Monday, May 07, 2007

Deep in the Heart of . . . Research

from James Grippando

I like research. In fact, it’s one of the things I enjoy most about being a novelist.

Okay, before you go off branding me as a nerd, hear me out. I get to pick any topic I want—astronomy, food, sex, whatever. I get to research it as long as I want and as thoroughly as I want. And when I get tired of researching, I just stop and make things up. That’s what I call research, and what’s not to love?

Last weekend I was in Jacksonville, Florida for a terrific festival called Much Ado About Books. The roster of authors in town for this event was amazing: Lee Child, Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Joseph Finder, Brad Meltzer, Lisa Jackson, Diane Vogt, just to name a few. One of the questions I got from the audience was “How do you do your research?” I could tell the woman who asked it was an aspiring writer. She had a pen and paper with her and was ready to write down my answer, which always makes me nervous. The thought of someone taking my answer as gospel is a scary proposition. Trying to sound smart, I started blabbering about how you ask this person and that person if they know anybody who knows so and so—sort of the six degrees of separation approach to research. She looked really puzzled, and I knew I had flubbed it.

Afterward, I went to see a panel with Lee Child and Steve Berry. Someone in the audience (maybe the same woman) asked Lee the same question. His answer rang so true: I’m always doing research. He gave an example. He went outside for a smoke before the panel began and saw a U-Haul truck parked at the curb. He was thinking about a scene involving a U-Haul truck in a future novel, so he just walked over and started making mental note of the markings and other things that defined the truck. Research.

Lee's answer made me realize that I do the same thing. My least productive research happens when I identify a specific person to interview and hit him or her with my prepared list of questions. That kind of approach is rarely effective. The best research is when I put myself in a setting, observe, and follow my nose. That’s where all the little gems rise to the surface.

Come to think about it, the same held true when I was a trial lawyer. One of my first cases was for Tanqueray Gin. You know the squat green bottle with the distinctive short neck. A barmaid picked up the bottle by the short neck, and it snapped off in her hand, severing the tendons in her fingers. She sued Tanqueray, claiming that its signature look—the short neck—was a defective design. Now, Tanqueray had a LOT invested in the recognizable shape of its bottle, so they were fighting this to the end. I was sent over to the bar one day with a photographer just to get some photographs of what the bar looked like—basic trial exhibits, nothing that could win or lose the case.

Well, it was my lucky day. They happened to be stocking the bar that morning. Simply by observing, I discovered that the way they did this was to wheel a shopping cart into the stock room, throw all the replacement bottles into the shopping cart, and then wheel the cart out to the bar. As you might imagine, loosely stacked bottles have a tendency to break or crack when tossed around in this fashion. I saw the cart coming and grabbed the photographer. I swear this was not staged: Sitting on top of the pile, upside down and wedged between two other bottles, was a bottle of Tanqueray Gin. The photograph snapped the photo. End of case.

I had a similar experience just this past week doing research for my next novel. The lead character is a former baseball player for the University of Texas. Texas, you may know, is a college baseball powerhouse. Its coach, Augie Garrido, is the winningest coach in college baseball history—and Augie earned that distinction by breaking the record that had been set by his predecessor at Texas. I spent an afternoon touring the baseball facility, meeting the team manager, and getting “behind the scenes.” I had no prepared questions, no idea what I was even looking for. As Lee Child would say, I was just observing. It’s just amazing what you find when you’re really not looking for anything in particular.

I’m not going to share everything—not now, anyway—but one of the coolest sights was on Comal Street, which is where a ball lands if the batter hits a homerun out of the stadium to right field. There is a row of brightly painted buses parked on the street. The buses never move. They are permanent fixtures, and there are seats welded on top the buses. Students watch the ballgames from up there. Doesn’t that just sort of some up the personality of college baseball?

There was plenty more in Austin that may or may not make the book, from the famous Texas Tower that lights up in orange whenever the team wins, to the bullet holes that are the scars left behind by a sniper who climbed the tower on August 1, 1966 and murdered fourteen students. Austin is a beautiful city, and one of the most enjoyable research trips I’ve had in a long time. If you go, have a breakfast taco at "Juan in a Million" on the poor side of town, catch a ballgame at Disch-Falk Field, and then head over to the bars on Sixth Street and have a “body shot” at Coyote Ugly. Research. Gotta love it.

P.S. Patty will be back next Monday.


  1. Wondeful post, James. And you're right, research is something you're always doing - when people ask me about my research, I tell them I've been doing it all my life - in fact, I maintain that writers are generally born nosey. Call it curiosity if you like. The key to research is probably the same in law as it is in writing - it's not what you've gathered, but how you use it, and just because you have a series of carefully harvested nuggets, doesn't mean you have to use them all. I think we all know when we're reading a book where the writer has been determined to use every single factoid in the box, and it doesn't really work. Research is there to support the story, so has to be used as a chef might use seasoning in a carefully blended soup.

    Thanks for posting today!

  2. Brilliant post, James. Something to think about and make us all more observant. Only so much can be read out of a book, but initial impressions from first hand observation is invaluable. You only have yourself to blame for mis-interpreting something, instead of someone else. But that's what questions are for. :-)

    Great stuff

  3. Those who know me, know I can get lost in research. I've spent days at the Library of Congress for my WIP.

    My favorite story among many: I wanted to put a scene in Cissy Patterson's mansion, a Stanford White designed pile of marble that is still there, so I went up to the door and knocked.

    The building is now home to a woman's club and the secretary graciously showed me around the first floor. As she was doing this, a woman with the carriage of Margaret DuMont blew in, asked who I was and what I was up to and when I told her, she enthusiastically gave me a tour of the entire mansion with stories for every room.

    What a joy.

    How many jobs have perks like that?

  4. A while back I was going back-and-forth with my writer friend Jay MacLarty and I was doing a piece on him and asked about all the research he must do for his books, which are about an international courier. Jay sort of shrugged and said, "Not that much. Not like you do for your books."

    To which I sort of shrugged and said, "Not that much. I got a degree in microbiology and I worked in a lab for 18 years and I like to read books about bioterrorism and stuff, so it was pretty much all at my fingertips."

    Jay likes to travel and one of the companies he ran was a computer company (and restaurants and professional gambling and...), and in his case, he too had most of this stuff at his fingertips. He fills in the holes when he notices one. Me too.

  5. Now, the tough line to walk, of course, is figuring out what to leave out of the novel. As a reader, I can always tell when an author spent a ton of time researching some topic and then decides to cram it into the story whether it fits or not. Big mistake.

  6. Jim,
    My problem is that I love the research so much -- learning's fun when you get to choose the subject -- I don't want to write the damn book.

    So...I just keep researching and researching...and finally bump up against a deadline. Many files, many boxes of material for background never get used.

    Agree you should never dump-truck stuff into the text just because you took the time to find it. Just like Spencer Tracy's admonition: "Never let them catch you acting." Never let the research show.

    Thanks for pinch-hitting today and last Tuesday for me. I'm home and back in the saddle.