Join us as Edmond Manning goes Outside the Margins.
I suppose I might have fudged a few factoids on grade school reports concerning the Loch Ness Monster. Who could prove me wrong? Maybe I was a little generous in listing sources in my social studies report on Egypt. But my first serious abuse of faking research came in eighth grade.
Mrs. Frenz’ assigned her English class a book report, non-fiction only, and since I already swam furiously and daily in the ocean of fiction, I felt reading a non-fiction book beneath me. It wouldn’t have killed me, I know. But I found non-fiction distasteful, the ugly step-sibling to handsome fiction. You couldn’t invite fiction to the party without the other one showing up saying, “I know a good biography about Thomas Jefferson.”
Instead of simply complying–reading and reporting on a non-fiction book—I decided to prove the power of fiction by inventing and then reporting on a non-fiction book: Spiders On The Sea. Yes, you read that title correctly. Spiders On The Sea. The imaginary book (and thus, my book report) detailed a curious little spider species that lived on salt-water beaches and ate tiny eggs, decaying fish, whatever washed ashore. They had to be careful not to get swept into a big wave, so they were fast runners.
I made up many, many details about their arachnid lives. Favorite foods. Predators. The type of fish they preferred. How they would battle tiny crabs in their shells for home turf.
Honestly, it would have been easier to just read a damn book.
I was even cocky enough to make sure the nom de plume used for this fake author spelled out my name with his initials, and I layered other little clues that should have earned me an F+ (I like to think the + would be recognition of my creativity.)
Being that I was an idiot junior high kid, I bragged to my buddies about this fake book. We had to read our reports before the class and when it came time for the Q&A portion of my book report, I turned beet red when my friends jumped their hands straight into the air, eager for a chance to grill me.
“I tried to find this book in our library and couldn’t find it. Where did you say you got it?”
“What climates do these spiders prefer?”
I blushed furiously and stammered out answers as best I could while they snickered and leered.
The worst question was asked by a smart-alec friend: “This author’s name looks strangely familiar to me? Do I know him?”
Mrs. Frenz said my report was “very thorough,” and much to my in-the-know friends’ chagrin, I received a B+ for Spiders On The Sea. Friends who got lesser grades on real books were not terribly amused.
Given my early success at faking research, you would think this would steer me toward greater abuses (if that were possible).
Nope. Never again.
I chuckled at my brazen lies while writing the book report but the very second after I dropped it on Mrs. Frenz desk, all that bravado turned to ash. What if I were caught? What if I were expelled? My father was a teacher in this school system. Of course, he would be told that his liar son faked an entire book report and made an idiot of a teacher. Truth is, I liked Mrs. Frenz quite a bit—why did I crap all over her assignment?
The agony between submitting the report and waiting to be discovered made me wish I had never attempted my spider story.
Though I did not experience any negative consequences (other than the most uncomfortable Q&A of my entire young life) I developed a paranoia about not fully researching a given topic. Specifically, getting caught. My research papers in high school and college were solid. I always looked up primary sources and made sure they weren’t quoting someone else. I hated that feeling of being a fake, of hoping to not get caught with pages of lies.
As an author of fiction, I think I’m now extended more flexibility to fudge my research. Hell, I can make up entire science fiction worlds if I like and when a reader demands to know how an entire world economy can be based on trading turtle shells, I can say, “Because I said so.”
At last! Freedom from research!
I find myself stuck.
I want my books to feel authentic, to feel as though I know exactly of which I speak. In 2012, my first non-imaginary book, King Perry, hit the shelves. In one scene, the narrator reveals an ice cooler he has bound to the Pacific ocean rocky shoreline with thick ropes. Completely implausible, you say? When in California researching details on the book, I bought an ice cooler, filled it with snacks, and purchased enough rope to bind it to heavy rocks. I drove to the coast and searched until I found the ideal rock formation for my experiment. Research paid off. The experiment worked!
In 2014, I published a book titled The Butterfly King, set in New York City. I did not feel I could write a whole book which took place in New York City without living there, without understanding not only the logistics of moving through the city, but the flavor, the people, the mood. I needed a much richer understanding than I achieved as an extended weekend traveler. I read a few books about New York but they were so…fist-pumping and relentlessly energetic that I realized I did not trust them. I needed to research the primary source material. So I rented an apartment for a month, slept on a mattress on the floor, and began my adventure as a New Yorker.
And while I could never actually claim to be a New Yorker, I did learn things about the city, the subways, the people flow, I would never have learned any other way. The research was necessary. Expensive, but necessary.
I have come to value research.
Even though I now have liberty to lie about some details, to create some fictions for fiction, I find myself wanting more real-world details spot-on so that my inventions are not as obvious. I want the details to feel so real, readers ponder is this true? Or am I reading a work of non-fiction disguised as fiction?
Apparently I have come to value fiction non-fiction as well.
But I’m frustrated these days as I research the fourth book in my Lost and Found series, which takes place at Burning Man.
I’ve never been to Burning Man. I don’t know how it works, fully. I’ve read two books. Watched a Netflix documentary. Followed BM ranting arguments on tribe.org and I have six Burning Man blogs bookmarked. It’s not possible for me to rent an apartment at Burning Man for a month as I did in New York because the experience only exists for a week and a half at the end of August. I can’t merely wait until August to go to Burning Man. I think readers might come to my house and throw rotten zucchini at me if I announced, “I’m writing nothing in the next installment until I can attend Burning Man eight months from now.”
Plus, after surviving skin cancer a decade ago, my dermatologist gave me parting advice that’s been rather difficult to forget: “Try to stay out of the sun for the rest of your life.” I don’t think she’d approve my spending nine days in a desert where the only available shade is whatever you carry in.
I’m going to have imperfect research.
It’s making me nervous.
I know fiction writers do this all the time. They write about Victorian England or feudal life during the Middle Ages and use the best information available. Whatever gaps exist in their knowledge, they invent. No biggie. But the thing is, nobody busts them. They don’t get emails from people eight hundred years who complain, ‘That is NOT how we ate dinner back then.’ Except for a few anachronisms, nobody questions their research if it’s generally ‘in the ball park.’
I think there’s a bigger life lesson for me beyond a writer’s perspective in all this: live with ambiguity. Be willing to get a few details wrong in service to a greater truth. Let go of needing to get everything right.
Yeah, yeah. Growth opportunity.
I’m always surprised how often my personal growth opportunities intersect with my opportunities to become a stronger writer. When readers ask, ‘how much of yourself is in this book,’ they often mean the characters. But what they do not realize is how much the process of writing pushes an author’s buttons around any number of topics: self-discipline, the ability to empathize with others, willingness to master your least favorite skill, ability to be carried by a story instead of controlling it. And of course, how much to research.
I will keep researching and do my best to get details right while at the same time do my best to accept that I won’t get every detail right. I will try to grow more accepting of myself in this regard and dial down that low-level anxiety that sometimes hums in the back of my mind, wondering if I’m going to get caught.
They say that sometimes an author’s greatest curse is a wildly successful first book and I can confirm this point. I’m sure my anxiety over research can be traced to the early success of my “first” publication, Spiders On The Sea. Damn that B+. Totally was not worth it.
~ Edmond Manning
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
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