by Carol Goodman
Research. Growing up in a writing household, my daughter soon learned to utter the word with a sarcastic inflection and a well-practiced eye roll. Why was I reading that book? Research! Why were we going to the Metropolitan Museum for the day? Research! That trip to Italy? Research! Necessary! I cried.
I get an idea and, as it grows, the story bumps into the limits of my own knowledge. I need to find out more about 1940s New York City, or stained glass repair, or Herculaneum excavations (Italy!). Over the years I’ve read wonderful books, bought and ignored worthy but boring books, traveled, kayaked (once), and wasted hours on the internet. It’s been fun, enriching, and helped this introvert get out more. Only occasionally has it made me feel like a terrible person.
What kind of terrible person…
For instance, when I realized I wanted to write about a woman who worked for a crisis hotline for my novel The Night Visitors the next logical step was to volunteer for one. I knew I had other reasons for volunteering, that the same concerns about domestic abuse that had led me to the idea for The Night Visitors were urging me to take a more active role in helping victims of abuse and other vulnerable populations. Still, I felt a bit of an imposter when I signed up for the training. Then the first thing I learned in my training was that everything I heard there was strictly confidential.
I almost got up and left.
But then I was already a third into the novel—and besides, research wasn’t the only reason I was there, right? And really, what kind of a terrible person walks out on crisis training because they won’t be able to write about it?
Being a writer often feels a bit like being a spy.
Writing helps me cope
Part of the writer’s brain is always observing and weighing material for heft and usability, searching for the germ of an idea, as Henry James called it. And while I’ve worried that that makes me a terrible person, I’ve also realized that it’s the ability to distance myself and observe that helps me get through most days.
Writing helps me cope and I can only hope that I’m a better friend, mother, wife, and human being when I’m coping.
Not everything is confidential
One day in training I decided to broach the topic directly. I asked one of my trainers if the methods and techniques we were learning were confidential. After a moment’s pause (during which I suspected he was going to out me as a spy), he responded that no, only the personal material we heard from trainers, volunteers, and clients was confidential.
All right then. I was already halfway through The Night Visitors and I knew that none of the characters, plot, or dialogue came from anything confidential. Now I could use the methods, routines, and strategies I’d learned to create a world around my characters.
I’d also learned an important research tool: transparency.
It made him cry
Instead of worrying about where to draw the line between what I could use, I asked. Later, after I began working on the phones at the facility called “Family,” I told my supervisors that I’d written a novel using a Family-like call center as background. I wrote an afterward for the book that described how I came to work at Family and shared that with them. One of my supervisors told me it made him cry. Another asked to include it in their newsletter. No one was mad at me or called me a terrible person.
It’s been two years since I did my training and I still work at the call center. (What kind of a terrible person would quit after the six-month commitment?) Never do I take a call and think, “This would be something to write about.” In fact, I don’t think about writing when I’m on the phone at all, which is pretty rare for me and kind of a welcome break. I suspect that my ability to observe and distance myself, honed by years of being a writer, helps me cope with the difficult and often heartbreaking things I hear. I’m not sure if it’s made me a better writer; I can only hope it’s made me a better person.
Do you get excited when you hear another person say something that you cannot wait to put in your novel? Is daily life research for your book? Share your opinion and experiences with us on Facebook.
Carol Goodman is the author of twenty-one novels, including the upcoming The Night Visitors, as well as The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize, and The Widow’s House, which won the 2018 Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family, and teaches literature and writing at The New School and SUNY New Paltz.