Kat: Boots on the Ground

womenWhen 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?

15 thoughts on “Kat: Boots on the Ground

  1. I can’t wait for you to come visit, Kat! I only hope I can share in some of your research. I’ve come to admire the Navajo after a 3-day trip to Navajo country. They are beautiful people!

    As for research, I was fortunate enough to go to London last September and meet up with Jilly, who kindly took me to Bath (during the Jane Austen Festival, no less!) where I tried to stay awake (despite massive jetlag) through engaging presentations about how Regency folks dressed, ate, gave the cut direct, and, yes, even peed. :-) I got pictures of the Pump Room, stayed in a bed and breakfast hotel that was supposedly gifted to Wellington’s mistress, saw some beautiful Georgian architecture, toured restored homes, and perhaps best of all, she introduced me to Stanfords (old + maps = AWESOME!).

    The trip helped a lot with describing setting (although I’m still layering that into my WIP). The things we did during the Jane Austen Festival were engaging/educational, but it also got me excited about my book (after all, I had tea and scones with clotted cream in Jane’s former house under a picture of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy — does it get better than that?).

    My husband has a trip to Manchester this June and I’m trying to see if I can tag along. It would be wonderful to go back to England, perhaps see some of the country homes this time (Jilly insisted I should were I to return). It’s very much in the air, but my plan is to get back there perhaps every other year for more immersion in a time period/place/setting/people I love.

    • Manchester, Justine? Excellent! It would be great if you could add yourself to his itinerary. It’s only a short drive or train ride over the Pennines to Chatsworth (Pemberley!) and June is a perfect time to visit.

    • Reading about foreign lands and cultures is a great way to begin research, but nothing really substitutes for experiencing a place (scones and clotted cream, yum). If my trip is half as successful as yours, Neen (do I want to know what the pump room is???), I’ll have all I need and more to realistically create the world of Dry Creek and I’ll have a better understanding of who Hawk is.

      I can’t wait to hit the road!

      • The Pump Room sounds funny, but it’s where ladies and gentlemen could sit and drink the waters from the spa (supposedly they had medicinal qualities). It looks like a restaurant now, but I can’t see how it would have looked much different back then. A very elaborate bar off to one side, windows to view the bathing areas below (’cause the pools are underground), and tables and whatnot for service. I would guess it was called the Pump Room because they pumped the waters up there and served them, but I don’t know for sure.

  2. Oh, gotta say there’s nothing like knowing the territory. I set my 2013 NaNo in Tokyo, which I thought I had enough of an acquaintance with to really tell my story. Well, it was good enough for the first draft, thanks to some help from YouTube and also restaurant websites.

    But, I’m going to put off the next draft until I’ve had a chance to go back to Tokyo this summer, and actually walk the walk that my characters take through Tokyo.

    I had something else planned for tomorrow, but I think I’m going to riff off your theme!

    I’ve heard so many times that setting is almost like a whole other character in the way it shapes the story, and I do believe it can be true. Imagination is great, but sometimes imagination needs a little help or a little reminding.

    When do you think is the best time to plan a research trip, if a writer is going to take one? I suspect it’s somewhere between the first and the second drafts if you only get one trip, because you kind of know what you will need to know, and any changes are just part of the massive changes that happen between first and second anyway.

    (-: I think it’s so cool you get to take two trips!

    • I suspect timing a research trip varies for each writer. I’m just about finished with my first draft and I think now is the perfect time for this trip. Two months ago I didn’t know Hawk was Navajo, or rather, I knew he was part Indian but I’d ignored that fact as I wrote him which may be one reason why he was coming off so one dimensional. The minute I really thought about the role his heritage would play in the story (about a woman seeking her own heritage), I knew it was a huge.

      As for two trips: you’re right and both will be fun in their own way. One of the workshops I’m looking forward to the most at Desert Rose conference is the closing workshop conducted by Mary Buckham entitled “Active Settings: For all Fiction Genres”. It couldn’t be more timely for me since it’s about “giving setting an active role in the story”. Should give me a lot of posting fodder when I return.

  3. Your trip sounds very exciting, Kat! No matter how much research you do, there’s no substitute for actually visiting somewhere. I think Justine has it spot on: it’s not just about picking up the details and impressions that will add authenticity to your story, it’s also about filling you with excitement and inspiration.

    I know all the settings for my story really well, and I got pages of great ideas for a future book (Robbie’s story) when we went to stay with friends near St Andrews last year. The stretch will come when I get to Sasha’s book, which involves California (Caltech) and Hawaii. I am way out of my comfort zone there, but it’s perfect for her so I’m going to have to get a lot better informed. Luckily Jennifer O’Brien knows pretty much everything I need to know and doesn’t mind being bombarded with questions, so I can get quite a long way before I have to save up for a ticket. Plus I have to finish the damn book and write two more :-)

    • 2016’s RWA National Conference is in San Diego, just a hop, skip, and a jump away from CalTech. I see a trip to Hawaii in your future that summer, too! You’ll already be so close!

      • Aha, that’s very interesting, thanks Justine! It would be a shame to get so close and waste the opportunity. I think I know where we’ll be spending our 2016 holidays :-)

  4. I’ve set my WIP in Oxford on the 1950s – I mostly grew up in Oxford, so know it well, but obviously the 1950s throws an extra dimension into the equation. I haven’t been back recently, but am planning on doing so when I get a bit further along. For me, it’s about inspiration and digging a bit deeper into the characters stories. I suppose, the more you can go, the better, but, I read a book I enjoyed very much recently (Deanna Raybourn, A Spear of Summer Grass) and I’m sure I read on her blog that she’d never been to Africa – in that story, Africa is very much another character and the heroine’s love affair with the Kenya is at the heart of the thing. So, a plus if you can go, but not something to get hung up on.

    By the way, Justine, I thought of you when I went to a brilliant exhibition at the British Library about the Georgians just recently – I bought the exhibition book if there’s anything you want to know – though it’s been on for a while so you have probably heard all about it from Jilly.

    • My husband and I drove from Ohio to Portland, OR (by way of North Dakota) and then back across the US via Wyoming, Utah and Colorado for the book I wrote about a woman on the run. Nothing replaces boots on the ground!

  5. I’ve been to Las Vegas a couple of times for the book(s) I’ve placed there. I like to use it as a setting because I think on the surface that it’s a wacky place. I’ve also talked to another writer who lives there who has mentioned how depressing it is, and I fully believe that—and I also think it’s probably poorer than it looks from the Strip, too. But so far I’m using only the portion of Las Vegas that meets the needs I have for setting.

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