Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Rusty Barnes writes about the complications of writing from family memory for his collection Mostly Redneck.
The Perils and Pratfalls of Researching Fiction
One of the ways you can tell a laggard from a pro is the way they explain their research. Sit me down for an interview, and I might shuffle around in my head a bit, cast about for something to say that hasn’t been said before by better writers than me, and come up with this sad fact: every writer does research, some maniacally, some less so. You hear tell of research-gone-awry stories in every writing class and even at the drunken pill and powder sodden gangbang cotillion debaucheries you get to see sometimes in grad school when the hour hits late/early and three women clad only in their underwear show up. Tired or no, you have to join the party, and do the ‘research.’ Or at least, that’s what we tell the people what ain’t got an MFA (they need something else to be jealous about). It pains me to admit, though, that I am not a researcher. What I am is a borrower or maybe robber of the apt (and correct) detail, a chiseling wisenheimer who not only scofflaws these details but appropriates them for fictional, i.e. not truthful, i.e. lying situations. I am a serial faker of research. What I really mean by that is I don’t research at all. Not even barely, a little.
My lack of ethics in this research, sometimes to my regret, sometimes not, is often clear to my family and to other careful readers. There is a grievous error regarding particulars of a coon hunt in my first book that my brother and father and uncles will never let me live down. Or maybe that’s my imagining their imagination. In either case, it’s demeaning, and I’ll try my damnedest not to let an error like that happen again. It’s their fault the family’s coon hunting passion died out before I was born. All I know are the stories, which I think are more than half bullshit sometimes and therefore unreliable, but entertaining and fiction-ready nonetheless. In the story “Thunder & Putsy” from my first book Breaking it Down, I imagined into being the king of all coons, one that was smart enough and mean enough to kill a dog. Badass coon, right? The story I heard from my uncle neglected to say how the dog had been killed. I had the raccoons kill it via their natural weapons, claws and teeth; the family experts rightly said nope, wouldn’t happen. Coons aren’t strong enough or big enough to kill a dog in a fight of that sort. The dog had been killed by the coon, yes, but under much different circumstances. The sneaky coon lured the dumb pup into deep water and sat on its head, forcing the dog underwater to drown. Without direct experience, you can only research that sort of thing anecdotally, and indeed, that’s what I do. I am an often lazy searcher-outer of stories and situations which seem ripe for rip-off. I deny being an autobiographical writer, too, but that’s a subject for another time.
Truth be told, when it comes to research, anecdotal or otherwise, I lazily use my family instead of Google too often, and I end up in late-night phone conversations with my old man saying things like “can you really pick up a singletree and knock a man out with it?” to which he might have said “probably, but why would you want to?” As well, it’s so much easier and pleasanter — we don’t otherwise talk much — to call up my brother to ask when the velvet on the whitetail deer antler dries up. But there’s a price for every theft. To do this, to beg for info I should already have in mind, honestly humiliates me and, I believe, betrays my family and my connection to them and the place I grew up. When I ask something like that, something that I should know and did in fact know twenty-five years ago when I lived there with him and my parents and sister in the same house, the lack crunches inside my very gut and I feel it in my bowels for days. Back then, when I was at home, I simply knew these and countless other things instinctually, all these many facts about nature and the cycle of seasons handed down to me by my extended family of older men and women who spent an indecently huge but necessary portion of their lives using that knowledge to, well, eat, and drink, and live in the world. That knowledge, however much I retained, being concerned with what went on in my head to the exclusion of pretty much everything else for the first twenty-five years of my life, has been slowly leached from me over the last twenty years of being a city boy and not getting outside much. Had I known what I’d lose by leaving, both the family and the tight connection to the land, I might never have left, might have remained part of the anecdotes, part of the family and culture, and unconcerned with making fiction from a life with sufficient drama already.
The perils of researching this way for historical accuracy, or even for accurate contemporary details, especially in matters of nature and gunfire and mastitis and the like, are many. Anecdotes are not facts; stories are not facts, and human sources can give you crap info. But, accurate facts must be present and must lend themselves to sufficiently felt — accurate, it goes with saying — detail and further, the support of the fictive dream, at least for the type of writing I admire and aspire to. The more research you do — where is Foxfire Volume 5 again? — the more you think you’re still a dumb country boy, the more you think of these things as something you lost irretrievably only to gain… what exactly? Concrete under your feet 24/7 and the only passing fancy of nature when you have to rake the goddamned leaves and clean bird shit off your minivan? You lose something of yourself when you research this way and I don’t recommend it. Keep people, real or otherwise, far away from your research. That’s what the world-wide-web is for. Love the people, love the family, love the writing, but keep them all separate, if you can.