Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pleasures of Research, Often Unexpected


By

Donn Taylor

            Among the joys of fiction writing is the research one does to ensure accuracy. Some research reaches the reader through settings that seem realistic and through absence of anachronisms and other errors. But for any researcher, much of the pleasure comes from things that may not make their way into the completed manuscript, from discovery of some odd truth one would never have suspected beforehand. Sometimes such a discovery leads to an entirely new project.
            This happened to journalist Ronald Downing during the 1950s. His London newspaper had him researching the yeti, the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. His research led him to an obscure Polish refugee who was said to have a seen the yeti. The interviews revealed a story more remarkable than the yeti and resulted in an equally remarkable book.
            When the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, they arrested a young Polish lieutenant named Slavomir Rawicz. They sent him to a Siberian labor camp 200 miles southwest of Yakutsk. He and six other prisoners escaped and walked—yes, walked—south past Lake Baikal, through the Gobi Desert and China, through Tibet into Nepal, and eventually into English hands. Several died along the way. And in the Himalayas the survivors did see creatures resembling the fabled yeti.
            Thus Ronald Downing's project became an entirely different one. He told Slavomir Ravicz’ story in a book titled The Long Walk (The Lyons Press, 1956, 1997). It is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.
            My own research adventures have been less dramatic but also filled with unexpected discoveries. In researching my novel, Deadly Additive, I was surprised to learn that during the 1980s, then-communist Nicaragua’s airline was largely owned by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and that Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas were tutored by the Abu Nidal terrorist organization.
 Deadly Additive, I was surprised to learn that during the 1980s, then-communist Nicaragua’s airline was largely owned by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and that Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas were tutored by the Abu Nidal terrorist organization.
            Researching for Lightning on a Quiet Night, I read about the post-WW II Communist guerrilla
war in Greece. The Greek name for guerrillas was mosquitoes. The preferred spray to kill mosquitoes then was named Flit. The US general advising the Greek military was James van Fleet. So the Greeks made the pun "van Fleet for mosquitoes." Sadly, that verbal gem didn't find its way into the novel. But I still savor it privately.
            There is also satisfaction in preventing embarrassing errors. One novelist had his protagonist drive immediately west of Houston, Texas, into "the desert." Apparently, five hundred miles of prairie and Texas Hill Country had disappeared from the earth. A glance at any atlas would have prevented that error.
            Research does provide deep pleasure, but superficial research contains a danger voiced long ago by the poet Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

            In our researches, either for writing or for pleasure, let us all drink deeply and avoid the embarrassment caused by shallow draughts.


 Summary for Lightning on a Quiet Night:

In the years following World War II, a town too proud of its own virtues has to deal with its first murder. Despite the implications of this crime, the town of Beneficent, MS, population 479, tries desperately to hold onto its vain self-image. The young veteran Jack Davis holds that idyllic vision of the town and tries to share it with Lisa Kemper, newly arrived from Indiana. But she is repelled by everything in town. While the sheriff tries to find the murderer, Jack and Lisa’s contentious courtship reveals the town’s strange combination of astute perceptions and surprising blind spots. Then they stumble onto shocking discoveries about the true nature of the town. But where will these discoveries lead? To repentance? Or to denial and continuation in vanity?

MEET DONN TAYLOR

              Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of Texas and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. He has published four novels and a book of poetry, and he is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences. He lives near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and essays on current topics.

His books:
Lightning on a Quiet Night
Deadly Additive
Rhapsody in Red
The Lazarus File
Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond