Blog Like Me: 4. Research You’ll Never Need

Tue 21 Aug 2007 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Leave a Comment | Posted by: Howard Waldrop

Skeptical HowardI was walking with Tim Powers at some long-ago lost Armadillocon, and we got around to research.

“I love it!” he said. “You’re in some bookstore on Charing Cross Road or somewhere, and you come across a map of the sewer system of Florence Italy in 1517 and you say ‘I NEED that! I’m going to set a story right there and then.’ And you buy it.” Then he said, “And you really do believe you’re going to write the story you bought the map for.”

I’ve had moments like those; also the other way. I walked into a new used bookstore in Austin 15 years ago, and in the first ten feet were two books I’d been looking for for 25 years…Also I was fishing the Chama River in downtown (all two blocks of it) Chama, NM and there was a sign on the front of a house on the highway that said “Bookstore.” I walked in and found a book I was looking for right then: Wehrner von Braun’s The Exploration of Mars (Viking, 1955) with full color paintings by Chesley Bonestell. For $4.00. I had been looking for it right then, because I was going to give it to George R.R. Martin, who needed references to the Old Mars of our youth to write a story or do a screenplay or something. I gave it to him when I came back through Santa Fe on my way back to Texas. “Where’d you get this??” he asked, knowing I hadn’t been anywhere near a city for ten days. “In a house in Chama,” I said.

* * *

Then there’s the other kind of research—the kind that comes from the reading you did growing up. I was raised to young manhood being serially-fascinated with different writers. I read everything in the late 1950s and early 60s, by and about: Dylan Thomas; Eugene O’Neill; Thomas Wolfe and James Agee (“names totally unknown to most SF fans,” as Steven Utley would say). I tried being the next Eugene O’Neill in drama classes in college. Earlier I’d tried to be the next Dylan Thomas (til I realized I wasn’t a poet, didn’t like drinking all that much, and wasn’t Welsh.) I tried being James Agee, (especially the James Agee of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) and used to write 11-page stream-of-consciousness letters to my then-New Jesrey friend G.R.R. Martin (“letters so long it took to mail them!” in George’s words) at least twice a week.

I wrote an article on Agee that was published in a fanzine. Off the top of my head I wrote a story about Dylan Thomas as a famous distance runner (he was a grammar-school miler at one time). I used O’Neill in a few places. When it came time to write “You Could Go Home Again,” the novelette about Thomas Wolfe and Fats Waller coming back to an alternate America after the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, I only had to read a few biographies published since the early 60s to get the job done.

I’d also followed (if that’s the word) the career of J.D. Salinger a long time. Holden has a cameo in “Why Did?” and Zooey Glass gets a mention in “Major Spacer in the 21st Century!”; he was after all, an early Fifties TV actor. Salinger himself—“Jerry”—shows up in “You Could Go Home Again” as the social director on the airship Ticonderoga. “What? you say, the most reclusive writer of the 20th Century a social director?” you cry? Well, in 1938, Salinger’s dad, a meat importer, sent Jerry to Europe to check on operations there. He got his passage over and back by working as an assistant social director (“Ping-Pong, anyone?”) on the Bremerhaven, or one of those fancy-schmansy liners that used to run back and forth to Europe every week between the Wars… Trust me.* You know these things if you read enough growing up; you don’t have to do much research to write a story, if you’ve been around the subject that long

* Salinger could have ended up being Eugene O’Neill’s son-in-law, instead of Charlie Chaplin. Salinger squired Oona O’Neil around the Stork Club and other swank NYC watering holes before she moved west and met Chaplin. But that, as they say in Irma la Douce, is another story for another time…

Howard Waldrop

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No Responses to “Blog Like Me: 4. Research You’ll Never Need”

  1. Gerry M. Allen on August 29th, 2007 2:16 pm

    For 27 years, my wife looked for a first edition of The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child in every used bookstore from Tacoma, Washington to Ormond Beach, Florida. She wanted it as a present for me as I am a cook and collect cookbooks. We were visiting her parents in Sterling Heights, Michigan in 2005 when I tagged along after her to an antique mall. As I idly wandered through the displays of 1950’s kitsch and un-collectibles, I spotted the very book in an assortment going for $4.99 the lot.
    To this day, I am not allowed to accompany her on trips to antique stores.

  2. Sarah Smith on February 20th, 2008 1:21 pm

    This is a phenomenon known as Research Angels, in which the vast synchronicity of the universe turns in your direction, waves its enormous wings, spits out its cigar, and says “You! Have I got somethin’ for You!”

    I once was looking for a location for a book. It had to be a castle, a big castle with a village around it, in northern France near Vimy Ridge, and it had to be essentially unchanged for the past century. I looked all over the Internet, checked with all my friends, looked in the region I wanted to have it. Every castle on the Internet do I check. Nothing, nada, zip.

    So finally I go to Vimy Ridge, thinking the book is doomed, and look over the valley.

    And there, etc….

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