From the Library to Las Vegas: the Role of Research in the Writing Process
by Thomas Dodson
A short list of things I’ve learned from writing fiction: fairy penguins sleep for only five minutes at a time, the ancient Greeks used pine sap to waterproof their wineskins, a runny nose and excessive yawning are among the symptoms of opiate withdrawal, and pretty much anyone acquainted with a dead person can officially identify the body.
It’s true, searching a library catalog lacks the writerly glamour of dashing off a first draft. Yet the practice of research has some discrete charms to recommend it to the writer of fiction: the satisfaction of getting a physical detail, a way of speaking, or a word exactly right; of finding unexpected inspiration for a setting or a scene in a news report; or even discovering that a person or place you had thought lived only in your imagination may, in fact, correspond to some actual entity in the world. It can also be a comfort while you’re trying to publish a story (and dealing with the inevitable rejections), to reflect on how much you’ve learned—often about topics you would have never thought to explore.
I’m a librarian, so it’s probably not surprising that research plays a major role in my writing process, as it did in my story “Two Valleys,” published in the journal CONSEQUENCE. “Two Valleys” concerns the pilot of a Predator drone who, after a traumatic mission, seeks solace in a Las Vegas strip club. The idea for the story came to me one Sunday when I heard a report on National Public Radio about drone pilots stationed at an Air Force base in Nevada who regularly flew missions over Afghanistan.
I’ve never served in the military, but something about the story gripped me: two deserts and two forms of American power, both having to do with vision. In Afghanistan it was specular power, the ability of the US military to see things thousands of miles away from unmanned vehicles. By contrast, I associated Las Vegas—with its bright lights and over-the-top architecture—with the stupefying power of capitalist spectacle. I was interested in exploring how I might connect these two forms of power through the lived experience of a single character.
A couple of weeks after hearing the NPR piece, I started work on a story about a drone pilot stationed at Creech AFB, a base located only a short drive from Las Vegas.
In my experience, one of the best ways to gain perspective on some larger issue that you want to write about is to seek out personal accounts of people struggling with that issue. Very often the richest sources for these accounts are memoirs. If the experience you’re interested in is widely shared, memoirs can be great resources and relatively easy to find. In my case, however, I had to do some real digging to find a book by a drone pilot. I turned to Worldcat (www.worldcat.org), a free online database that allows you to search the collections of libraries all over the world, all at once. It’s a great way to find out whether the book you’re looking for actually exists and, if it does, which libraries near you have copies.
I found only one published memoir: Predator: the Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: a Pilot’s Story by Major Matt J. Martin and the journalist Charles W. Sasser. The book is full of just the kinds of details I was looking for. I learned, for example, that because of the great distance the signal has to travel, there is a two-second delay from the moment a pilot in Nevada moves his flight stick and the drone in Afghanistan responds. This fact provided me with an opportunity to escalate the tension in a scene in which the story’s protagonist must offer split-second aid to soldiers who are under attack.
Predator was also full of the special vocabulary used by drone pilots and sensor operators. A drone is an “RPV” (short for “remote-piloted vehicle”) and its two view modes are “IR” (infrared monochrome) and “day-TV” (full-color telephoto). Eventually banned by Gen. Stanly McChrystal, the chillingly vague term “military-aged male” had been used by drone operators to refer to most Afghan men and boys, implying that nearly half the civilian population might be a combatant—one “positive identification” away from becoming a potential target. Operators also make use of some disturbing slang; a target killed by a drone strike is a “bug splat” and a person who breaks from a group in an effort to flee is termed a “squirter.”
While books dealing with the technical, political, and moral aspects of drone warfare helped provide me with context, it was their citations that I found most useful. In a chapter from her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, activist Medea Benjamin discusses the psychological impact on pilots of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for up to thirteen hours at a time before clocking out and commuting home to be with their families. She quotes the pilots at length from stories originally published in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Tracking down the pieces she cited and supplementing these with searches of Lexis-Nexis, a database of domestic and international news sources, I was able to assemble a more-or-less complete list of popular press articles about drone pilots.
In addition to general background information, specific scenes in the story called for additional research and other approaches. A documentary video, Afghanistan: An Afghan Village, provided glimpses into life in rural Afghanistan. In one shot, a young boy shovels fuel into the mouth of a clay oven; in another, an old man with a bucket splashes handfuls of water onto the ground, settling the dust of the main road.
To gain insight into the protagonist’s relationship with his wife, strained due to long overseas deployments, I went looking for blogs and discussion forums that dealt with the experience of military spouses. The perspectives shared in these posts, particularly those written by the wives of Air Force personnel serving overseas, were invaluable in shaping my understanding of the central relationship in the story.
I knew that the first half of my story was going to take place in Afghanistan’s Khost Valley, but the second half would be set in and around Las Vegas, a place I had never been. I had read guidebooks and histories, of course, but knew these could only take me so far. In order to gather my own impressions of the story’s second valley, I embarked on a brief research trip to Nevada.
I’d decided that the pilot in my story would seek comfort and conversation from an erotic dancer, so one of my stops on this pilgrimage to Sin City was a strip club on Freemont Street. I’d read several books about the culture of “gentleman’s clubs” (anthropologist Katherine Frank’s winningly-titled study of regular patrons, G-strings and Sympathy, for example), but had never actually been to one of these bars. I was concerned that without personal experience, the scene I was writing would lack authentic details.
So that’s how I found myself occupying a stool at the long oval bar that, padded with red felt and appointed with a colonnade of silver poles, served as both counter and catwalk for The Girls of Glitter Gulch. There I talked with a dancer (stage name “Jordan”) about what men, especially regulars, came looking for, and what her conversations with them were like. By the time I left, my wallet was lighter, but I’d gotten some important (and very specific) details that I could use for my story.
I’d also known that there would be a scene in which the protagonist drove from Creech AFB to Las Vegas in the middle of the night. In an attempt to get the details right, I took this drive myself. Alone in my rental car, I set my digital recorder in the passenger seat, pulled on to Ninety-Four South, and delivered a running monologue of my impressions. One detail that struck me in particular was the crisp, resinous smell that blew in through my driver’s side window. Later, a little online research into Nevada vegetation and I concluded that this arboreal odor had probably come from the piñon pines in the Spring Mountains.
Transforming my notes of the drive into a scene required a different kind of investigation, what I’ll call “craft research.” When I do craft research, I go looking for writers who are good at something that I would also like to do well. For my scene on the desert highway, with the city of Las Vegas appearing on the horizon, I knew I wanted to imbue the setting with a sense of monumental menace. I recalled a passage in William T. Vollman’s story “Red Hands” that had that feel, a description of a ship’s nighttime arrival in New York Harbor as experienced by Seamus, a fugitive IRA operative. I had a copy of the story in Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design and set to studying the passage along with Bell’s meticulous commentary.
In Vollman’s story, the first impression of New York is “the smell of garbage which must have blown into Seamus’s nostrils from the landfill on Fresh Kills Island.” As the city comes into view, it expands, “revealing its vastness, cruelty and coldness in the grin of its skyscraper-teeth.” As the buildings seem to become “taller and wider” they “cast their burdens of light upon the harbor” and cars move “along the shore freeway like glittering beads.”
Studying Vollman’s language helped me imagine how to approach my scene. In “Two Valleys,” Vegas appears first in a display of seductive splendor: “Las Vegas flickered at his left and then unfurled itself: a sweep of golden points, pixel-prickly in the arid dark.” The notion of Las Vegas rapidly filling the protagonist’s visual field is similar to the revelation of New York in “Red Hands,” and the image of the city’s lights as a field of golden pixels is not unlike Vollman’s freeway of “glittering beads.”
The culmination of research in a final draft can be deeply satisfying. The completed story bears the traces of hours spent searching databases, haunting libraries, scribbling notes, and maybe even hitting the road. Ultimately, however, all this activity has been in the service not of the writer, but of the story and its reader.
With your cabinet full to bursting with factual curiosities, there is the risk of assuming your reader will be as interested as you are in your discoveries. This is seldom the case, and the writer should resist the urge to teach the reader something at the expense of telling a good story. Distinctive details, surprising words and ways of speaking, that fine point known only to insiders; these can’t be allowed to loaf about in your story. They must earn their keep by advancing the plot, contributing to character development, or instantiating a theme. The process of fiction research, then, consists of two complementary phases: the gathering of actualities at the beginning and a culling down to the most serviceable ones at the end. As with other aspects of our writing, we may be called on to murder some of our darlings. The result, however, is a striking fictional world, one a reader can fully inhabit while turning the pages and vividly recall when the story is finished.
Thomas Dodson is a writer, designer, and librarian living in Somerville, Massachusetts. His short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Chicago Quarterly Review, CONSEQUENCE Magazine, and elsewhere. The full text of several stories, including “Two Valleys,” is available on his website (thomasadodson.com).