Saturday, May 8, 2010

Researching Time and Place

I usually post on Fridays, but I'm on the road right now and didn't have the chance. Yesterday was a busy workday in San Francisco, a city on my short list of favorite places. Today, though, I have some time, so I wanted to write about something I was reminded of while posting my story, "Danube So Blue," last month.

"Danube So Blue" is set in 1899 Vienna, Austria. I know Vienna fairly well, but the several times I've been there and the six months I lived there were all long after 1899. Because I wanted the city to play a major role in the story, that meant I had to do some research.

Now, I love doing research. That's one reason why much of what I write is historical. It gives me chance to both write and research, two of my favorite things. And I did a ton of research. I had a friend over there find a map from the period (it wouldn't do to give streets names that didn't exist back then), and he went the extra mile and found me a book of photos from the period. Armed with those and materials I already had, plus my knowledge of the city and how it feels, I was ready.

But having that much material brings a whole new set of issues. When I've done all that work and have copious notes and piles of details, I naturally want to use everything I've gathered. In this case, when Franz ventures outside and walks through the city, I wanted to describe all of the landmarks, give a street-by-street accounting of where he walked, and hopefully let the reader benefit from what I've learned by giving him or her this detailed view of one of the world's great cities in its heyday, shortly before its fall.

A noble goal, but bad for the story.

So what do you do with all that research? Go ahead and use it. In the first draft. In fact, you can go ahead and refine all those great descriptions in the second and third drafts. Make it detailed and make it shine. Use all of your skills to describe that time and place. Have fun with it. Make the story depend on these details.

Then rip them out.

Every beautiful description you take out hurts. Every brilliant passage describing the sights, sounds, and smells of your setting has an important place in your manuscript and is there for a reason, and you've done everything you can to convey the realism of the place and make it a vital part of your characters' lives. You can't imagine the story without all of that detail. It's some of your best writing. But rip it out anyway.

Examine every detail and decide whether it furthers the story. Sometimes you'll be convinced it does, or you'll want to be convinced it does, but deep down, your sense of story tells you that these details are not moving the story. So you rip. And you bleed. Kill your darlings, as the saying goes. If it makes you feel better, paste your deletions into a separate file so you can use them later in another story. Chances are you never will, but don't worry about that now. Cut mercilessly, then cut some more. Don't leave a single phrase that doesn't affect your characters' lives in an important way or doesn't relate directly to the plot.

After you're done cutting and the wounds have started to heal, although some pain lingers, you'll be surprised at what happened to your story. All of that thorough research, all of those beautiful descriptions, all of those poignant reactions to the setting by your characters, they're all gone. And you miss them. But what remains, almost magically, is the sense of the place. Everything you wanted to convey with all that detail is still there, even though the detail that created that sense of place is gone. It's hard to understand how it's possible that you end up with this result but you do.

"Danube So Blue" was the first time I tried this technique, so it was the one that hurt the most, I've used it since then when describing Viking-Age Iceland and medieval Germany, and even another part of Vienna in another story--or even when describing playing for a modern Major League baseball team, and the result has always been the same.

So put in all those details, and make them shine like the chrome on a 1957 Chevy. Then rip them out. You'll be left with everything you hoped to get out of the details, but they won't be in the way of your story.

If you don't believe me, give it a try. You'll see. All that time you spent will not have been wasted. You'll have your sense of place, and a much better story.


Ken Baker said...

You hit on a number of key points, but I think the most important are that you need to move the plot forward "and" you need to create a sense of place. It's that sense of place that transports the readers into the book, which comes from using setting details that tug on the readers' 5 senses.

You're advice to save all your setting details in a separate file before ripping them out is one that shouldn't be overlooked as well.

Scott said...

Good point about the five senses, Ken. It's too easy to rely on sight alone, or maybe sight and hearing. Using all of the senses brings the details to life.