Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of six award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert. For more information, visit her at website or Amazon Author Page.
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Characters and setting—I’ll expound on both whenever I get a chance—are the two items that are really important to my enjoying a story. Several of our recent posts here on Writers in Residence have been on research, so I thought I’d add my voice to the discussion. And why? Because without research—unless you’re one of those people who already knows everything about everything(smile)—characters and locations have no backbone, no appeal, no enticement, no flavor without it. I know I mention P.D. James a lot, but setting and characters are two of the many aspects of her writing that I revel in; the places, buildings, institutions she took me to, and going there through the eyes of so many multi-careered characters with their own unique back stories was marvelous.
And in my own writing mind, one of the major items in location is sensory experience, and one of the main ways of presenting a character, is explaining how they are experiencing the world through all their senses.
Going off tract a bit with a little back-story, as a child, an elderly and kind lady—still remember her name, Mrs. Shoecraft—in the flat above us, I grew up as a Chicago kid, would often bake yeast-bread. The aroma floating to the floor below, was marvelous. And to my delight, she made mini-loaves and shared. As an adult, and primarily a west coast dweller, I’ve retained my love for good bread, but it isn’t easy making good yeast bread of any type, including rye-bread, ciabata, and baguettes (other childhood favorites and memories), and I have consequently collected various and now seldom-used items like a bread mixer, mix-master kneader, and a lots and lots of books on bread making.
Back to the writing part, Hester Miller, a character in my current WIP, and a carryover from Rhodes – The Mojave-Stone, is baking bread in a scene. Why? Because I think she’s a bread-making kind of Romani housekeeper, and bread baking is a new aspect of her that might explain, or counterbalance some of her other actions. Of course I couldn’t just write the darn scene. I had to do more research on bread! By late afternoon, I’d ordered yet another book from Amazon, and printed out three new recipes from the internet.
Did I write anything that day? No. But two days later, wrote these lines:
Then he caught the aroma in the air. “Is that yeast I smell?”
“Yep,” she answered.
He smiled, not just at her short and enigmatic seeming answer, but his mind shot back to those days eons ago when his father Everett and his mother Sophie would take him to her mother’s house in Austin. Grandma Nelson would always have dough rising when they came over. Invariably Sundays, and she had mini-loaf pans—everyone got their own loaf of warm buttery bread. The aromas at Grandma Nelson’s were heaven; but the homemade yeast bread Leiv knew he would never forget. Yep, a special memory.
Ended up, in my story the reference/memory wasn’t even with the same character in mind. Was the additional research worth it? I’m doubtful. Did I enjoy going back down my sensory bread-lane? Definitely.
And this isn’t an isolated event for me. Research that gets out of hand—at least at “that” moment of interest. Here’s a picture of an ages old bookcase in my kitchen, stuffed with unused recipe books and internet printouts. Many are products of “Research.” Nonetheless, I sincerely believe–not only are past memories, experiences (see several preceding excellent posts here on our site), and travels invaluable to writing, but all the “research gone array” also contributes to the mosaic of our stories. Maybe not exactly at this moment in writing time, maybe even unconsciously, but down the road for sure. To use a bread analogy, to write with texture, flavor, and aroma (I can smell the bread), research is invaluable. Though it can get out of hand for some of us. But even if I’m completely wrong about the value part, it sure is fun.
I do need to figure out what kind of filming camera one of my characters would prefer. Hmmm, maybe there’s something on the internet…or a book on Amazon maybe….
Happy writing trails!
14 thoughts on “When “Things” Get Out of Hand…”
Well, Madeline, I thank you for a trip down Memory Lane. As a child, I lived much of the time with my aunt, who was a skilled bread-baker. She often let me “help” her in the kitchen, and I can still smell that yeast dough rising. To me, it was like magic: the dough would rise, she’d let me punch it down, we’d cover it with a damp cloth, and then–presto–it would rise again. And the taste of that bread, soft and warm right from the oven: a little bit of heaven. You are so right about the value of research, even if all the details don’t make it into your finished manuscript. Somehow they still inform your choice of words and details. And if you get one little aspect wrong, it can yank your reader right out of the story–so my motto is that no research is ever wasted. And it IS fun, sometimes! Great post!!
Fortunately, Bonnie, I just ate, otherwise I’d be off looking for my kneading hook for my mixer! Warm yeast bread is such a lovely aroma, so pleased you could re-enjoy it with me. And glad you had an Aunt who shred such a wonderful experience with you! Love that you did, and I’m going to adopt your philosophy and make it mine – “so my motto is that no research is ever wasted.” (and I still view airplanes flying and bread rising as magic!)
I can smell that bread baking, too. I guess all writers add bits and pieces of their own experiences to their work to bring the story to life. The more I think about what I am reading in a story, the more I wonder how much is an actual experience of the writer. And sometimes I will “see” something that I know is a personal tidbit. I am reading a Raymond Chandler story and Philip Marlowe keeps calling this cop “Hemingway.” When asked why he is doing this, Marlowe says the cop keeps saying the same thing over and over. For people who know Hemingway criticisms they will know many scholars think Papa Hemingway kept saying the same thing over and over again. Chandler just gave a little tweak to his fellow writer. It was a personal thing but it gave the story a taste of reality just like your bread, Mad.
Me too, Gayle–wonder about how and what is coming (consciously or unconsciously) from the authors experiences and memories. Brings an added dimension to the work you’re reading. Interesting tidbit about Marlowe and Hemingway!
Great post, Madeline! However, you’ve made me realize it’s dinner time and I’m starving. LOL
I know what you mean, Patricia! Every time I respond to a comment I can smell yeast and bread! Have a great meal, and thanks for stopping by!
Enjoyed the read, Madeline. Research can lead one astray but more often leads to additions that lift writing to a higher level. I’m not a big bread eater, but the aroma when it’s baking….yum!
You’re so right there, John, there are several sensory sensations with the “bread thing.” Aromas during the bread making process, the aroma of the bread backing, and the eating. Made me think of some thoughts I want to add to my scene… Thank you for stopping by and giving me some writing thoughts!
Proust did one of the greatest novels with a memory invoked by a madeleine pastry. Foods and smells and tastes are definitely important to good writing.
Oh Paul, what a perfect comment, and you’ve also given me a great idea. I need to come up with several book selections for our book club, and Proust is going on my list. I don’t remember reading much of his work, so now’s the time. I need to go do some research on the internet on him and his work… (thank for for visiting!)
Great post, Madeline. I have a bookcase just like that, except a little taller, right behind me and it’s jam-packed with much of the same things as yours is. LOL!
Boy, does that make me feel better, Evelyn! Knowing I’m not alone… (little secret is that this one only has food related books!) The rest are elsewhere. Though I must say, since the internet, don’t charge off and buy as much…but haven’t stopped. (smile) Thanks for stopping by, and so glad you enjoyed.
My mouth is watering just thinking of the aroma of baking bread. (You can sometimes get that if you visit a Subway sandwich restaurant in the morning!) I’ve done my share of baking bread in the past – a lot of work for the INSTANT it takes your family to devour it. (Same with pies).
A Realtor once told me to have bread baking when you have an Open House and want to sell your home fast. (You can use those frozen, pre-made loaves, let it rise and pop it in the oven.) The people will at once connect your home with wonderful memories. (When a hubby comes home from work, hungry and grouchy, put on some onions frying, regardless of what else you plan to prepare. Soothes the beast!)
Ah…. the sense of smell! The most evocative of all. Too bad we can’t include a “Scratch N Sniff” page in each of our books! HA!
Anyway…. whatever research it takes for you to produce those fantastic literary mysteries you write… keep it up!
Yes, Jackie, I’ve also been in a Subway and the aroma of bread is wonderful: and yes, all the work and it’s gone in an instant!, and yes, a Realtor told us the same thing, and yes on onions, (and garlic, too for some). Okay, I just had breakfast and I’m salivating nonetheless. Writing this post and reading all the comments have sent me back to my cook books.
I think you’re right about the sense of smell, and I’m consciously making sure I keep that in mind in my taking-forever WIP. (I did breakdown and find my bread machine and make a loaf. The easy kind that you just throw the ingredients in and wait and get a funny shaped loaf at the end) Still, smelled wonderful, wonderful tasting warm slathered in butter, and made great toast the next day. All gone now…