Research Notes · 10/05/2018

Scoundrels Among Us

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Darrin Doyle writes about _Scoundrels Among Us from Tortoise Books.

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Q: Is the inside of my brain the journey or the destination?

A: Both.

Q: Interesting, wonderful. Then each step I take can be called a purpose, a goal. Now I can simply stroll along, enjoying myself: the paths of words, of sounds, of cadences; dropping punctuation along the way like breadcrumbs. When a bird chirps I can even step into the brush, wade far off the path to search for it, knowing that if I get lost I’ll find my way back.

A: So where did that bird go?

Q: Good question (or answer). Stop and listen and feel the breeze. There’s that trill again; a short and chipper melody. I crane my neck, look up high into the branches. Yep, I see movement. Hopping from branch to branch. A tiny bird, rust-colored and herky-jerky, oh happy bird with no natural predators out here.

A: But what kind of bird is it? Give me the name so I can Google it and find a picture.

Q: Does it really matter what species it is? Maybe. Maybe naming the species will help my credibility, keep the reader “in the story,” really “sell it.” Maybe a reader will be able to “relate better” because they’ll say, “I’ve seen that kind of bird before!”

Or maybe all I need are enough other concrete details to keep the reader from worrying about the particular species. Too much taxonomy-dropping, after all, and you’re writing a biology textbook.

I once started a novel about Kentucky caver Floyd Collins. What an amazing story his was! (You should Google it.) In 1925 he was exploring the underground passages surrounding his family home, trying to find some nice caves that could bring in tourists. He got stuck in a narrow passage no wider than a coffin, his leg trapped by a rock shaped like a Christmas ham. Spent over 30 days deep underground; rescuers could shimmy down one at a time, bring him food and water, but no one could get him out. The whole ordeal turned into one of the first big media sensations of our time as radio and newspaper reporters set up camp and covered it 24/7.

The story was perfect for me; after all, I’m claustrophobic and was salivating about the prospect of mining my deep-seated fears. (Do you like those spelunking puns? Are they truly spelunking puns, or mining puns?) Plus all that potential for commentary and questions about the media and how it turns tragedy into profit. I imagined Ulysses meets The Poseidon Adventure meets Network.

But I got too bogged down by the damn research! I could hardly write a sentence without looking up what kind of boot polish or how much a school textbook cost or what flora might populate Mammoth County. That’s probably fun for some writers, but not for me. I lost Floyd’s soul along the way.

A: But what happened to Floyd in real life?

Q: Ah, yes, everyone wants to know what’s “true.” The rescue failed; Floyd died.

A: I’d like for someone to research me. What would they find? And then: how would they express what they find? What would they leave in, what would they leave out? Would it be a comedy? A tragedy? A cautionary tale? The literary equivalent of a baked potato? Or a spicy jambalaya?

Q: Seriously: don’t research me. My collection Scoundrels Among Us is already close enough to laying bare my skivvies. This goes back to what’s inside our brains and whether it’s a journey or a destination. Every book I write, in a sense, is a “portrait of the artist as a ______ man” and therefore represents a lifetime of research. Every book I write, in a sense, contains everything I’ve ever read! But I’ll be damned if I can separate it out now.

A: I was at my cousin’s wedding last week. The bride and groom did a ritual during the ceremony. There were two vials of sand on a table: one sand was blue, the other green. They each poured their sand into an empty container. Then the priest shook up the container so all the sand was mixed together. He said, “Just as these two colors of sand can now never be separated, so two can this man and this woman never be separated. Together, these two colors of sand have formed a new entity, in the same way that joining this man with this woman has created a new person.”

Q: Perfect analogy. That’s how I feel about research. Sure, I have to research stuff all of the time, but it would be tedious to list it. It’s mostly just common crap. All of this information becomes different colors of sand, and on a daily basis it dumps into my head and mixes with the other sand of my experiences, thoughts, opinions, personality, and so on. Hopefully it forms something new when I put it on the page.

A: We should never fight again.

Q: I love you.

A: Let’s not go crazy now.

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Darrin Doyle has lived in Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Cincinnati, Louisville, Osaka (Japan), and Manhattan (Kansas). He has worked as a paperboy, mover, janitor, telemarketer, pizza delivery driver, door-to-door salesman, copy consultant, porn store clerk, freelance writer, and technical writer, among other jobs. After graduating from Western Michigan University with an MFA in fiction, he taught English in Japan for a year. He then earned his PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of the novels Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press) and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s), and the short story collection The Dark Will End the Dark (Tortoise Books). His short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hobart, Blackbird, Harpur Palate, Redivider, BULL, and Puerto del Sol, among others. Currently he teaches at Central Michigan University and lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with his wife and two sons.