When I began writing my current WIP, a contemporary romance set in the southwestern US, I had the idea that I wouldn’t need to do research, at least not the depth required of say, a historical novelist. I was living my time period so social norms and the like were not an issue, and I knew the general characteristics of my setting (Arizona). It was a desert, and everyone knows what a desert is like. It’s hot, it’s dry, it has cacti reaching up to the sky, and lizards running over the ground. I also didn’t have a lot of technical aspects to my story, nothing like what you’d find in a crime or suspense novel. The few things I did need to know revolved around rehabbing a house (the differences between plaster and drywall, for example) most of which are easily described by an onsite expert or by google. This was great. I could spend all of my time and energy focused on my characters and their story. It wasn’t until I began getting feedback from my beta readers, that I was disabused of this notion.
First, there were the inaccuracies in my setting details. I’d been to Arizona years ago and I thought I remembered what it was like. In some ways I did (it’s really hot there), but when writing my story, I completely ignored how the setting characteristics truly impact the way people live in AZ. For example, people do not sit inside a stationary car and talk unless the AC is running. Their houses are rarely infested with tarantulas (scorpions okay, but beta reader and Arizonan, Justine, has never even see a tarantula), and people continually drink water when outside or they don’t remain conscious for long. Most importantly (to Cheyenne anyway) their hair doesn’t stay pristine nor do their little white tees remain white in the desert dust and heat of Arizona. Okay, I thought, I can easily fix all of this (thank you, Justine!).
What I couldn’t fix easily were the problems that have come to light since discovering that Cheyenne’s uncle, Hawk is Navajo.
Hawk is my antagonist, which makes him a key component of my novel. His actions will shape the story, and the actions he takes will, in large part, be shaped by his heritage. Hawk is a product of his culture and history in a way that Cheyenne is not. Until Cheyenne arrives in Dry Creek, she’s not even sure what her history is, but Hawk’s history is a fundamental element of his identity. He no longer lives on the reservation, but he’s heard the story of The Long Walk and his goal to reclaim his family land and his motivation for doing so is defined and driven by the past. Which means I need to do some research.
At first I thought I could skate by, read a few books, do a little Googling and get what I needed. I spent a few hours on the internet and found several really good articles on Wikipedia that provided an overview of the major highlights of Navajo history. After a day or two, I had (I thought) everything I needed and went back to writing Hawk’s POV.
Wrong again. I quickly realized that I would not find Hawk by using Google. How did he feel about leaving the reservation? Was he angry? Sad? Glad? Why did they leave and did he long to go back? What customs did he retain? What had he let go of, and why? Does he have a personal code he lives by? Was the anger he’s carrying around simply about losing his family land or rooted in the history of the Navajo people?
My personal history and experiences could be mined to determine some of the answers I sought (most of us can relate to the anger of having something taken from us unfairly) but to really get into Hawk’s head, I need to find out where and how the Navajo live, how they view the world around them, their values and their beliefs. I need to put my boots on Navajo ground.
In three weeks I’m going to spend a weekend thinking and talking about writing with other writers. And when the weekend is done, I’m packing up my rental car and hitting the road to the Navajo Nation. I want to watch the sun rise over the rock formations of Monument Valley. Listen to the silence of open sky and desert and hear what it’s saying to me. See the villages and the towns where the Navajo live, stop at road-side markets and buy something silver, eat fry bread and Indian tacos, learn about the Navajo code talkers from WWII, and get the dirt of the desert on my white tee. Most importantly, I hope to talk to Navajo people, look into their faces, and hear their stories.
Visiting the Navajo Nation will be the ultimate research project. A real life version of a discovery collage (look for pics and daily blog postings on my personal blog). I have a feeling I’ll find Hawk there.
Have you ever taken a trip as part of your story research? What did you hope to accomplish and discover? Was the trip a success or failure? How was the experience valuable from a writing perspective?