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?