"I'm too exhausted to think of a blog post and I NEED to write one. It's been like a week. All this writing. What do you think I should blog about?"
"How about your research?"
"What do you mean, research?"
"Like how you come up with where the book is happening, and who the people are. Like how did you decide to have Janna happen in the South?"
"What South? I didn't decide anything. It just...happened."
I stare at Royce and I don't get it.
"See, you can't tell me how you come up with it, but you come up with it SOMEHOW. Think about it and blog about it. I think it would be interesting for people to read."
I got stumped. I thought and thought about it, and I thought, "He's right. I don't think I have blogged about this much. It just happens, but it happens SOMEHOW!"
And here you go. I will try to dissect this process of coming up with specific shit in my books and maybe that will help you too. I remember when I was writing Siren Suicides I obsessed over research, to the point of going on actual locations (!!!) like I was filming a fucking movie and it was no movie, it was just a bloody book, and I did learn some things better, but now I know I didn't really have to spend all that time on it. I could've just trusted my instincts.
I guess that's how I do my research. I trust my instincts.
I'd say the majority of what Janna is is shamelessly stolen from every other book I read and mixed in with my own life and lives of those whose stories I heard. Beginning with the title.
Before I start writing a book, I always come up with a title. It's like a hook into the story, an image, something it's about. It gives me a name to think about, and in a way it's a name like a name of a person, only it's a name of a story. Originally Janna came to me as Laska, which popped into my head, and then Janna G. Noelle commented on one of my posts and we started talking about how I could make the character black instead of white and I was afraid at first, thinking how could I write someone black when I'm white? But then it grew on me and I wanted to understand what it's like to shed my white privilege and look out at the world through black skin and so I named my character and the book Janna, after Janna who inspired this change, and who encouraged me. See? Once I have the title, the book starts shaping up in my head in the background. I have now something to think about.
These come to me long before I start working on the book. I read and I see something that strikes me as similar to what I want to talk about (I felt it when reading The Color Purple, for example), and I jot down little details about characters, in this case, Janna, into a separate file. Janna has been cooking in my head for 2 years. Wow. I just calculated it. It has been a little over 2 years. So you can imagine that over 2 years many little things have added up to a big file with lots of information. It's like I'm waiting for it to ripen, and when I start thinking about the book every day, I know it's time to write it. Maybe the key here is to have the book idea brew in your head long enough? And how long is that long enough? Who the fuck knows. You're the only one who can tell, and I guess it comes with practice. The more books you write, the better you'll be able to detect it.
To be honest with you I don't decide on anything before I start unless it comes to me with those notes I described above, but once I do start to write, I occasionally stop and think and put down the first things that come to mind. Experience shows me that the first things are always right. In case of Janna I didn't even put a town name or a state or even the time when it happens because it's not really that important to the story, and that's why it was funny to me that Royce said it's in the South, meaning Texas or states nearby as his family is from Texas and he said Janna sounds so authentic he can't believe I have never even been to Texas except ride by it on the train recently. So how did I pick it? I didn't. I simply stole, as I said above, from other books. In particular I'm very taken with Cormac McCarthy, and the voices of his characters just stick in my head. Also, Stephen King's characters and very much every single black character I came across like in Beloved and The Color Purple and Push and Invisible Man and Americanah and many more (and I plan to read many more). There is such richness to them, something I haven't seen often in white characters, and I fell in love. And all that is coming out in Janna, just me regurgitating and repeating it like a parrot.
I don't plot and yet I do. I plot as I go. I do it when I get bored, when something needs to happen. Like, I'm writing and writing and I'm getting to the point where I stop and start getting distracted. Which means, I'm bored. Which means, my reader will be bored. Which means, some shit needs to happen. And so I make some shit happen. That is all. As I write, I type in one-sentence summaries of every chapter into a separate file, and when I throw in a new twist, I skim down those lines to see what the hell happened before, and I try to tie in the events that happened before with the events that will happen in the future. It's like a puzzle. Also, when I start writing I often have a very vague idea about how the book will end, but by about chapter 1 or 2 I usually know. It comes to me and it feels right. And once I know, plotting is even easier as I know where the story is going and I'm leading it there. Or maybe it's leading me there. Either way. We walk side by side and we know we will eventually get there. That helps me never to be blocked (or at least, not for too long).
Theme is this fancy word that people use to describe the underlying meaning of books, and I still don't really get what that means. To me there is theme in every book even if the writer didn't consciously inject it there. And often it's not a good idea to try and do it forcefully or the story might fall apart. (I know, I tried.) So I kind of grope for the theme. With every draft I finish and then read I try to look for patterns. That is how my entire book-writing process can be described. Looking for patterns. When I notice them, I clean them up and tighten them and make them stronger, more prominent. And so from there a theme emerges on its own, and it's simply my own pain, it's all it is. It's something that's been hidden from my view and that writing the book uncovered. In other words, something bothered me deeply and I dug it up by writing the book and dumped it into the book and it no longer bothers me because it's gone. So it's like the perfect therapy. The other reason I don't like the whole theme idea is, it's supposed to be some message to the readers, like the moral of the story. Fuck morals. I'm not writing to teach or preach, I'm writing to share. If I touched you, great. If I didn't, then hopefully another writer will. Otherwise, why read my books?
6. Point of view.
This is also something I used to obsess with. I wrote and rewrote Irkadura changing point of view from third person to first, and after that experience I now simply listen to the main character. However the voice first begins sounding in my head, that is what I put down on paper. Janna started talking to me in first person, and so that is what I'm writing.
I suppose this entire post is not very helpful, after all. I just reread it and I could've said the whole thing in two words without typing it all up and having you peel open your eyes reading it.
That's it. Forget research. Do it quickly and only as needed and spend the rest of the time writing whatever you feel, whatever comes out when you type. Like yesterday I watched a YouTube video on how to fire a rifle because I had to know how one reloads it and what noises it makes. In the end I simply said, "...he reload and something stuck and not working and he cuss, it jammed, he jerk and jerk...", and you can see I skipped the whole explaining of how the fuck he reloads it. Because I know that in the future draft this entire part might be gone, or if it won't be gone, it will change so much, it won't matter how he reloaded and what kind of rifle it was and if there was a shell dropping to the floor or not, and what noise it made, and all that jazz. In the past I would've spend an insane amount of time on these details. Now I know I only need to suggest the details, and the reader will fill them out without my help. It's so fucking freeing!
So there you go.
I don't do research in the way I think you understand what doing research for a novel means (at least how I used to understand it from reading about it). Of course, I'm not writing historical fiction, and for that I imagine you HAVE to do at least some research, but I'd say again it's probably best to do it minimally and as you go, because in the end we don't care for those details much. We care what happens to people in the story, and all you have to do is give us enough of a sketch for us to visualize where and when all of this is going on, and you can simply mention a smell or a color or a sound and that would be enough, and that's what I do. I give quick sketches here and there and spend the rest of the time writing.
Look at this! You read till the end! A post about how I do research that ended up being not about how I do research at all! When we meet, we will have a shot of vodka together. This is a promise.