Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tharz Gold in Them Thar Hills... The Value of On-site Research

I completely understand the proverbial statement: you don’t have to jump off a bridge to know it will hurt when you hit the water. Like everyone, I’ve jumped off some very high bridges in my life knowing full well there would be consequences but just defiant enough to jump despite the warning. Those jumps were not futile attempts at self-inflicting pain. What I learned from those experiences is that you do sometime have to jump to be able to differentiate the quality of the experience. You can watch someone jump and say to yourself, “Holy crap, that’s gonna hurt.” But if you jump yourself, you gain an entirely different perspective on the way down! Your experience is totally encompassing beginning with the roots of understanding the process and consequences then radiating through your entire body, mind and soul. Assuming, of course, you survive, you carry the experience with you through life in cognitive memory, emotional memory and muscle memory. So what is this all leading to? An epiphiny of sorts.

Last year I had the opportunity to visit Ireland for 15 days. I presented a woman’s self defense class in the wild northern hills near Kylemore Abby, but the rest was pleasure, pure, unadulterated pleasure! I jumped... Now, I have to mention up front that traveling through Ireland was the first time I ever felt as if I walked (and drove) in a world in which I truly belonged. It was a world where almost everyone looked like me – fair skin, some freckles, green eyes and varying shades of auburn hair. Seeing the country and meeting the people stirred in me a creativity that I have not felt before and did not expect.
The stories just rolled out, splashing from my mind so rapidly that I would often pull to the side of the road and scribble some new idea or sketch a character. And trust me, pulling to the side of the road in Ireland is an adventure all its own! My mind was filled with thoughts of the wee folk, fairies, gnomes and strong women who fought for their families and people carrying on in the face of daunting odds. As I walked the chambers of Knowth and Dowth lightly touching the ancient carvings, visions of a civilization dead
some 4,000 years played with my senses and tickled my imagination. Climbing the tight circular staircases of dilapidated castles pressed upon me the reality of life in an age most people can’t even comprehend. Standing on the Cliffs of Mohr feeling the sea breeze beat against my face reddening my cheeks like those of the children who ran past chasing sea gulls that rode on the wind. They could have been children in my own family or from a family centuries ago. Spending time in a small crystal-cutting workshop on the Dingle peninsula with the hands of a master cutter wrapped around mine, I created a pattern in lead crystal that amazed us both. You can put those feelings into words without having been there and done it, but the richness these experiences have lent my writing is incalculable.

The first travel I have done solely for myself since I began writing in earnest, I now know that there is no substitute for taking that leap, for seeing something with your own eyes, feeling the real thing beneath your fingertips and literally soaking up the ambiance of being in the presence of a story come to life. There is just no alternative as enriching or stimulating. The stories that rolled from my mind drenched the pages of one travel journal, then another and a third was filled by the end of my journey. In 15 days! Sitting behind a computer researching facts, descriptions and characters on the Internet or in an encyclopedia can not compare to what I gained in those few days I drove the length and breadth of the Emerald Isle. Granted sitting behind a computer is cheaper and less dangerous considering the Irish drive on the left side of trails they call roads, but dodging tourist busses and lories is just one of the many adventures that make it all real. Real is important to an author and critical for our readers. Lying on a damp rug, bent over backwards kissing the Blarney Stone I came to the realization that, had I never been there I would not have known that the rock I was kissing used to be a drain for - yep, sewage and rainwater! Now that's a "holy crap!" moment. And there were many moments that ignited a passion within me. I found my renewed imagination and desire to write surprising and totally encompassing. It was a challenge to cram everything into my brain before it was time to leave.

So here is my humble recommendation for all writers: whatever the challenge is, do it. Whatever the food might be, eat it! I ate blood pudding and guess what? It’s a kind of sausage. I drank Guinness with bitters. It was horrible but I can definitely describe it now! I cut a pattern in crystal with my own hands on a wheel in a tiny village in western Ireland. I felt it. I carried it all the way home in my shoulder bag in a towel I swiped from a hotel! Okay… don’t steal it, but take away every experience you can, like it is a valuable jewel in your author’s crown. If you have an opportunity to stretch your wings and meet new people, conquer your American inhibitions and grab at the chance! Stretch your comfort level and go for it. What I do know is one thing leads to another and soon your feet walk a path you could never have imagined from a chair behind a computer. The jewels you gather will definitely twinkle in your manuscripts catching the eyes of those how venture past the covers.

If I could have met a real leprechan on my wanderings, I would have asked for this wish; that my sister writers seek out and treasure all of life’s experiences blown their way by the gales on cliff’s upon which they have the opportunity to stand. I did and now I have a burning desire not only to return to Ireland but to return to everywhere I have never yet been. I have a scalding desire to take those half a dozen stories that beg to be written bouncing about in my brain banging on my imagination out of me and put them on paper. But I will never again write from behind a computer. I think one of the wee folk lit a fire under my chair that makes me jump up and run for the hills where I not only find gold, but diamonds, and emeralds and crystal! More jewels that will eventually find their way into my manuscripts.
Happy spilunking.
Miriam Matthews.

1 comment:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanks, Miriam! I am inspired by this!