Glass, Fire, and Siamese Lambs: How Field Research Can Improve Your Writing
Updated: Jun 29, 2022
For a long time, I dreaded conducting field research for my fiction writing. I think this goes back to my early writing days: ah, those days of yore, when I’d grab my moleskin notebook, my ink and quill, venture intrepidly into the field, spend hours discovering interesting things, put said interesting things — each of them strange, unique, wonderful, dazzling — into my stories, submit these precious little stories of mine (to The New Yorker, McSweeneys, The Iowa Review, you know, the hard ones), and . . . a few months later get a bunch of rejections. The whole effort felt, ex post, like a waste of my time.
What writer really needs to leave their desk these days? If I want to describe a sunset off the coast of Lisbon, or the shape and color of a giant Sequoia’s shadow, or the way she (any she) smiles when she looks at me, I have Google’s photo search. If I want to describe the particular movements of a gray owl shaking water off its feathers, the sound of a piano falling from a window, the simple, solemn drift of snow, I have YouTube. If I want to walk the streets of a European city and delineate the patterns of the pavers, the makes and models of the cars, the types of flowers in the window boxes, I have Google Maps’ street view. (I’m finishing up a novel set in Łódź, Poland, a place I’ve never set foot in (yet), and thanks to Google Maps, it’s as if I’ve been there a dozen, a hundred, a thousand times.)
But leading up to a recent road trip with my eighty-three-year-old dad, a trip out of which I plan to winkle a novel, if I can manage it, I decided to give field research another try. We planned to drive up California’s Highway 395 through the Mojave Desert, cross over the Sierras on winding Highways 89 and 88, and head back to Los Angeles along the Central Valley’s very unwinding Highway 99. We wanted to stop in as many little towns as we could — those towns we’d always sped past on our way to grander destinations, leaving just indistinct streaks of memory in our minds. Towns like Boron, Lone Pine, Independence, Lee Vining, Modesto, Turlock, Kingsburg, and so on. To conduct my research, I planned to keep my eyes open, take a million photos, and record notes using my phone’s handy voice-to-text notepad (yes, I’ve moved on from that old moleskin).
The main theme for this novel I’m planning to write is mortality. Have you read Sebald's Rings of Saturn? I’d like my future novel — if I may be so daring, so immodest — to take on something of Sebald’s strange peregrinations along the Suffolk Coast. A collection of echoes, reverberations, connections, recurrences. And, yes: death. But instead of the dreary North Sea, I had the bright immensity of the deserts and mountains. And instead of walking alone, I had my dad, and his 2015 Ford Mustang. An American story, this novel.
This was mining country, and I knew the idea of the subterrain would be important for the novel. I explored pitch-black mines, basements of old courthouses, an underground cathedral of citrus groves and chthonic gods in Fresno, an empty swimming pool in a dying city called Keeler next to a dead lake called Owens.
Pre-trip, I had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for. But it was the things I hadn’t expected that changed my feelings about field research. A funeral service at ten p.m. at the Double Bar in Lone Pine, congregants singing and dancing in a language I failed to recognize. A man sitting in a rolling office chair, working on an old VW bug in the late afternoon in the little town of Independence. A strange old cemetery, with silver disks pressed into the ground for “unknown pioneers,” at the top of a hill in the tiny mountain town of Markleeville. Siamese lambs at Laws Railroad Museum in Bishop. And so much more. I wouldn’t have come up with any of these things sitting at home in front of my computer.
But even more important — even more unexpected — were the new themes that presented themselves to me on the trip. The first was glass. Everywhere I went: glass. Glass, I guess, holds up well in the sand out there in the desert. Bottles, flasks, jars, glasses, phials. Bottles that swirled, bottles in the shapes of violins and horses, tall bottles, round bottles, square bottles . . . bottles, bottles, bottles. And the colors: blues, oranges, browns, yellows, greens, in every shade and hue. The lightness of the color of the glass, I learned at Laws Railroad Museum, tells you something about how long the bottle sat in the sun before it was found. There’s a tidbit!
But what does glass have to do with mortality? It took me a minute to make the connection, but then I remembered: when the meteor that killed the dinosaurs slammed into what we now call the Yucatán Peninsula, billions and billions of glass beads rained over the earth. Glass. Mortality. Connection made. Who knows how I’ll slip this into the novel, but I’ll find a way.
The second theme, even more significant, and just as unexpected, was fire. The presence, or I should say, evidence, of fire didn’t become apparent until our drive into alpine country at the northern limits of our trip. We left the barren flatlands of the desert and climbed thousands of feet into granite mountains of juniper, aspen and ponderosa pine. We’d round a bend, and suddenly before us would be a valley stretching to infinity, or a mountaintop fringed with snow. There were no towns as we climbed, just winding roads and mountains and space. And then, near the tiny town of Markleeville, there was nothing but miles and miles of blackened trees. Some of these trees had fallen. Others stood like solemn markers of the destruction. It was as if we were driving through the devastation of an apocalypse — because of course we were.
So fire became an important theme, sparking new connections to mortality. After we descended into California’s Central Valley and turned south on 99, we stopped in the small town of Merced. Near the end of a guided tour of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, we were led into a small room that recreated an old classroom. On the teacher’s desk, next to a bunch of old photos and cloth-bound textbooks, was a stereopticon. And there, set into the card holder, was a picture of San Francisco’s Cliff House fire. The Cliff House, which somehow survived the great earthquake of 1906, was destroyed by fire a year later. This photo — or really these two photos — haunted me. And, of course, it offered the kind of echoes, of repetitions, I was looking for.
It’s hard to say how I’ll work all of these things into the novel — already, this novel is becoming a convoluted and swirling mass of glittering things, which is exactly how I want it — but I can safely say I would have come up with none of these things on Google or YouTube. We writers, we are like those old divers, floating forlorn in our internet seas, our copper helmets connected with long leather pipes to the stale air far above us. I recommend we surface now and then, remove those heavy helmets, let the real air touch our lungs, and breathe.
Happy researching, ye brave souls!
Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions and editing company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Yemassee, Slippery Elm, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.
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