Research Notes · 04/03/2015

On The Way

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Cyn Vargas writes about On The Way from Curbside Splendor.

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My Way to On The Way

The fourteen stories in On The Way came together the way a grocery list does. What’s needed, what’s missing, what would compliment, what do we need more of, what stands out on it’s own? I wrote roughly twenty-five short stories for my thesis when I was in my Creative Writing graduate program not knowing which of these stories would go together well though they are each independent stories. I didn’t want the collection to be just one point of view, or one type of narrator, or all take place in the same setting. I was trying to get a range of different voices and stories while all the while having the collection feel like it was a collection and not some random grouping.

When I had chosen the ones that were going into the collection, some of the stories were in their third or fourth revision and some were just in their first draft. They were all at varying levels of completeness with a couple of them needing some standard research.

The conscious research I did involved looking up a sex during pregnancy pamphlet, if certain volcanoes were still active in Central America, and what kind of medications people used when dieting. Those things I had to research, make sure I got them right, because one of the worse things that can happen is the reader stopping because they know information they just received was wrong.

But then there was the research that was happening unconsciously. This sounds rather corny, I know, but the rest of the “research” was just by living. I didn’t know that vacationing at my grandmother’s home in Guatemala would lend itself to being a setting in my collection nor visiting my other grandmother in El Salvador. Both who lived very differently with one having a large house with hot water and the other a small house with no roof in one section and no running water at all.

A lot of my narrators feel isolated and just want to be happy. They don’t fit in and the research behind that is me. I was teased when I was little for my crooked teeth or frizzy hair (when it wasn’t chopped off by a barber when I was seven). I gained 60 pounds during pregnancy and was told by a doctor that wasn’t my regular OB that I was much too huge and cried all the way to the bus stop because I was too fat and still wanting pancakes with whip cream.

The stories in my collection aren’t exactly what happened to me, but I can empathize with my narrators because I have felt the emotions they are having before and isn’t that what makes us connect with stories in the first place? That empathy, that Oh, I’m not alone moment?

We don’t have to be in anyone’s exact situation to understand them or to be understood. And since we are all different people with different experiences, that exact moment will never be the same for people anyway because of our own perceptions of things. So that I know how they feel is important in a story even if the narrator is the opposite gender or a different age or the story takes place on Earth or some made up planet in the universe.

If anything could really be called research for my book, it would be called revision or research of self. It’s not till the first revision where I really focus on whether things and people make sense. Would this character really react this way? What gestures would this narrator do? (Followed by doing the actual gestures myself, so then I know how to put it on the page.) That takes a lot of my time.

Research is defined by a careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something — this definition by Merriam-Webster (which yes, I researched research). Isn’t that what revision is?

I never really thought of it that way until now. I am researching my characters as I revise and write and cut away and expand. I am carefully studying them, discovering new things about them, and the way they speak, and express themselves, and react to things. I am learning about the place they are in which, many times, is a character within itself.

Then when I have it all, I have to look at structure. How do I present what I have in the most beneficial way possible? As in, how can this effect the reader in the best order? Just like one who is designing a roller coaster has to research what best material to use for the best desired effect, and where to put the loops and how far is the drop, all of that and more has to be precise for the participants to have the best ride possible. The same goes with my stories.

The first draft is for myself. I don’t outline or think about where the story is going. I either hear dialogue in my head, or see an image, or even have a name and then I explore it. The first story just happens and by no means does that mean it works out great. What it does mean is I spend a good 2-3 hours just writing without worrying about structure or character development, or overthinking.

The first revision and the ones that follow are for my readers- paying close attention and working hard, so that the words and core of the story are conveyed to them. So, they get what it is I am trying to get across though most times I have no idea what that is until the story is completely done and ready to send out into submission vortex.

The fourteen stories in On The Way, hopefully do that for the reader. They read the stories, they can empathize with the narrators at some level, which means they will care and will want to continue to read. And hopefully, the reader won’t wonder about research because the research is there disguised as story.

Say that three times fast.

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Cyn Vargas holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and is the recipient of a Ragdale Fellowship and the 2013 Guild Literary Complex Prose Award in Fiction. Cyn was named one of Guild’s Literary Complex’s 25 Writers to Watch in 2014 and received two top citations in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers contests. She is a company member of the award-winning storytelling organization 2nd Story. Her work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Word Riot, Literary Orphans, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing workshops around Chicago and online, and can be found online at cynvargas.com.