen as I ate cereal. I was the kid who held up the field trip because I read everything—and I mean everything—posted at the exhibits. That, and I was probably explaining it to some girl I liked. This is pre-World Wide Web so I would make a note to look up unfamiliar elements whenever I was back in front of resource materials in the library. Even today, my recall of even the most innocuous details about a person, place, or thing is so fast and yet complete, I sometimes look up things I already know just to make certain I'm not making it up. I never am. I usually can't remember what day it is, but I can tell you all sorts of shit about the Carnegie Library System, or what sort of relationship Herbert Hoover had with Harry Truman. If I wasn't handsome and a good dancer, folks would figure me a dork.

Admittedly, my grades always sucked, as I never did the work that was assigned to me. I'd make an earnest start, but then something within the research would interest me more than what we were working on in class. Back in the day, teachers would write cute little love notes to my parents in progress reports such as, "Easily distracted," and my personal favorite, "Refuses to finish what he starts." At a parent/teacher conference, Mrs. Nicholas, my 4th-grade teacher, told Rosalita, "Danny is brilliant, so much sometimes it's frightening, but he only studies what he wants to."

I'd get incompletes on all my homework, drop comedic gems from the back of the classroom, fail all the quizzes, yet ace all the tests, offering additional notes and sources in the side margin of my papers. I thought math word problems were opportunities for discourse. I was a mess and, aside from the occasional beatdown which held my attention only as long as the welts stung, I really gave no f*cks about it. I didn't have any learning disorders. I wasn't bored. I wasn't self-destructive. Teacher assigns me this, I study it, and my research uncovers that. The that feels more important, so I go with it, winding up wherever it takes me. I look up and the rest of the class is on a completely new chapter of the textbook. I remark how nothing in that chapter is relevant because the current chapter is really about x.

Boom. Ruler strikes on the palm. Hallpass issued. Assistant principal calls the hospital where my old G works. I may have a chance if she answers. If not, they call the firehouse where, for the old man, everything is life or death. Either way, I'll be taking that slow, long walk from the bus stop. Hey, an ass-whippin' only lasts so long, but knowledge is forever.

I'm not the sort of writer who takes offense as those who eschew research in favor of making it up as they go along. I just wonder if folks get how solid research really fuels a story. I once heard a peer on a panel say something to the effect of "Just make it up. No one knows what's really at that address, or where some such street really takes you." Actually, homie. I know. Plenty of folks know.

Making it up is harder, not easier. I leverage highly detailed research to reserve my creativity for plotting, dialogue and moments of exposition that illuminate the subject matter for the reader. If I'm not spending time and energy recreating what already exists crystalized in history, I'm free to explore thoughts, feeling, motivation, relationship, throughlines. If I'm burning up all my coal on world-building because I couldn't be bothered to research the setting, people, language, and customs, what mojo do I have for the fat meat of the story that makes the work stand out? No one over at Publisher's Weekly or Kirkus is going to write, "The story was flat, and the characters were thin, but where this book really shines is in the fictitious world created atop the perfectly good world that already existed." Making it up is like leaving the pot meat out of the beans. All that work and still no flavor.

Often, my research tells me what I'm really writing. I'm currently finishing my follow-up to A Negro and an Ofay. In it, Elliot Caprice returns to Bronzeville in Chicago, a neighborhood that is vital to the way America understands itself in the present day, except Google any location where our shared history placed a pin, click on satellite view, and you'll find a parking lot, vacant lot, or a pile of rubble. That led me to a deeper understanding of redlining, restrictive covenants, and local municipal ordinances. I'm writing a mystery thriller and I'm stopping to read a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago titled "The Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps" authored by Daniel Aaronson, Daniel Hartley, and Bhashkar Mazumder. I'm just trying to get my facts straight before I start a new chapter. Then I read the abstract:


In the wake of the Great Depression, the Federal government created new institutions such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to stabilize housing markets. As part of that effort, the HOLC created residential security maps for over 200 cities to grade the riskiness of lending to neighborhoods. We trace out the effects of these maps over the course of the 20th and into the early 21st century by linking geocoded HOLC maps to both Census and modern credit bureau data.

You may find these words dry and boring, but the hair on my neck stood up. Perhaps it was the word 'geocoded.'

Our analysis looks at the difference in outcomes between residents living on a lower graded side versus a higher graded side of an HOLC boundary within highly close proximity to one another.

So, like, the thinnest of borders between black and white Chicago neighborhoods where death to a black person is a guarantee. The source of hostilities carried forward through generations although no one remembers why everyone is big mad. Aight. Aight.

We compare these differences to “counterfactual” boundaries…"

"Counterfactual boundaries." Oh, shit. Turf wars. Lenard Clark. "I ever catch you anywhere near Bridgeport and I'll kill you myself." Whooooah...

And just like that, my January writing retreat was a research retreat.

For the next few mornings, I became an expert on the reasons why Bronzeville is dead and gone. In a nutshell, once black folk entered the northern urban middle-class and did what was customary (get married, have plenty of children, educate them in preparation of entering the workforce,) the black population of Chicago grew, same as the Irish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, etc. Except when those populations grew, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a Federal agency, didn't erase the red lines around their neighborhoods and redraw them farther and wider. "Does a black family live there? Oh, then that must be the ghetto. Give me that pencil." Yeah, it's as arbitrary and cavalier as it seems. That's why places vital to the growth, stability, and promise of America turn up as wastelands on Google Earth. Am I writing about redlining or ghetto creation? Am I attempting an allegory about the dangers of government overreach? Man, I'm just trying to get to the next car chase or shootout. Still, I just can't help it. Danny wants to learn only what he wants to learn, and I learned where I take Elliot in the future is far different than where I wanted him to go.

So how much or how little my research shows depends upon how much work it gets done for me. The more it accomplishes, the less I actually have to write. For example, all that research on discriminatory housing practices endorsed and supported by the Federal government amounted to a half-page of dialogue. Good dialogue, but that's it. So does the research shape the work? Maybe. I know it shapes me. That's likely the point. 


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For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.