by Debbie Vance
In his 1981 Paris Review Art of Fiction Interview, Donald Barthelme speaks on how research is an essential element in the writer’s toolbox. He says, “Research yields things that you can react to, either accept or disagree with,” offering his own experience writing about the Chinese emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti as an example. Research provides real life details, real specificity that form the foundation from which imagination can grow, morph, climb up a historical stone tower and cover it in ivy.
Here’s a writing assignment: Perform research for whatever piece of writing you’re currently working on. Whether you think it’ll be helpful or not. (More likely than not, it will be.) But you must research from at least three different media. Books, antique photographs, newspaper clippings, recipes , interviews with your neighbor…you get the picture. Research can be historical and information-based, but it can also be experiential. How do you describe the feel of bark against your ten-year-old protagonist’s fingers? Go out in your backyard and feel that big oak tree until you have the right words. In what way, exactly, was the cavernous air stagnant? Go spelunking and take a deep breath. As Henry James said, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”
One of my favorite research mediums is the recipe book, which teaches you not just how to make certain recipes, but how people in a certain time and place lived, entertained, ate, and (sometimes) kept house.
A lovely writer friend of mine once gave me an old, well-loved cookbook as a gift. The Household Searchlight Recipe Book, published in Topeka, Kansas, 1941. The front page has a hand-written recipe for “Eggless, butter less, and milkless cake,” written in pencil: “Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour in modern oven.” The “waffles” section is maybe the most loved of all–you can tell by the heightened level of food stains–and the strangely particular asides and directions suggest just what sort of people were cooking in 1941 Topeka: “Served at the table, an appetizer glass should be under-lined with a small plate placed on the service plate,” and “Croquettes or other foods cooked in deep fat will absorb fat if the mixture is too thin, too rich, has rough surfaces, or if the fat is not sufficiently hot.” The back of the book has recipes for wedding cakes; prune pie, marshmallow apple pie, and vinegar pie are on the same spread; half of the section labels tabs have been worn off and rewritten; and the whole thing smells like a dusty used book store. Hell, even if the book didn’t teach me a thing about a certain character or their eating habits, I’d still enjoy flipping through it and imagining the 1940s housewife that owned it first.
So off you go. Put your research cap on, tie your shoe laces, and bon voyage!