Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Seeking versus Wandering, or Another Reason to Love Pandora

At my day job, we listen to Pandora all day.  Because there are at least four people hitting the “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” buttons on our station, Pandora tends to get confused about our preferences.  Today, it played a song from the Amelie soundtrack (entirely instrumental and featuring an accordion) followed immediately by The Police.

Sometimes, this is annoying.  Like when I’m really in the mood for classic 80s rock and get hit with the theme song from Lord of the Rings instead.  But the benefit of this schizophrenia is that I discover music I wouldn’t normally seek out on my own personal Pandora stations.  Today, along with the aforementioned songs, I heard one that the main character of my work-in-progress would *love.*  By the time the chorus rolled around, I said to myself, “Now THAT’s what she’d have on her iPod.”  I created my own Pandora station from the artist, and I spent all evening listening to my character’s music, getting deeper into her head.

The whole experience has me thinking about the things we seek out versus the things we discover, and how being too focused about our goals can make us miss really fascinating side trips.  If not for the randomness of my workplace Pandora station, I never would have heard this song, because my characters don’t always listen to the same music I do.  It’s a trivial example of a more important point: In any creative field, it’s important to have “wandering time,” periods when you don’t have a specific goal—or even the hope of a goal—to distract you.  Seeking out information is important, but it’s just as important to let your mind wander, trusting instinct and luck to bring you somewhere interesting. 

I try to build “wandering time” into my life by getting semi-lost on long walks, cruising through bookstore sections I don’t normally visit, and, yes, listening to radio stations I typically don’t like. 

How do you wander?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Don't Judge My Book By My Search Terms

This weekend, I visited a local park to do some research.  I’m writing a scene that takes place on a hiking trail, and I needed to get the feel of the place solidly in my mind.  It’s not like I’ve never been hiking before, but nothing compares to writing fresh off of an experience, while the smells and sounds are still vivid.

I try to write mostly about places I’ve actually been and things I’ve actually done (except, you know, the whole telekinesis thing), but it’s not always possible.  When I can, I tap into the varied lives of my friends and family members.  People have gotten used to me calling them up with random questions.  Recent example: “Dad, remember that fishing boat you had when I was a kid?  What was the hull made out of?” 

Then, there’s the library.  For one of my early projects, my main character worked for an antiques dealer, and I spent a day in the library thumbing through Miller’s Antiques Price Guides from the past fifteen years.  (I had not, before then, known Miller’s Antiques Price Guides existed, but let me tell you, they are COMPREHENSIVE: porcelain cow creamers and gentlemen’s portable writing desks and art deco jewelry…)  I could have found a lot of this stuff online, but I wanted to pick up the physical books and leaf through them, so I could find things I wouldn’t have known to look for.

That said, Google is hands-down my most heavily used research tool.  I Google my characters names to make sure I haven’t subconsciously named them after celebrities.  I Google weather patterns for the cities where I set my action.  I Google set pieces I’ve dreamed up to see if they exist somewhere outside my imagination.  If the US government is watching my computer, God only knows what they think I’m up to.  Things I have Googled (for a number of different projects) include:

injectable CNS depressants
best candles healing rituals
Coleman lanterns
antique tortoiseshell box
surgical sutures
how to fake your own death
how much does a log weigh**

Given this list, I’m clearly planning on faking my own death and setting up a clandestine log-cabin clinic in the woods, combining traditional medicine and witchcraft.  Huh.  Sounds like fun.  

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever Googled for the purposes of research?

**This one got me to an awesome online calculator that will tell you how much your log weighs.  You put in the length, diameter and type of tree (there are, like, 100 options), and it gives you back the weight in pounds!  Honestly, how cool is this?  Okay, it’s not very cool.  But it was useful.  If you need to know how much your log weighs, I suggest following this link.