Hesitation, Authority, and Building the World As You See It

Monday, October 19, 2015

Graffiti of a wooden rowboat in black on a wall.

This week I learned about Bengali magicians working to preserve their mentor’s home. I’ve been reading folktales about jealous queens and urban studies papers about the development of Dhaka high rises. Photographs, art pieces, old magazine ads -- I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of research.

Research is actually a very exciting part (says the eternal nerd). Like research for an academic paper, I am starting wide and then narrowing my focus based on what calls to me. Unlike research for an academic paper, I don’t actually know what I’m looking for or how much any one thing will influence the end result. Tabla music could teach me how to set the tone and pace of the novel. I could write my characters into the black and white photographs I’ve been looking at. Or both, or neither.

You can probably already see how easy it is to get overwhelmed.

I have a huge set of possibilities – and responsibilities. I agree with Wonderbook author Jeff Vandermeer: sometimes fantasy worlds are easier to construct than real ones. In the real world, I feel clogged with my assumptions and reactions. I’ve read empathetic and complex depictions of Bangladesh and the United States by now, but I’ve also read a lot of generic national histories, a lot of savior narratives, and a lot of just factually inaccurate pieces (several travel guides come to mind). And sometimes instead of absorbing the research, I get seduced by the image that I have for my characters, based on whatever approximation that I’ve read in other novels. There’s a difference between a pastiche of techniques and Frankenstein’s monster.

I needed a way to systematically think about the way I was creating worlds and the characters that inhabit them. Someone online suggested a series of essays called Writing the Other, and I inhaled them. They gave me the much-needed structure for how to go about research; they offered ways to re-evaluate and interrogate myself as I am drafting. Most importantly, they gave me back some confidence in my process.

One can never absorb all aspects of a society. Our social position – class, gender, race/ethnicity, to name a few – changes our access to materials and experiences. There’s no such thing as an impartial observer. I hold that tension in my head all the time as I write, hoping of course that it pushes me as I write my wriggling first draft.