Welcome!! I’m thrilled to have a great guest on the Manicheans today. I started following Peter while I still learned how to use Twitter. Always searching for the perfect horror story, I decided to purchase his novel, entitled “The Well”, which blew my mind and which I strongly recommend to everyone. He knows it by now – I’m a dedicated fan of his work, and I take advantage of my power by putting an immense amount of pressure on his shoulders.
Follow him: @labrow.
It’s truly an honor for me to present to you his post.
The reality of research
Johanna asked me to write a guest blog. “No problem,” said I. “What about?” “About anything,” she said.
Quite honestly, asking a writer to write about ‘anything’ is like asking evolution to come up with the definitive life form. This explains the delay of several weeks between being asked and submitting the blog itself.
So, I’ve decided to write about New York, where Johanna lives – and (importantly) I don’t. But, in the context of writing. (See what I did there?)
So, I’ve visited New York once, a stay of just under a week. I did the usual things – strolled through Central Park, took the ferry to Ellis Island, walked across Brooklyn Bridge as the sun went down – you get the picture.
I loved it. New York is massive, energetic, vibrant – and yet still has a feeling of real community to it. I was struck by several things – all of which I’m sure are not ‘universally true’ but are a long way from the picture I’d built up in my mind of New York.
One of the days of my visit was the day of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. It’s a big deal – around a million extra people descend on NYC. Since the City has a population of around 8 million, an extra million is still a massive deal. What amazed and impressed me was how the police handled this. In the UK, if that percentage of people marched through central London, we’d see the police on horseback, carrying riot shields. The interplay between the New York police and crowd was social, chatty and respectful. In the UK, the police segregate themselves from the ‘public’ and don’t encourage interaction – there’s often an atmosphere of fear, not respect. I’m simplifying – and I’m sure UK politicians and police would be horrified at what I’m saying and defend the police’s relationship with the public. They’re wrong. They have their heads in the sand. They place the blame for rioting totally with the public and don’t accept that donning battle armour contributes to ill feeling.
Another example. Walking through Central Park on Sunday morning, it was a pleasure to see lone people, wandering into the park with baseball bats and mitts – to be invited to play a game with someone they don’t know. In the UK, we think of Central Park as a place of muggings and rapes. I know this still happens – I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be in there at night, but then again I wouldn’t do that in the UK either. (I’d argue that wandering into a park for a game with strangers is a type of social interaction that we’ve all-but lost in the UK.)
As a tourist, I often was unsure of my way. More than once I was approached by someone offering to help. I can tell you from experience, that this doesn’t happen much in London.
Sure, there are sides to New York I didn’t see – it has a massive drugs problem, like pretty much any major city. I didn’t see where the prostitutes hung out – and a million other things that make a city what it is.
But I was surprised many times, assumptions were undone and a new understanding began to fall into place. I could honestly see why people love the place – and feel that it holds most of what they need.
As a writer, this fascinates me. We all write from experience – but lots of our experience is just plain wrong. It’s developed from what we’ve seen on television, watched in films, read in books and seen on the news. If we base our writing on second- or third-hand experiences, we perpetuate myths, draw unreal worlds, exaggerate issues or deny facts.
If you want to write vividly about watching the sunrise from the top of a mountain, how much greater will the resonance of your words be if you’ve been there, living it? If you write the experience based on photographs, will you genuinely catch every aspect of it? The cold discomfort of the night? The clawing, clagging, clinging of the morning mist? The meagre warmth as black gives way to colour? The smells in the air changing? The sounds of the day beginning to rise?
Imagine describing making love, if you’re still a virgin. You know lots, could probably make a good stab at it – but how much would you miss?
How two-dimensional would a scene in New York be if it featured a mugging in Central Park? It may not be a mistake – but how much richer would it be to feature a Sunday morning ball game, being helped by a stranger and chatting to a cop?
If I’d set even one scene of a book in New York, all of that scene would be based on assumptions. Here’s another example – on a recent trip to Rome, I was flummoxed by the simple process of buying and using a railway ticket. In Rome, you have to validate a ticket before use, in a machine on the platform. This is a separate and unrelated activity to buying one – and, once validated, you have seventy minutes to use the ticket. And tickets are mostly sold in tobacconists. So, I write the simple phrase: “I bought a railway ticket and got on the train” and I’m wrong. In this case, not wildly wrong in a way that could affect the plot, but wrong nonetheless.
I wrote about research recently on my own blog – about how it always, always enriches what you write. You don’t need to become an expert – although more experience always helps. If I were to write about someone living in New York, it would make sense if the character had just arrived, rather than being a long-term resident. Otherwise, I’d miss so much. If I wanted to describe a deeper experience, I’d probably have to talk to those who live there – it’s not likely that I could get under the skin of a place in a few weeks or even months.
As writers, we do what we can – research has to be efficient, otherwise the book would never get written. But the research needs to be there – you can’t really visit New York via Wikipedia.
Peter Labrow is the author of the 4-/5-star rated horror novel, The Well, which is available in print and on Kindle from Amazon.