Don’t get me wrong: I know plenty of things.
The problem is that I used most of them in my first book.
When I wrote State v. Claus, I sort of took the easy way out. After all, writing a novel was daunting business—no reason to make it harder. So the main character was a lawyer because I know how to be a lawyer. After decades of appearing in court and reading reams of trial transcripts, the courtroom scenes were a snap to write. Deciding what crimes Ralph would be charged with and what the elements were required nothing more than the legal database I use on a daily basis. The dynamics of law firm life were second nature. Even researching details of criminal procedure was easy: I talked to a lawyer I knew whose practice consisted primarily of representing individuals accused of crimes.
I wish the research for the sequel to State v. Claus was a fraction as easy.
What makes it harder is that this time, the things I need to research now aren’t simple little factoids, but nuances about why people make certain choices. Like, for instance, deciding to get married. Or not.
Some writers say they write to experience the lives they’ll never live. While this is a fine motive, in my opinion it doesn’t obviate the need for research into those lives. How can I write plausibly about the feelings of a person bungee-jumping off a bridge if I know nothing about what makes a person take a (literal or figurative) leap into the unknown?
Fortunately, there’s another option: stealing other people’s lives.
Think about it. We all know other people. Those people have lived different lives from us, and they’ve made different choices. Some may be happy to tell you why they did (or refrained from doing) whatever they chose. Most people love to talk about themselves. Granted, what they tell you might depend on how close you are, but even if they draw a curtain around certain portions of their lives, you may find out enough to serve the launching pad for your imagination.
Rumer Godden spent years researching her exquisite novel, In This House of Brede, the story of a middle-aged career woman who joins a Benedictine monastery. I recall reading somewhere that this research included living in a monastery for a time. As a result, the characters are masterfully drawn, their relationships and conflicts fully developed and completely believable. (On the other hand, Anthony Trollope reportedly knew nothing about cathedral life when he created the first of the novels known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire; he simply made it all up. So, there’s that.)
Even if we’re not inclined to steal from the lives of real people we know (who might read our book and recognize their lives on our pages—oops!), why not steal from people who are fictional, famous, or anonymous?
For example, take Patti Callahan’s beautiful new novel, Once Upon a Wardrobe. It’s a story of a university student who befriends C. S. Lewis in an effort to discover for her dying brother the underpinnings of Narnia. While the plot is fictional, the stories Lewis tells the student about his life are clearly well-researched and shed a great deal of light on how and why he wrote the Narnia books.
And so, in a scene I’m currently writing, I’ve relied on fiction, fame, and a friend. Meg and her houseguest discuss Love Story (the book and the film, which differ in ways important to my story) and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In addition, I’ve drawn on a friend’s real-life experiences. These disparate elements offer a variety of options as Meg debates the pros and cons of marriage to a man whose career makes certain specific demands on both their lives—including requiring that she close down her law practice and move from her beloved Connecticut.
Luckily, my Meg isn’t the only one who’s ever faced such a dilemma. Those who marry into royal families surrender their entire lives as private individuals (or at least they used to—the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have proven that there are other choices). I don’t have any current or former royals available to interview, but the internet is overflowing with accounts of what royal life requires of a commoner who’s marrying in. For a fictional insider’s look into what it takes for an outsider (American) to become part of the British royal family, in my opinion nothing beats the wonderfully funny and frothy The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan.
Another parallel can be found in military spouses who sacrifice their independent lives and careers to support their servicemember spouse. Many years ago, I visited a friend whose husband was stationed at Pearl Harbor. During my visit, we had occasion to attend a going-away beach party for a military family that was being transferred to the mainland. At one point, I overheard a low-voiced conversation among the wives of three servicemembers, all of whom were fiercely envious of the departing family for “getting off this rock.” Turns out, even being stationed in an idyllic location like Hawai’i has its drawbacks, such as living thousands of miles from loved ones. How much more might Meg struggle with being “stationed” at the North Pole—a land of permanent winter—after enjoying a lifetime of freedom to explore during Connecticut’s four distinct seasons?
Which brings me full circle to the life I know, with all its limits. What it might take for a person like me to agree to such a monumental change? I can’t even write from first-hand experience about how a person decides to say “yes” to marriage. Pile on top of that the idea that marrying would require me to relinquish every scrap of my current life, and what would it take? What would convince me to leave a world where I’m free to follow my chosen profession(s), attend the church of my choosing, go to live concerts and theater? Where I can dine out with friends, visit family, pick blueberries and corn on a summer afternoon, ride a horse along a wooded trail? Where I can get in a car and drive as far as I like? Where I can relax at the beach, browse the shelves of a bookstore, cheer at a baseball game? Where I can plant a garden, watch birds at the feeder, hear the rustling of dried leaves on an autumn day? Would I ever leave all this simply for love? Or is this question a sign that I don’t truly know what love is?
You see why I’m struggling to figure out what might make Meg choose to give up her world, to choose marriage and a permanent life at the North Pole. Is love enough? Personally, I don’t think so—but if not love, then what would suffice? Love plus what? Do intelligent middle-aged women need something else before they’re willing to make such drastic changes? If so, what is that elusive ingredient? What experiences can I imagine that might tip the balance? What books or movies might offer ideas to serve as jumping-off points? Alternatively, what real-life experiences has someone else had that I can steal?
I freely confess that at this point, I have no idea. The best I can say is this: the special ingredient exists somewhere in that magical blend of fictional worlds and real life. I’m certain of that. All I have to do is find it or invent it–or steal it.