Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Ellen Birkett Morris writes about Lost Girls from Touchpoint Press.
Beg, Borrow and Steal
There is a lot of voyeurism in my short story collection Lost Girls. A virgin watches women breastfeed at a La Leche League meeting, and feels so left out she joins the group. An older woman watches the young man painting a wall in her store appraisingly as she remembers past lovers. Two young girls spy on their neighbors in the laundry room with devastating, unexpected results. A young man watches the beautiful town librarian bathe from his vantage point in the woods. Isn’t that why we read, to be able to peek into the lives, the minds, the bedrooms of other people?
It’s not an original thought, but writers are spies. Our antennae are up for interesting stories, turns of phrase, strange images, emotional responses, any kind of authentic detail that we can steal or model to make our characters more real. I count a lifetime of this kind of watching and listening as the research that formed the basis of the stories in Lost Girls.
These touchstones that build character and drive action come to me in a variety of ways. I experience them, or overhear them in conversation, or I steal them from other sources. Then I dig in and learn more about them through research, so that I can embed them in the story in just the right way. I test the impressions of my memories and emotions against the sharp detail of fact, and blend the desires of a fictional character acting in a made up world to find meaning that is embodied in the story. Here are a few examples of this process.
My family was having one of the long leisurely meals that my mother was famous for, the table weighed down with her fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and homemade yeast rolls. It is the kind of supper that will leave you food drunk with a loose tongue. My sister-in-law started talking about the folkways of her family, who lived in Western Virginia, which included saving the teeth and hair of the deceased. Somehow we got on the topic of sin eaters, usually poor people, paid by the rich to symbolically eat the sins of their dead relatives to ease the deceased way into heaven.
Sin eating was so unusual, so full of metaphoric possibility, that I couldn’t let it go. I looked it up and found out the “corpse cakes” were laid on the clothed body of those who passed. The sin eater declared their intention of consuming the sins and then ate the cake. I tried to write the story for years, before I was finally angry enough about world events to find my way into “Inheritance,” the story of the daughter of a miner who is sold into sexual service by her family and called in to eat the sin of a rich matriarch, while secretly pregnant with the dead woman’s grandchild.
Needless to say, no matter how stuffed I get at dinner, I keep myself focused enough to catch the conversational gifts that drop from the sky.
If writers are spies, they are also thieves, stealing dialogue from the people at the next table in the coffee shop, hoarding images from books and movies, waiting to put their own spin on it. The bottle tree in my story “Bottle Tree Blues” is an example of blatant thievery. I live in the south and have seen bottle trees on front lawns, but it was the use of a bottle tree in Kate Dicamillo’s book for children Because of Winn Dixie that really inspired me. In her story, a recovering alcoholic makes a bottle tree to keep the ghosts of her past misdeeds away.
I put the bottle tree in my idea file. When a friend mentioned that she wore her grandmother’s pajamas, which had the grandmother’s name written in laundry marker on the label, I began to work on a story of a girl left in the care of her grandmother. Bereft by her mother’s abandonment, Kelly seeks solace. Her grandmother makes a bottle tree and tells her that the sound of the wind blowing past the bottles will carry her sadness away. Later, when Kelly falls for Silas, a drinker, he makes a bottle tree of his own to signal to her that he has given up drinking.
Another way to enter a story is to take a small piece of your personal history and refashion it to explore what might have been. My title story “Lost Girls” is based on a kidnapping in my neighborhood when I was 18. A young girl was kidnapped and the media attention eventually led to the creation of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The kidnapping was horrible, but eventually other things in my life pushed it to the background. In my story, the protagonist creates a ritual to celebrate and remember the life of the girl who is taken.
Readers love pop culture references because they help place the story in time and come loaded with associations that can connect the reader and the character. I love finding ways to fit the stuff of my youth into a story that explores emotions that are relevant today.
In “Like I Miss Not Being a Ballerina,” I was able to tie the magic of the television shows Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie to a young girl’s wish for power and independence in a world where she was supposed to want to be thin like Cher from The Sonny and Cher Show. When her best friend’s mom gets sick she escapes through television:
The beautiful witch on the sitcom accidentally turns her neighbor into
a frog. I watch as she rushes around frantically trying to reverse the spell.
I know that in real life there is no reversing anything; everything goes
forward. That’s the thing about television; it offers all these wild dreams.
Whether they are given or stolen or simply reshaped, I am open to the odd, quirky, captivating stuff of life that is all around us just waiting to be mined in service of story.