Sunday, March 22, 2009

Writing what you can research

As the one who came down on the side of writing from research, I have to admit that part of the problem may be a conviction, right or wrong, that my own life is too messy, painful or boring to write about. I'm a disabled single mother who spends very long stretches of time celibate, which doesn't mean that my life totally sucks, only that it's not great fiction fodder most of the time. The pleasures tend to be on the quiet side, like right now, when my parrot is preening my face. It's a sweet, loving gesture from a creature so different from me that he's almost alien, but there's nothing romantic, erotic or otherwise even sensible about having a beak on your chin, never mind being licked by a bird.

The idea of the bird, a red-lored Amazon parrot, going over my face with his beak actually freaks most people out. He has a big beak, attached to powerful jaw muscles. He can do serious damage with it, and right now it's next to my lip.

Anyway, cracking the whip on myself here, I've always been intensely curious about everything, from cooking to string theory, and writing gives me an outlet for that. I can trip over something interesting somewhere, look into it, and incorporate it into a story, whether it's an historical event, an interesting bit of technology, a disability that's different from mine, or a country I've never been to. It might even be an abstract line of thought, like an attempt to figure out how ghosts could work. In any case, writing gives me a way of exploring beyond what reading offers, and I often feel like I know more about something after I've written about it.

Having said that, I still rely on the other points of the triangle (imagination, experience and research). I need imagination to put people into that situation, and I draw on my own experience to create the kinds of emotional dynamics that generate plot. Who is here? What are they doing? Why are they doing it?

But even in the emotional dynamics, it's something that feeds the original concept, not a personal experience. In my story The Virgin Mary Cried Tears of Blood (in Second Sight), I was considering the idea that both vampires and statues of the Virgin Mary are thought to cry blood, and that it was interesting that these two opposite icons would have such a thing in common. Then I was thinking that we all have points in our lives where we have to choose between an exercise of control and a leap of faith, and that the decision is never right twice in a row, even if it can be thought of as "right" in the sense that one way is guaranteed to work out better than another.

I was also considering how a man with erectile dysfunction might be sexual in a positive way, so I had to imagine that, imagine both him and his partner coping well--but not too well, not so as to qualify for sainthood!--with what's considered one of the worst sex-related afflictions a man can have.

So while the story drew on raw imagination and emotional reference points gleaned from 41 years of living, reading, watching movies and playing music, the events themselves never happened and these people never existed. I've never met a vampire, never seen a statue of the Virgin cry blood, never slept with a man who had ED, and never did what my narrator did in the end. Nor have I wanted to. It was all a line of speculation triggered by watching part of Queen of the Damned one night.

What I find is that if I write from imagination, the result is too disconnected from reality to be sufficiently believable to be readable. If I write from life, or try to, I become too emotionally invested in the story for it to be readable. It becomes a diatribe. I have strong opinions about things, which is great for being an essayist but I find serves me less well in fiction. I can get into ruts, and that's true with my essays as well. I have to be careful.

But research is another matter for me. It's a big world, and there's so much in it to explore. I've looked into the lives of musicians and artists, of carpenters, mental patients, former addicts, Knights Templar, exiled Romans, classic car fanatics, anything at all that catches my mind's frankly wandering eye. It's to the point where I sometimes wonder what I'd do if I didn't write, because I don't seem to have much attention span.

As a writer, however, I'm free to indulge that lack of attention span indefinitely!

There's also an issue with a few woman erotica writers I know with being mistaken for someone who is ready and willing to do everything she has ever written about, or perhaps already has. I run into this a lot, with people who know nothing else about me thinking that a story is a true sexual fantasy that I want to have happen right now, thinking that reading an erotic story by a woman is like having sex with her by proxy, or thinking that being written into one of my stories would be hot. Clearly the latter hadn't read anything I'd written, or he'd have realized that such a request could have landed him a fictional severed limb!

In my case, and in that of Helen as well, this can turn on it's head in an amusing way: no, we haven't done everything we've written about because we're not gay men. However, if the gentleman wants to give it a shot, I can bind my breasts, paste on some fake facial hair and obtain a nice, big strap-on...

No?

Well, in that case, anyone who reads something I've written that they think is particularly sexy, assume I've been reading, watching or listening to something interesting. The fact that it tends to express itself as erotica in the end is a puzzle even I haven't solved.

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