Adventures in Research

by Elizabeth Engstrom

 

I’m writing a book wherein a murder takes place on a cruise ship.

Last month, my sweets and I took a cruise. Perfect time to do a little research.

This is how it went:

First, I asked the Cruise Director if I could speak to someone in Security, as I was writing a murder mystery set aboard a cruise ship and I wanted to get a couple of details correct.

He sent me to Guest Services.

questions

The guy at Guest Services, when I gave him my card to show I was legit–a real writer– and told him that I wanted five minutes with someone from Security, said he’d call me when someone was available.

No sooner had I gone back to my stateroom than the Guest Services guy called and asked what questions I had for Security.

I quickly had to think, and pare down my questions. Mostly, I wanted just to chat with the guy and find out a few of their procedures, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen. So, off the top of my head, these were my questions:

  1. If there is a murder aboard, who on board is in charge of the investigation?
  2. If it is during an ocean crossing, whose jurisdiction is it (the originating port or the destination port)?
  3. If the crime takes place in a very public place (in the middle of the night), how do they secure the scene of the crime?
  4. If the victim is a member of a cruising group, will the head of security be willing to let the group leader help with the investigation? (My sleuth, of course, will have to solve the mystery.)

Those were my questions. The nice guy from Guest Services wrote them down and said he’d call me back.

Thirty seconds later, he called me back and told me to get in touch with the cruise line via the Media Relations button on their website.

Zero help.

I was very surprised by this, although after thinking about it a while, I guess I wasn’t that surprised. They have to be very careful with their image, and there have been some very high profile murders/deaths aboard cruise ships.

The unfortunate thing about this particular situation is that I’ll have to write the book as I imagine it and then find someone to read it who can tell me if I’m completely off the mark. I’ll then rewrite the scenes that aren’t right, and hope that my assumptions don’t derail the entire plot. All I was asking for was a little information for the sake of accuracy.

This, however, was the first time I have ever been stonewalled when asking for help with research. From policemen to doctors, nurses to lawyers, priests to politicians, everybody is eager to help with their knowledge of things. I’m careful not to waste their time; I’m careful to let them know that I am serious, and also that sometimes getting a book published is a crap shoot. So I do my homework before I engage. Case in point: I knew what I wanted to ask Shipboard Security.

When people ask me about things in which I have vast or intimate experience, I am only happy to oblige. I believe that is true for most people. So ask away. Be bold. Be brave. But be considerate of someone’s time and sensitive to whether or not they want to go on record.

Research is one of the fun parts of writing fiction.

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Memory Is a Slippery Mistress

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

By Lisa Alber

Jet lag, my friends! I’m living it right now. I returned to Portland from an Ireland novel research trip last night, so I’m really eight hours ahead of myself. It had been thirteen (13!) years since I’d last visited. That shows how long it took me to get my debut novel, Kilmoon, published.

A lot can happen in thirteen years, especially when it comes to our memories. I arrived in County Clare with pictures in my head, with the reality of the place crystal clear, I thought. I ended up driving around for the first few days feeling shell-shocked, disillusioned, disappointed, aghast, and outraged.

Some of the changes to my so-called reality of County Clare were due to what most would refer to as “progress,” which I didn’t like. Not at all. My ideal County Clare ruined by improved infrastructure! I liked it wild, wooly, and rugged. I liked the narrow roads with no painted whites lines on them telling us when we’re allowed to pass. I liked feeling like a race car driver at a whopping 80 km/hour (50 mph). I liked the Neolithic and Medieval ruins sitting in cow fields without any indication of what they were.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn't recovered from the recession.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn’t recovered from the recession.

And the tourism. Well! Never mind that I’m a tourist—I was appalled that the Cliffs of Moher charged a fee, sported a gigantic parking lot and paved walkways and guard rails along the cliffs. I preferred the slippery dirt paths and rusty little signs that depicted a man falling over the edge and a message that went something like: Warning: Unstable Edge.

I was just, I don’t know, weirded out by the whole thing …

But then I got to thinking about why I’d returned to County Clare. It wasn’t to relive some grand memory, which I’d mistaken for reality. I’d returned to research the novel I’m writing now, the third in the County Clare series. This meant seeing Clare as it really is. It meant yanking the rosy-tinted memory glasses off and taking a look around me with an open heart.

I saw the gravel quarries (those weren’t there before, I knew they weren’t … but was that true or just my memory talking?) and the clear-cutting of the forestry lands and all the new houses along the main roads that diminished distances and the tourist signage that trivialized the wondrous and the new big hotels and the summer homes …

Reality: Need I say more?

Reality: Need I say more?

I was thirteen years out of date in my notions of life in County Clare. My books need to reflect some semblance of this reality.

It took a few – three, four, five – days, but I acclimated. I started to see the beauty again. Rolling hills with their drystone walls. Fabulous vistas on the coast. Spring lambs jumping around green velvet fields. Quaint storefronts in a town called Ennistymon. Vibrant yellow furze growing along the roads.

Before I knew it, I was no longer seeing the quarries and the clear cuts. After awhile, they didn’t exist for me anymore, and, I suppose, this is how memory works, doesn’t it? Whatever imprints the most, moves us the most, is what sticks for the long term.

After another little while, I realized that my dissonance wasn’t all due to progress. My brain played its part all on its own.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Memory is a slippery mistress for sure, and the dissonance between reality and memory might be worse when you’re a fiction writer. You go from reality to memory, and then from memory to the imaginative. And let’s face it, we novelists may base our novels in a contemporary world, but we amp it up in different ways to suit our stories.

No wonder I was so disoriented at first. The Clare of my memories had become the Clare of my fiction, another gigantic step removed from real reality.

As the outrage and disorientation dissipated, I fell in love with Clare all over again. I’m already in danger of losing touch with real reality, and I’ve only been home for about twelve hours. Ah well, I expect the next time I travel to Clare, I’ll revisit the same weirdness. On the up side, I’ll rediscover Clare all over again, in a new way.

Have you ever faced the dissonance between reality and memory? I remember

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

feeling the same disorientation when I visited my first childhood home. Everything about the neighborhood felt so small somehow.