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An Occasional Post

Finding Stuff Out

October 12, 2011
Finding Stuff Out

Just about every story I’ve written, whether published or unpublished, has involved research. Lots and lots of research. Some examples: the life of Marcel Marceau, McCarthyism, George Balanchine, Igor Stravinsky, John Ringling North, Modoc the elephant, Vera Zorina, the Atlantic telegraph cable, and recipes for borscht. I love finding stuff out, and the internet, with all its databases and countless other resources, has meant I don’t even have to leave Vermont most of the time. (I hate leaving home. I’ve only flown--on an airplane--once in the last eleven years and have no plans to do so again.)

In the early days of the internet, which I remember as if they were yesterday, the prevailing wisdom was that it was a mile wide and an inch deep. This has not been true for a long time. The danger for me is how very deep it is. Years go by and I am still finding stuff out, because it’s more fun than writing. It’s seductive. It calls to me, waking me from sleep. My long-suffering husband and I have dinner with the laptop on the table in case a question pops out of the salad or an idea bubbles up from the pasta. As recently as last night, while eating at a friend’s house, I demanded she retrieve her laptop so we could find out where Cormac McCarthy lives. It was a birthday dinner, too.

Eventually a very sad day arrives and I realize it’s time to figure out what the heck the story actually is. 99% of the research then disappears, never to surface again. Everything has to serve the story. What becomes fascinating—and frustrating—is the balancing act of what to include, how to include it, and what to leave out.

I’m planning to offer a workshop at VCFA this January around this very topic. In the meantime, what are some of your favorite examples of well-researched (and not necessarily non-fiction!) stories that achieve a perfect balance? And what kind of research are you yourself engaged in?
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