Posts Tagged ‘research’

Less this kind of tabloid

I used to be embarrassed by my tabloid habit. Why did I love reading schlocky sensationalist stories? A part of me absolutely cringes at the rabidity with which people follow some of the top tabloid stories. And think of how eager vast swaths of America is to watch reality shows about people with truly fucked up lives. We’ve entrenched the phrases “train wreck” and “can’t look away” into our language. The part of me that cringes thinks humans must be ghouls to want to read about children raised in dog kennels and young women locked up in dungeons and families that fall apart around their parents myriad indiscretions. Why do we want to misery and misfortune and suffering as entertainment?

The less cringe-inclined part of me has a ready answer: it’s all part of our story.

All the things that humans do to themselves and to each other in the pursuit of their lives, it’s all part of the human experience. Of course, we’re curious about it. There but for the grace of [insert cosmic intermediary of your choice here] go we. We could be the train wreck tomorrow. We could be the victim whose blood stains the sidewalk on the 10 o’clock news. We could be the confused person covering her head with a jacket as she runs from her lawyer’s car to the courthouse. It could be us, and so we want to prepare ourselves for it. We want to look at the train wreck and imagine how we would handle such things.

Some people are inclined to use their vantage point for judgment. Well, that’s what she gets for leaving her toddler alone! Well, that’s what he gets for marrying her. Well, that’s what happens when you live that kind of life.

For me, my interest in these tragedies are all about the question “And what then?” As with any trauma, people have to choose how they deal with the aftermath. That is a thing that never ceases to interest me. And so I find myself reading the Daily Mail, ferreting for details about the young man who was starved and imprisoned in his own home for years, before being put on a bus to California. What becomes of him now? What about the guy in a sham green card marriage who coerced his older, wealthy lover to enter into a sham marriage with his mother to get her a green card? Or the woman in Ohio who learned after her husband’s death that the man she was married to was actually her father, too. Once you get beyond the titillation, you have the opportunity to look right in the face of human experience and wonder, how does a person process this revelation, integrate this knowledge into her psyche, and go on with her life? These are important questions.

More like this kind of tabloid

Not all traumas are as traumatic as that young man’s life. Not all secrets are as shocking as learning you married your father, but when you explore the fallout from that sort of secret, you’re exploring general ways in which people handle these things. (In this case, Ms. Spruill is choosing to go public, to seek out other siblings lost in the turmoil of her mother’s life.)

As a writer, I think that’s why I go on being obsessed with these stories. Possibly I’m just making excuses for my interest, but when I read these stories I believe I’m fueling my understanding of humanity. These things happen to real people and real people must deal with them. So while I have not yet written a story about a woman who marries her father, nor do I particularly plan to, I have definitely written stories about people who uncover secrets they wish they hadn’t.

I don’t think my urge to read tabloids is any different from a writer of murder mysteries researching ways to dispose of a body. It seems morbid and creepifying, but it serves the story. People do commit murder and hide the bodies. People who write about these things need to peer into that dark place. Those of us who write about more tame aspects of human experience, we still need to inquire into the extremity of life’s shocks and surprises.

So I’ll carry on with my tabloid habit, still a little ashamed but convinced it’s research. How about you?

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It’s what I consider one of the strangest writer interview questions: where do you get your ideas?  As more writers get interviewed on more blogs, I thought it was a question that was going to die, but it hasn’t.  I’ve seen it asked in two different author interviews just this week, despite the fact that the answer is almost always the same.  Writers get their story ideas from everywhere.  Everything.

A newspaper article.  An overheard conversation.  A non-verbal interaction glimpsed.  A random string of free associations.  A dream.

I like getting the occasional story idea from dreams, because I always assume that it must be a powerful distillation of my subconscious mind.  Something that has stewed for weeks, months, maybe years.  Of course, it could just be the mental equivalent of random detritus vacuumed out of the couch cushions.

I had one this week, involving a set of conjoined triplets.  I woke and scribbled down the details, some snatches of dialog, first impressions of narrator and characters.  The next morning, it made sense and it still intrigued, so I set to writing a first draft.



As do a lot of writers I know, I like research.  Even if I’ll never use the information gathered except as background, I like to learn more about the things I’m writing about.  This story idea is no exception.  The first thing I did was Google “conjoined triplets.”  I was quickly reminded that the internet is full of ignorance.  Places like Yahoo! Answers and Ask.com are just as likely to contain misinformation as they are to contain facts.

If you’re willing to rely on the guidance of random strangers, you’d leave your research into conjoined triplets fairly convinced that such a thing is unheard of and undocumented in medical history.  From that, I might well assume that my story idea is likely to be fantastical in nature.  One intrepid respondent to a question about conjoined triplets suggested that the odds were 1 in 11,000,000,000.  No idea how that was arrived at, but as a former Freshman Composition instructor, I knew what I had to do next: actual research.

Now here’s where the internet is fabulous: online access to the University’s database of journals, including full articles from The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.  Just like that, the truth came out.  In Greece, in this century, doctors prenatally diagnosed a case of conjoined triplets.  Genetically identical females, well-developed, and sharing a single heart and liver, were diagnosed using three-dimensional ultrasound at 22 weeks gestation.

Although the fetuses were well-developed and might well have survived to birth, the pregnancy was terminated because of the mother’s health.  I won’t post them here, because they are rather disturbing, but the photos make clear that conjoined triplets, no matter how rare, are not merely in the realm of fantasy or science fiction.

It was also a good reminder that no matter where a story idea comes from, it needs to go to factual resources to get its legs.

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Writers are an odd bunch.  The sort of people who sit around contemplating murder, rape, espionage, sabotage, and other heinous acts.  Writers probably spend more time thinking about these things than the people who actually commit them.  After all, we have to imagine the proper motivation, because we don’t have it on tap.

We also spend an inordinate amount of time research ways to torture, kill, and maim people.  Just know, my fellow writers, that you are in dangerous territory.  When you start to type in search terms on Google, think: if someone close to you were murdered, would you want the police to look at your search history and see “suffocation death” or “manual strangulation”?

When your average car mechanic, or CPA, or stay-at-home mom, does those searches, it may be an indication of nefarious intent, but writers are by-and-large non-violent people.  And they need to be careful.  Perhaps you find yourself writing a murder mystery, and you wonder, How could you kill someone so it would look like a suicide? You open up your internet browser, go to Google, and start to type in your search terms.

Stop. Meet Tom Murray:

In this picture, he doesn’t look like a respected linguistics professor at a Big Twelve university.  He was.  When I first met him, he was.  As a graduate student, I was his research assistant for two years, and I always admired him.  From this photo, you can see that he’s a big man, although  stress has made him lose weight.  The photo is a testament to the more subtle skills of a news photographer–the angle creates menace where it doesn’t exit.  Tom isn’t a menacing guy, despite his size.  At the moment this photo was snapped, however, he’d just been convicted of his wife’s murder.

Her death was brutal, bloody, violent, and likely rather prolonged, according to the coroner. With Tom and his ex in a custody disagreement over their daughter, the police started looking at Tom almost immediately.  There is no physical evidence to place him at the crime scene.  Not a fingerprint or stray hair or drop of blood, but when the police searched his computer they found what they considered incriminating evidence: an internet search for alternate routes between Manhattan and Lawrence, Kansas, their respective residences.  Another incriminating internet search: information on exotic poisons, including fugu fish.  Additionally, police retrieved some e-mails from his computer in which he expressed his concern that his ex-wife intended to move to California to be with her new boyfriend.

Of course, many innocent people check for alternate routes for drives they make regularly.  Of course, Tom’s ex-wife died as a result of being stabbed and beaten, not poisoned.  For the jury, though, it added up to murder.  Tom is serving a sentence life in prison in El Dorado, Kansas, although he is currently mounting an appeal.

What was Tom’s explanation for his internet searches?  He was sick of driving the interstate to pick up his daughter for custodial visits.  Like many college English professors, he dreamed of being a writer.  The story he was working on hinged on a murder by poison.

So think carefully.  Before you type in “garage door decapitation” or “insulin shock death,” turn off your computer, go down to the public library, and do your research there.

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