Research Notes · 04/20/2012

The Same Terrible Storm

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sheldon Lee Compton writes about some sources of the stories in his new collection The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books).

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I rarely do actual research in the literal sense of the word for anything I’m writing, but I consider listening and tucking away details from stories I hear a huge part of my writing process. I’ve often said I live in a region of storytellers and so there’s this constant influx of material for me to choose from.

In my collection of short stories, The Same Terrible Storm, many of the stories came in this way — hearing a bit of family history or, more often, working from a memory and expanding it until I’ve created something new and fresh.

But working from memories, especially childhood memories, a writer’s biggest challenge is avoiding sentimentality. I’ve not always succeeded, but I keep trying.

To point to a story from my collection where this was the most challenging, I’d have to say “Blueprint” posed the biggest risk. It’s a story about a boy who is struggling with an abusive stepfather and holds a grudge against his mother because of it, while also coming to terms with the loss of his biological father. There’s a lot of me in this story, a great deal, in fact, but I whittled the clearest parts of me from the piece itself through eight tight drafts. By the time I was finished, there was so little of me in the story I nearly wondered where I had come up with the idea. I knew then it would work.

Aside from memory and general observation, I’ve written in a sort of reverse research method. It sounds strange, I know, but I’m a history nut and I’ll find myself reading biographies endlessly or cruising Wikipedia for interesting pages to jump to and enjoy. This has led to several stories, including “The Thin Pages of Her Words”, a flash piece I wrote after running across a photograph by Shelby Lee Adams of two brothers praying on bended knee with a bible between them. The photograph acted as a prompt, and when I finally met Adams in Louisville several months later I quickly told him how I had written the story and then used a number of his photographs for other stories. It almost felt like stealing, but Adams was pleased and I was reminded of the old saying that artists generally steal.

Other pieces have come from my love of music. I’ve played guitar since I was five and often this spills over into my work. Not only have I played music, but I’ve always had a fascination with some of the larger than life people who have brought us great music — Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits. This interest links back, in turn, to my love of biography. I wrote “Johnny’s Blue Mosrite Guitar” with this in mind. When I learned that Johnny Ramone’s first guitar, a blue Mosrite, was stolen after an early gig, I immediately started wondering where this guitar would be today. A story formed in my mind and I wrote it down.

Something else I’ve said in the past is that I’m just one of hundreds of storytellers who live in Eastern Kentucky, most of whom live within ten miles of me. The key difference is that I write my stories down and submit them to journals or gather them into collections. But it by no means indicates my stories are better. Some of the best stories I’ve had the pleasure of coming across came during ordinary conversations at the gas station or while standing outside smoking at a wedding. Harry Crews once said that in the South folks don’t tell you facts when communicating. The facts come in the form of stories, often elaborate and always memorable.

A story not included in The Same Terrible Storm that has since become the first chapter to a novel I’m currently working on was “The Bottom Field”. A long piece, this story was handed to me over the period of about a week while sitting on the porch at my house watching the neighbors.

I say “handed” to me because I simply watched these two brothers walking back and forth across a large bottom field used for gardening and, as I’m inclined to do, I started to make up reasons why they made so many trips back and forth. These brothers are known drug dealers in the area and so I included that in the inner plot forming in my mind. I built conflict around these brothers with the drug dealing at the center. Before I knew it, I had a story. I talk with these brothers often and they have no idea they are characters in a story I wrote while watching them visit each other. It feels strange at times, but ideas come and the writer, I believe, has to always allow them a free current, remain open to what some would call inspiration.

So, while I’ve never used traditional research — that is, research conducted in the halls of a library — I suppose I would consider my methods as a very real form of research, nonetheless. Observation, the wells of memory, and a deep curiosity have always been the three biggest means by which I find myself writing and telling a story. However, the few times I have sought out information with a story in mind, rather than the reverse, it has always stuck in my mind.

Most notably, a story idea that still knocks around in my head has to do with Cassius Clay throwing his gold medal into the Ohio River. I looked into this pretty closely, though I have yet to write the story. My idea is to have some folks who have the notion to dive and look for the medal with hopes of selling it for money. It’s an impossible thing to do, but that’s probably going to be the key to the story. They never actually do it. Instead they just sit and talk about doing it. It is to be a story about action as opposed to inaction, and, like all stories, say something beyond what is presented about all of us.

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Sheldon Lee Compton lives in Eastern Kentucky. His work has appeared in numerous journals and been nominated twice for the Puschart Prize, as well as anthologized on many occasions. A past founder and editor of three literary journals, he is the author of The Same Terrible Storm. To learn more, visit bentcountry.blogspot.com.