Friday, November 18, 2011

Researching what is, was, and might have been

Smith Creek loops and twists its serpentine way to the river through a basin of bog and marsh at Wilmington's northern border, its black water rising and falling with the tides. I have no idea whether the original inhabitants of this area or the first Europeans to build a colony here enjoyed Smith Creek as much as I do, but I doubt it. I admire it from thirty feet above, driving along an elevated parkway four times each day as I take my wife to and from work, a perspective no historical resident shared.
If I were to set a story even fifty years in Wilmington's past I'd have to describe a pestilent and impassible barrier known to only a few fishermen or smugglers.

I grew up in Maitland, Florida, adjacent to Eatonville, the hometown Zora Neal Hurston made famous in her stories. She passed away when I was eight, and I didn't read her works until I was in college, but I lived for a time on River Road and bought sodas and nabs at the corner store she wrote about twenty years before I was born. I could say I know the area, but to know it as she did would require much research to approximate with any authenticity.

My love of Hurtson led to a fascination with the Harlem Renaissance. I had books of Van Vetchten photographs, read works by and biographies of Hughes and Cullen and a dozen others. I knew the geography of neighborhoods like Strivers' Row and Sugar Hill and knew the histories of communities within the neighborhood -- the rising professionals, the intelligentsia, the musicians, the artists, the writers. During our first visit to my wife's extended family in New York thirty years ago, I wanted to go see the places I'd been reading about for years; particularly the 124th street library, as I recall. The family was adamant in preventing my field trip. They felt my white skin and southern accent would put me at risk wandering around an area they were afraid to visit with my camera and notebook. I could say I know Harlem of the 1920s, but I've never set foot on one of its streets.

I have always been attracted to "What if....?" It's a question that leads to discovery, invention, speculation, and creativity. It's the heart of science fiction, my first love as a writer. And it sparked my interest in alternate (or alternative) history. I grew up on "golden age" science fiction, most of which assumed a USA-centric, predominantly white, and almost exclusively male future. Prior to WWII nuclear fission and fusion were seen as free energy, not weapons, and colonization of space and the planets was a given. My father drove a tank in Company B, the 80th Tank Battalion, 8th Armored Division in WWII. When the war in Europe ended, the 80th Tank became the 80th Amphibious, the "Beach Busters," and began training in new amphibious tanks. Though they did not know it then, plans were for the Beach Busters to take the beaches of Honshu, spearheading Operation Coronet and the capture of Tokyo. America's use of the atom bomb obviated the need for invasion.

In bits and pieces over the last few years I've been constructing an alternate history, one that branches from our own with FDR's decision not to seek a third term. No nuclear weapons; no Truman to integrate the military; Japan subdued after months of bloody ground war; the Civil Rights Movement delayed by thirty years; safe, free fusion energy; colonies in space. So far only one short story, Living on Dirt, has come out of this effort but it remains a labor of love. Researching what did happen, the words and actions of the people involved, then extrapolating from that what those people would say and do if conditions were different.

The internet makes research easy. But I still collect old guide books, out of date street maps for cities I've never seen, histories, reference books, magazines. Because just as I never know when I'm going to need to know a fact, I never know when the juxtaposition of street names in Minsk or an illustration that doesn't quite match the text, or an unexpected word choice sixty years ago might spark an idea or a story or an insight.

Research can become an addiction, a time sink that costs the writer momentum and hurts productivity. But it can also lead to inspiration and understanding. It's up to the writer to have the self-discipline to control the one and the wisdom to spot the other.


Charles Gramlich said...

It's the creating that is so much fun for writers, and creating an alternate timeline has got to be both cool to do, and difficult because of the need for verisimilitude

Anonymous said...

Sure, research can become an addiction, but it's never been easier. The challenge, that self-discipline that you mention, it to be able to notice that line when you stopped researching and started surfing. It's too easy to start with the Geneva Convention, and then fifteen minutes later you're reading about Kardashians.

William Doonan

Liane Spicer said...

I seldom realize I've gone off on some fascinating research tangent until it's too late. I tell myself the information is never wasted - more grist for the mill.

I did some research on the Harlem Renaissance for a paper I wrote last week about Jamaica's most celebrated sculptor, Edna Manley; needed to find out about the influence of Aaron Douglas, a painter, on her work. If looming deadlines hadn't been an issue I'd have happily spent days or weeks following that particular scent...

Joanne C. Hillhouse said...

Loved this entry...look forward to reading your alternate history someday...sounds fascinating...should make for good reading if the descriptive style of this entry is any indication.