Recently I read on Kirkus about novelists “who do really funky research .” Like Jodi Picoult who spent time in a prison. Susan Minot traveled to Uganda to get to know girls kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Peter Rock explored an underground shelter used by former members of a New Age religion. Ann Tyler has written: “I write because I want more than one life.”
It made me wonder. What would I do? How far would I go? My just-finished work in progress is about the Vietnam era, and it’s been tough. A girl coming to age, watching young men she cares about grappling with going to war. It’s been hard, not just to hear about and think about all that went on during the war (I’ve interviewed vets, read lots of books, and watched tons of video footage), but it’s also been tough to get into the mind of young soldiers, particularly those who’ve come back with PTSD.
I’ve struggled and (consequently) so has my main character. She’s never seen combat and neither have I. Once when I was a kid I was living in unstable Uganda and a guard shoved a machine gun into the Land Rover I was riding in, but that’s the closest I’ve come to a wartime experience.
My next WIP is about an adrenaline junkie who does extreme things for a thrill, to make himself feel more alive. I made a list of things I would might think about doing to research that novel.
1. Visit a warzone. If I did, would there be any way I could truly feel the feelings of being a combat troop? Or what it would feel like to be there day in and day out? Although it would bring me closer, I’m not so sure it would achieve more than a glancing view . . . like being a tourist or voyeur into a life. Unless I actually picked up a weapon and was in combat. No one wants me in their platoon. Trust me.
2. Go bungee jumping. Earlier today I saw a terrifying video on Facebook—and by me, I mean my husband (I was too afraid to even watch). A bungee cord snapped as an Australian woman was bungee jumping over the Zambezi River. It took forty minutes before she was rescued, after she floated downriver through rapids and white waters. I don’t want to do that. The truth is I’m as chicken as they come, scared of anything that might cause me bodily harm. But I wonder. I saw cliff jumpers in an IMAX presentation once when I was on a field trip with one of my kids. I had to cover my eyes and peer through my fingers. I’ll cross these two things off, too.
3. Drive terrifyingly, dizzyingly fast. 100 or more miles an hour on a public street. When I was a teenager I drove too fast. Okay, I admit to occasionally driving over the speed limit even now; I drove over 90 when I drove across the country last summer—it was in Utah where the speed limit was 80. But there wasn’t any adrenaline rush, I was only doing it because we had a long way to go, and I had the illusion of safety. This one I’d consider . . . when I was younger I learned to drive a stick shift on the hills of San Francisco, and that was an adrenaline rush.
4. Stay in prison overnight. No. Unless I was in solitary confinement. With a shiv.
5. Shoot a gun. I’ve never even held a gun. Can you believe that? But, yes, this is one I’d actually like to try.
6. Be a man for a day (or a week). Not that this is particularly dangerous or adrenaline rush causing (although it may be, I don’t know), but I admit to being curious. I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to be the opposite sex. What does go on in those minds? (Venus vs. Mars and all that.) This one is physically impossible (without spending way too much money and time) so it’s a no on this one, too.
7. Sail in the middle of nowhere with no land in sight. I’d like to say yes to this one, but the answer would probably be no. I have a fear of what lies below the surface of the ocean (and lakes, too).
8. Fly a plane solo. My husband has a private pilot’s license, he got before he could even drive. It pains me to say this, but I’m afraid of flying, so again, I’d probably say no . . . even though one of the books I wrote has a small plane pilot in it (of course he was killed in an accident).
9. Go spelunking. Probably not. I did, however, go into the Great Pyramid of Giza when I was a child, and I had to crawl through a long tunnel that was only about three feet high. Maybe that’s where my fear of closed spaces came from, hence the shying away from spelunking…
I know what you’re thinking . . . I sound like a wimp. But, the sad fact is that as I read through my list, I realize that as much as I’d actually like to try some of these things, I’m just too scared. So you’re right, I am. Instead I’ll write about someone who isn’t, someone who is in fact afraid not to do these things. Which kind of makes me wonder . . . am I an inverse adrenaline junkie? And if I am so afraid, why do I even want to write about these things? Some people say you write what you know. Others say you write what you want to know. Still others say you write to confront your fears. Anne Tyler says you write to live another life.
And maybe therein lies the thrill for this writer, the secret to leading more than one life: imagining what a character feels or thinks or does. If I’m looking for an adrenaline rush, do I really need to jump off a cliff or snap a bungee line? Maybe my speeding car and my sex change are as close as the nearest computer or library, my adrenaline fix as near as the closest high speed racetrack or base of a mountain where cliff jumpers land—to observe and ask questions . . . to get into their heads, to understand how they feel, what motivates them to do the things that they do.
Then back to my computer to get my next fix. Because I contend I am an adrenaline junkie. I’m addicted to words and the creation of stories . . . and when the words are flowing and the story is pouring out, that’s the highest high I know, the best feeling on earth, the way I feel most alive.
How about you? What’s the “funkiest research” you’ve done for a novel? What’s the funkiest—or scariest—thing you would might consider doing?