Thursday, August 6, 2020

Little Help Here? from James W. Ziskin

When you have craft questions, where do you go for answers? A particular website? A book? Podcasts? Writer friends?

This week’s question is a difficult one. Why? Because the vast majority of questions I have are research related, not craft related.

I am very much a solitary writer. I don’t show my work to anyone until I’ve done at least three complete revisions. So any questions I might have about craft go to my beta readers. Usually It’s something along the lines of “Is this compelling? Does this work? Will this offend people? Does it make sense? These beta readers—hopefully—give me honest feedback on my stories, my plotting, clarity, and character likability. Once a book or story has gone though my first six or seven revisions, which incorporate changes based on my beta readers’ feedback, my editors will also provide opinions on the same questions as above.

Each book or story I write has a somewhat different group of beta readers. For TURN TO STONE, for example, I relied on—among others—several Italian readers and people familiar with Italy. For A STONE’S THROW, I asked some horse racing handicappers and fans to provide feedback. And for my work in progress, A MONSOON SEASON (tentative title), which is set in India in 1975, I am asking Indians, young and old, to let me know their thoughts on the tone and the believability of the setting and the people.

But that’s not exactly “craft.” Maybe if we stretch the definition. It feels more like research and sensitivity feedback that I’m seeking.

As mentioned above, my work in progress, which is currently on its fourth revision, is set in 1975 India. It’s the story of a young American journalist working for a wire news service who has recently arrived in Bombay for a long-term assignment. Before he can settle into his new life, a domestic “emergency” is declared by the government, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi seizes broad powers. She suspends many civil liberties and limits freedom of the press. She also jails her political opponents and, for all intents and purposes, becomes a dictator for about eighteen months. The Emergency is the backdrop for the novel, but the story is not political. It’s a stranger-in-a-strange-land throwback thriller, what I describe as Gatsby meets Graham Greene on the Subcontinent. An ambitious story like this requires a lot of research and familiarity with India.

Me on a kettuvallam in Kerala
Me on a kettuvallam in Kerala
Now, little-known fact: over the past twenty-five years, I’ve made fifty-six trips to India and spent more than four years there, living, working, and touring the country. I know Mumbai and Pune well. Bangalore, too. And I’ve visited Delhi, Chennai, the foothills of the Himalayas, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, and Goa. I’ve slept in a treehouse near Lonavala, on a kettuvallam (houseboat) in the backwaters of Kerala, and in a five-star luxury tent in Jaipur. So I have a rich store of experiences that I can call upon to flesh out my main character’s expatriate life in India. But...

I’m not Indian and I wasn’t there in 1975. Those realities present some formidable research challenges. Here are some of them.

How do I handle (realistically and sensitively) the issue of skin color (darkness and fairness) in a book about India? This is like walking a tightrope. One main character in my book has darker skin than the Bollywood “ideal.” She is emotionally scarred by memories of taunting from her youth. Added to the difficulty of discussing skin color is the fact that the narrator of the story is a white man from America. And, yes, he’s in love with her.

Other, less-tricky problems to resolve include:
The cost of hotels, liquor, and food in 1975 Bombay. (Mumbai today, but in 1975 it was Bombay.)

The big films of the day. (This one was easier than the rest to research.)

Daily life under the Emergency of 1975-77.

The name of the Osho Ashram in Poona in 1975? Hint, it wasn’t Osho.

The problem is that the Internet can only go so far in helping with this research. It’s hard to find The little details of history and everyday Indian life from that time online. The same was true, by the way, in my research of 1963 Italy For TURN TO STONE. Here in America, we seem to love looking back in time. Online, you can find almost anything you want to know about products, prices, fads, music, films, and more from the past. But the records are sparse online for similar examples of Indian nostalgia. That’s why I have leaned on some wonderful people who were there at the time and remember. Several of them have agreed to vet the accuracy and believability of my 1975 India. I think I’m in good shape to look after the American in India part myself. Indian and other readers will advise me on the skin color issue, which is an important and emotional theme in the book.

My M.O., then, is really threefold when it comes to consulting people and resources. One, I consult beta readers (writers, fiends, family, and experts) to help with research and tone. Two, I use the Internet all the time—personal blogs, Wikipedia, Google Maps, newspapers, Google’s Ngram Viewer (to verify words used at that time), and many more. Three, I consult the Chicago Manual of Style for grammar, capitalization, punctuation, and other stylistic concerns. You can take it to the bank that I use the Oxford comma. You should, too.


Finta said...

I’m so ready for this book.

Little known fact about me: I’m fascinated with India and China, than and now.

So you’re writing this one for me, yes?

Xox. Ann

Terry said...

Fascinating post, Jim. If the way you describe your process is any indication, this is going to be wonderful.

Leslie Karst said...

I can't tell you how excited I am about this new book, Jim! I've been fascinated with India since 1972, when my family lived in Oxford, England--it was when I ate my first Indian food, and when I studied Forster's Passage to India in the 6th form at my school. I remember buying a history of India at Blackewell's bookstore to learn more about the country.

And I also love anything you write.

Nancy Cole Silverman said...

I’m excited about this new book. Your work teaches, informs and entertains. I’m in awe.

Vinu said...

In case you run out of beta readers, I can volunteer!! :) - Vinu

Vinu said...

In case you run out of beta readers, I can volunteer!! :) - Vinu

Susan C Shea said...

Let's hear it for the Oxford comma! I promise not to get distracted relishing each one in the new book, but I do not promise not to pre-order it when you've released it to your publisher.

Catriona McPherson said...

Loved this blog, Jim. Still reeling from not knowing about Ngram viewer!

Jeffrey Siger said...

Great blog, oh modern embodiment of Gatsby to Graham Greene! Can’t wait.

Kathy Reel said...

Jim, there's just something about India that intrigues me, and I can't wait to see what your amazing writing does with that setting. So, this is a standalone book? I'm all for that, but please tell me Ellie is still continuing, too.

Susan Courtright said...

Thank you for the wonderful insight into your process and love of India. Looking forward to this one (as I always am).