For the Love of It

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I don’t know exactly when it was that I fell in love with research. Perhaps it was in college, when I managed to convince five professors that the research I would do in the Navajo Reservation was important enough to excuse me from two weeks of classes, and that it would require the rescheduling of my mid-term exams. I can understand why my screenwriting professor went along with this, and maybe even the guy who taught Film as Literature. But how did I convince my American History, Astronomy and Sociology professors? Somehow I got them on board, and then I was off on a road trip that took me through California, Utah and Northern Arizona, taking the picaresque journey I was writing for my protagonist, a young half-Navajo, half-hick pig farmer on his way to the Salinas State Fair to show his nine hundred pound Dorac.

What the hell was I doing? I had a broken-down Toyota Corolla and a hundred bucks to my name. Was this a vision quest of some sort? Was I ducking my adult responsibilities, intent upon reenacting my own version of Kerouac’s “On the Road?”

Yes! Yes, and more! This was one-hundred-percent-university-stamped-and-approved road trip extraordinaire! Under the dubious title….RESEARCH.

And then a funny thing happened. I started learning about life. Things that would become the world of my story. I was alone in a strange land, lost first in a little hunting town called Kanab, Utah, then lost in a big desert called Monument Valley (almost lost to the flash floods that were flashing behind and in front of me), and then lost and found again in Window Rock, Arizona. And I met amazing people along the way – Native Americans and Anglos alike—and somehow I ended up sleeping with a .32 revolver under my pillow on New Years Eve, and somehow I ended up atop the wildest beast I ever know’d, hanging on for dear life, after I said the words “Sure, why not?” in answer to the question the little Indian boy had when he looked me in the eye and said, “Wanna ride my daddy’s rodeo horse?”

My God was it fun! And I ended up in the snowy desert around a little place called Rough Rock, or Round Rock, or a combination of the two, it didn’t really matter, they were one and the same with their lack of electricity and running water and plumbing and the hundreds of dogs and thousands of sheep that wandered the snowy hills looking for edible shrubs, some of which were medicinal, others hallucinogenic. And an ancient Navajo medicine man who duetted with me—his tribal flute to my soprano sax—gave me peyote for my ailing back and blessed it with cedar bark and a wave of his eagle feathers and soon I saw spirits in the linoleum on his kitchen floor.

Damn straight, this was research.

And I rode horseback through Canyon de Chelly to view the Anasazi Indian ruins first-hand, and I interviewed Navajo teachers and prophets and politicians and farmers. On my last day I was driven out to the boonies (it was all the boonies) to the home of a Navajo educator who had promised to drive me back to Gallup and it was late and cold when I arrived and he saw me and said, “It’s an old Navajo tradition to sleep in the same bed for warmth, you know,” and I realized that I had just met the first gay Navajo I’d ever known and I said, “Thank you, I’ll just stay over here in this bed…” and when I awoke I found him standing over me peering out the window saying, “Tsk, tsk, this doesn’t look good. We’ll be snowed in for days…” and he was right, the snow had descended on our little world and there I was.

Then at breakfast I met his parents who lived with him and spoke about me behind my back and he told me that they figured I was one of those hippies who used to hitchhike through in the Sixties and would stop in to stay and herd their sheep for a week or two. They asked me if I would like to herd their sheep and I declined. And during my stay I discovered that the gay Navajo (who was respecting my boundaries, by the way) was an amazing writer who had graduated from St. John’s School of Great Books and had, in his youth, danced professional ballet in New York City and had been a good friend to Andy Warhol.

By the time I returned to campus I had a glint in my eye and a taste for adventure. I took my delayed midterms and sat down to write. But I had friends who had heard where I’d been and one or two came to me and said, “You should’ve told me you were going to the Res, I could have hooked you up with a Navajo family and you would have stayed in their ceremonial Hogan…” I had no choice but to go back for more. And I did.

Research. Sometimes I think I’m a writer as an excuse to do research. I love it as much as the writing itself.

I once saw a greeting card that read, “We write so that we may experience life twice.”

I’ve learned that I do research so that I might experience life once, from as many perspectives as there are people to meet.

And when you call yourself a writer, people will talk. People will tell you the most amazing things. Everyone wants to be remembered, and everyone has a story to tell. And if you’re willing to listen…watch out!

When I start a project I like to do what I call “wallowing in research.” Sometimes I call it drowning, or sponging, or diving off the deep end. I go native. A life-long vegetarian, I recently went to Alabama to research the world of hunting in an effort to add some realism to the life experiences of the hero of one of my short stories. I thought it would just be an interview, and when I told the hunter I didn’t want to see an animal killed, he inched up close to my face and said, “Boy, this here’s a turkey hunt and if I see a turkey I’m gonna shoot it. If you get in the way you’re gonna end up with a chunk of birdshot in your ass.” Thank God we didn’t find any turkeys.

When I meet them I become them. Through research I’ve been an astronaut riding the space shuttle to the International Space Station. I’ve been a deep-sea submersible pilot. I’ve been a cosmonaut on Mir. I’ve been a Nobel Prize winning physicist. I’ve been the second man to step foot on the moon. I’ve been a medical examiner at the L.A. County Coroner’s Office. I’ve been the oldest policeman in the San Francisco Police Department (having first spent thirty years as a cable car brakeman). I’ve been the Executive Director of an organization that hides women from the perpetrators of human trafficking. I’ve been a Special Agent for the FBI.

For my novel, BOULEVARD, I researched sex addiction and LAPD procedures. As an unpublished writer I didn’t always get the access I wanted, and LAPD Media Relations didn’t want anything to do with novelists (whom they tended to call “journalists”). I do remember cold-calling the Chief Coroner Investigator at the LA Coroner’s Office and asking for a tour and interview, and I was astonished when he granted the request. In a half-hour tour I saw over two hundred bodies and six simultaneous autopsies, and every variant of death and decay you can imagine. It was strangely more serene than I had imagined and the experience reinvented my paradigm for writing scenes that take place in the Coroner’s Office.

My second novel, THE HOUSE OF WHISPERS, brings BOULEVARD’S protagonist, Hayden Glass, to San Francisco. I’ve spent many days over a period of many months “embedded” with members of the San Francisco Police Department. I’ve ridden with narcotics officers, sergeants and patrol officers, i
nterviewed captains and city councilmen, went on vice calls and foot patrol in the Tenderloin, interviewed everyone who has an opinion. I’ve been seen with so many officers in North Beach that I can’t convince the locals I’m not an undercover cop. And the restaurant owners won’t let me pay for a cup of coffee or a plate of linguini.

After six months of research I’m suddenly faced with the daunting realization that…I’ve got to WRITE something! I have to deliver a novel in three months! What was I thinking?

Research. I was thinking research. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

After I finished this post I read through Brett’s post and discovered that we’re blogging the same topic this week.  Well, that’s serendipity for you.  Sorry, Brett – at least you beat me to the punch.  Here’s my question for the Ratis – what is your opinion on research?  How has research influenced your own writing?  Do you love it or hate it?

18 thoughts on “For the Love of It

  1. Chuck

    Hey Stephen:

    Fun post! I really do my best to go on-site for research. Maybe I just don’t have a good enough imagination, because, for me, being able to experience all five senses (six if you count beer) on location seems to add another dimension, another texture to my writing.

    Thanks again, I enjoyed the read.

    Oh…BTW…wish I would have known you when you were researching sex addiction. One of my childhood friends "Jeff"…well, let’s just say my wife forbids me to see him. He could have been an excellent resource for you. 🙂


  2. Jake Nantz

    I would love it much more if I could afford to do more of it! Regardless, I just love finding little nuggets of information and imagining the possibilities. I think that’s as much as I can do at the moment, and it’s grand enough on its own.

  3. Lisa Hendrix

    Research is my favorite part of writing, except for publication day, It’s getting from one to the other that makes me sweat.

    Loved reading your adventures in Navajo land. I lived in the SW and travelled through that area for years, so it was like a vicarious road trip. Did you ever have the fry bread tacos in Tuba City? Blow your mind good.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – I’ve never been to Tuba City, although I have a cousin who lives there now. I do love the Indian fry bread I find in stands along the road, however. Mmmm good.

    Chuck – I’ve met many, many Jeffs.

    Jake – I never have any cash for these research trips. Things just end up working out. On the res I lived on the canned peaches I carried in my backpack.

  5. Rashda

    OMG, Stephen I love this post. You reminded me of all the adventures I used to have as a journalist. Then came marriage and babies and settling down –new adventures. Thanks so much. I’ll definitely have to read your books now. So happy writing & researching.

  6. JT Ellison

    I ADORE research. And I find it’s very easy to get so caught in the research that you don’t ever get to writing the book… had that happen a time or two. Stephen, your diligence certainly shows in your work, just like Brett’s. I applaud you both, and all the writers who move outside their comfort zones to tell a story.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Some of the best research trips I’ve ever done have been just from Michael handing me announcements of events he tears out of the newspaper. "You should go to this," he says. Inevitably, he’s right. In fact, I got the core idea from THE UNSEEN that way.

    If you live anywhere near a college or university there are HUNDREDS of lectures and events per year, documentaries on all kinds of countries and subjects, theater, performance art – a lot of it completely free and all goldmines of research material. Check your local libraries, too. And IMAX theaters!

    Having money is great but being open to what the universe has on tap is even better.

  8. Louise Ure

    That "I write in order to live life twice" quote comes from the French author Colette. And boy did she get her money’s worth out of that second life.

    I love research, too, Stephen, and I’m green with envy of your two week adventure in the desert Southwest.

  9. Wilfred Bereswill

    It’s funny you bring up Canyon de Chelly and research. My first book is about a natural viral outbreak and Canyon del Muerto, in Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a site for a Hantavirus outbreak, orignally dubbed Muerto Canyon Hantavirus or Muerto. The Navajo Indians objected to the name and it then took on just a generic Hantavirus tag.

    Love that research myself.

  10. Allison Brennan

    Now I feel like I have to blog about research on Sunday . . . hmmm.

    I love research, but I’ll admit I’ve never been as immersed as you. Six months!!! I think I’d go crazy.

    My favorite ‘field trip" as I call them was my morgue tour. I also loved going through the FBI Citizens Academy, and I’m touring Quantico for a week in September. It is much easier to get access once you’re published. I remember researching a major plot point for THE HUNT, my second book that I had to finish before my first book came out. No mechanic would tell me if my scenario on how to disable a car would work. And I was kind of stuck because the killer needed something discreet while the victims were at the gas station. And I liked my idea. But I had them hang up on me, tell me "sure" but I wasn’t confident they weren’t just blowing me off, to "no, it wouldn’t work." My husband refused to let me try on one of our cars (I was kind of joking when I asked, but he was in a state of shock that I’d even considered it.) I ended up at my niece’s baptism talking to my BILs friend, a mechanic, and he not only helped make my scenario better, he actually explained WHY it would work exactly the way I wanted. (Which was to have the car break down 3-5 miles after my victims left the gas station, so they’d be stranded on an isolated stretch of highway.)

    So, yeah, before you have credentials it’s hard to get people to talk. I was lucky that one of my good friends is married to a retired cop and I had another friend who was retired FBI.

  11. Pari

    Ah, those wonderful adventures, Stephen. Thank you for reminding me.

    One thing that’s interesting is that "research" seems to imply travel or something extraordinarily out of our lives. Right now, with the new series I’m writing, I’m reading and watching — observing the insect world around me, how plants grow — that kind of thing.

    Sometimes, "research" is simply paying attention.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – oh, man, I want to go to Quantico!!! I actually had the opportunity to fly the space shuttle simulator at NASA, but I had a day job and I couldn’t go on the shoot (this was for a Discovery Channel project). I was soooo bummed.
    Pari – yep, I agree with you that research is really about paying attention. It’s all around us. The stories are in every one we know, and everything we do. Still, I want to go to Quantico!

  13. KC in SF

    I wish you had posted this when you were still in your research phase. I work in the San Francisco Hall of Justice and I could have given you a tour. Of course, it hasn’t changed too much since the seventies so you could probably do any Hall of Justice research watching a few episodes of that seventies classic, The Streets of San Francisco. 🙂

  14. Allison Brennan

    Lisa Gardner and Thomas Harris both spent a lot of time at Quantico. Lisa Gardner is another research junkie. She spent a lot of time with SWAT when researching her first Bobby Dodge book. I wouldn’t mind spending a lot of time researching SWAT. 😉

  15. Brett Battles

    I’ve just spent four hours driving around on a motor scooter in a foriegn country where not only is it a bit of controlled chaos but they also drive on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to…do I love research? To bet your ass I do!!!!

  16. Alex Stukalov

    I got a lot of positive energy from your post. It reminded me how interesting the world is and how much I love adventures. Thank you Stephen!

  17. Paula

    Just love reading about your travels. You really were soaking up local color.
    Want to read more about it.


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