That’s me, about the walk down the road to Fayette, the historic town site in Upper Michigan, and embark on some research. Fayette is a good six hours from my home in Milwaukee, so I had to wait until we went on vacation near enough to the site before I could steal away for the day and work. I packed a lunch, lathered on the sunblock, loaded up my writing utensils (notebook, pencil, camera) and mapped out my course.
With trees on either side of me and spotty cell service above, I spent the drive thinking through questions that lingered after my last visit too long ago, and I hoped I’d learn new information inspiring enough to push me through the remaining bit of my first draft. While at Fayette, I learned plenty: about the town in the late 19th century, about the depth of my self-doubt, and about researching in broad daylight under the hot sun in the middle of tourists.
Leave your sandwich in the car.
My timing was off a bit, as far as when I arrived in Fayette. It was too early to eat my lunch, but I knew I’d get hungry in the middle of walking around. The site isn’t so huge that I couldn’t hike back to the car and grab my lunch, but I was eager to get outside and move forward and not so eager to turn back in the middle of research. So, I opted to carry my sandwich with me, figuring I’d eat later when I couldn’t stand it any more.
What I couldn’t stand any more was my sandwich overheating and perspiring inside the plastic baggy. Nor could I bear to look at its sad state, wilting around the form of the rock I placed it on in order to snap another photo. Finally, even though I wasn’t starving, I sat down on a bench and gobbled it up, if only to rid myself of the weight and the guilt.
The lesson: eat before you exit the car, hungry or not. Nobody likes a sad sandwich.
Accept that tourists may view you as maybe important but mostly…odd.
I was the only person on site with a notebook that day, and all my scribbling got me some attention. In one building, I feverishly took notes on the iron smelting process, studying the placards with great intent. Someone approached me, then, and asked me a question about the process, because surely I knew. I stumbled through an answer and shrugged a few times. Then, in lieu of admitting outright that I was writing a novel, I blubbered, “It’s all so interesting, isn’t it?” Adding a maniacal laugh at the end. They responded in silence, turned around slowly, and walked away. As any good writer will, I immediately went into doubt mode, worrying that I’d just revealed myself as some sort of fake. That person will never read my book, I thought. Who am I to think I can manage this who novel business anyway? Then, I remembered: I’m not writing a book about the iron smelting process; I’m writing a book about the effects of an industry on the land and the people. And, maybe that person won’t be one of my readers. Perhaps he really did think me off kilter. What writer isn’t off kilter?
The lesson: don’t get too caught up in minute details. And, there’s nothing wrong with odd as long as it translates into a good story.
Pack an extra pencil in your pocket.
I put on some miles that day, and not just because I walked from building to building. I kept my pencil clipped to my notebook, but I still managed to drop my pencil twice. Once I had to high-step through grass and weeds to find it. Lucky for me, my pencil was bright blue and thus easy to spot. But, there’s nothing worse than backtracking when you see the sun moving toward the horizon. Unless you’re still walking around with a soggy sandwich. Yes. That’s worse.
The lesson: don’t trust your notebook to hold tight to your writing utensil.
Take photos of everything.
I must have turned my camera on and off a thousand times, foregoing any artistic eye and snap, snap, snapping away. I didn’t care, though. Some details do matter.
Like the peeling wallpaper in a kitchen, which was only spotted by standing on my tiptoes at the back of a boarded up house, peeking through one window left unblocked. I risked a close encounter with a mean looking spider for this shot. I don’t even know if it’s the original wallpaper, but I couldn’t resist.
My bulletin board soon will be full of photos of random shots, some with me shadowed in the background or mirrored in the glare of the window, record of a good day researching.
The lesson: talk nice to the spiders.
Even though my time in Fayette was short, I thought about the novel for every day after. Being surrounded by the landscape of the area was enough to feed my muse. I took notes during the small-town Fourth of July parade, on beach at Lake Superior, while riding a two-gauge train through the forest on our way to Tahquamenon Falls. I clicked the button on the camera any time we passed an interesting grove of trees or a patch of lumbered land. Now that I’m home, I’ll be pushing through to the end of this draft and using all those photos and notes for a serious rewrite.
What do you do when you research on the road? How do you manage your sandwich?
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