Question #12, 7/24/18
From Carolyn McGill:
“Each of your books gives us information about topics I previously knew nothing about. I’ve wondered how much effort you have to put into researching topics you don’t know much about. How much time do you put into it, is there a point at which you say “ok, I’ll go with what I’ve got” and let artistic license do the rest.
As a reader, I think I can tell if something has been well researched. I’m thinking you go for ‘hands on’ experience. It must be difficult to leave things out.
Although, just as an aside, as a museum worker myself, I do take issue with the activity that took place on the crate in Dry Bones. But, as a reader, I have to admit, I was quite happy with it (although I think I will advise my museum never to send a crate of artifacts to Wyoming).”
You know, it’s hard to say what’s my favorite part about the writing, but doing the research has to be right up there. I generally start working on a book about a year before I write it, and it gets tough holding off until I’m really ready to sit down with it and then I’m chomping at the bit. Obviously, some books take more research than others…
Another Man’s Moccasins comes to mind with all the Vietnam references, Hell is Empty was another because of the Dante, The Western Star because of the train and so on. One of the things I’ve learned is to not be too exact in the research and take more of a shotgun method, allowing myself to garner as much general knowledge on the subject as possible. Like writing the book itself, you think you know what you’re looking for, but you really don’t until you find it.
While writing Depth of Winter, the Longmire book that comes out in September, I started doing research on Ambrose Bierce, since he was an American who had disappeared into Mexico during their revolution. I was simply using his experiences as a metaphor for Walt’s adventures there, but then I stumbled onto an occurrence of Bierce’s that took place in the Civil War and knew I had to use it…
I love books, of course, but I also enjoy going to the library, reading old newspapers, looking things up on the internet, watching documentaries—but nothing beats primary research material, talking to somebody who was actually there. No matter what you’re writing about, someone out there in the world has done it or was there and it’s your job to find them. The most seductive words in any language are, “Tell me about yourself?” People love talking about themselves and their experiences and for a writer that’s pure gold.
I don’t think there’s ever enough research, but I do think there comes a time when you have to pull the spurs off the wall and get writing. There will always be more to research as you write the novel, more information you need as the focus of the story becomes sharp. And then, like my ol’ buddy Tony Hillerman used to say, “Just tell a good story.”
Hand-on is always the way to go when doing your research in that it gives you a sense-memory that beats out all the other sources. I’m fortunate in that I live in an area not dissimilar from the world that Walt lives in and that gives me an opportunity to do a lot of the things he does in the place where he does them. This can manifest itself in the simplest ways—for example, I write with my hat on just so I can remember that Walt’s wearing his and there are props on my desk, things that the sheriff might be using in the books.
Sometimes it gets a little overly ambitious. I knew Walt was going to be taking a mule ride in Depth of Winter and signed my wife and me up for a ride into the Grand Canyon in February. There we were on the rim and it was -9 degrees when it dawned on me that my wife doesn’t like cold or heights… You would think I would’ve done more research on that, huh?