I’m currently working on three projects: a profile, a history, and an imaginary island. What they require in both writing and research is quite different. Surprisingly, the goal is the same for all three.
First, the profile. One interview means only one set of quotes, backed up with a few rounds of fact checking and enough background to provide context. With a chronological story line, it’s easy to figure out what quote should go where. And the iceberg of required knowledge that, mostly unseen, supports what appears on the page, is limited to one person’s experience. So even in this case, when the scope of that experience is quite impressive, doing a good job on this story seems like the easiest task of the three. Just the facts, ma’am—or rather, the facts as the subject and I remember them.
Next, the history. Also a factual piece, but based on the memories of many, many people. We all remember events differently, and once those memories crystalize, they form different shapes for each one of us. The challenge is to combine so many unique shapes into one story.
And building the iceberg of knowledge to support those memories is like diving into a deep, dark well that leads to a secret underground maze. Following my curiosity, I search for one tiny kernel of information; that leads me to another tunnel that holds something I vaguely remember, which eventually twists and turns its way to another completely new piece of (hopefully) pertinent trivia. Fortunately, when I start to feel like I’m running out of oxygen, there is always a quick shortcut back to the surface: Close. The. Browser.
Knitting together the chronology has also been a challenge, since quotes stemming from one era often flow better if placed in another. And like any other writing, I first have to chisel away all the unnecessary words that makes up a rough draft before I can see the basic shape. Hopefully all that chiseling will eventually create something smoother than iceberg chunks glued together with a bunch of unrelated memory crystals.
Lastly, the imaginary island. You’d think this would be the easiest, because I get to “make up” whatever happens. But it’s not a fantasy, so the story must have a realistic context—which means I’ve been diving down knowledge wells I didn’t even know existed. Instead of searching my sailing memories for a relevant fact and then going in search of the data to back it up, I create “facts” (or in the best cases, my characters “remember” them); then I search for the relevant background to make sure what I’ve made up could’ve actually happened. In order to be credible, the fiction must align with a bunch of facts I don’t yet know.
Deadlines for these three projects vary… and of course, my mind seems to work most willingly on the least pressing one of all. But it’s nice to know that the basic task is the same for all three: Tell a good story. Based it on as much fact as possible. And most importantly, don’t let any random facts I happen to find along the way (in all those deep, dark, knowledge wells) distract from the overall shape of the story I’m trying to tell.