The Value of Face-to-Face Research

There is this cute UK TV movie with David Tennant called The Decoy Bride.  In the movie, Tennant plays a very successful writer who wrote a book about a small island off the coast of Scotland.  The book is popular and highly praised. His fiance decides to have their wedding on the very same island.  It is soon revealed that the author, Tennant’s character, never actually went to the island for his research.  He did it all online.  Needless to say, the locals are pissed and hate his novel.  It was a story element that drives a lot of the movie’s plot forward and resonated with me as a writer.  I do a lot of research online. Even research that requires I talk to people can easily be done with email exchanges, chats, and even voice/video conversations online.  I have increased the research I’ve done face to face and it’s been invaluable.

Writing & Research

Last week I got to spend a few hours at a local dance studio.  Part of the Missing Auggie plot involves a dance studio.  It’s where Auggie and Samantha meet each other and it’s her career and business during the entire story.  I needed to know more about becoming a dance teacher, studio owner, and the evolution of dancers.  I found two local dance studios to visit.  I want to get an idea of how they are the same and how they are different to help make my studio as realistic as possible.  I want to see the space and how they interact with families.  I needed to go visit, this was not research that could really be done online.

Last Friday I had my first interview and I accomplished everything I wanted to learn.  Then something happened that I only think could have happened by visiting and talking to their Artistic Director: she solved a problem I was having.  Here’s the gist: a character comes to the dance studio at 13 and wants to be a ballerina.  In my original plot, she had to just take extra classes and private lessons.  She would have talent, but not enough to become a professional dancer.  It wasn’t the best back story, but it worked.  Plenty of girls decide to do something at 13 and have the talent to accomplish their goals.  It just felt hollow.  As I sat in this studio, chatting about the book and characters at the studio, it was revealed that their Irish Step dancing classes and performers were very popular.

I’m sure some people remember the very popular Riverdance from the 1990s.  Irish Step dancing is all legs and no arms.  Dancers spend a lot of the routine on their toes, much like ballerinas.  The difference is that ballet requires using your arms, but Irish Step doesn’t.  You don’t use your arms at all in Irish Step.  If someone wanted to switch from one to the other (say Irish Step to Ballet), there would be a lot of work to do just to get her comfortable using her arms.  It would justify tons of extra classes and private lessons.  If the character had grown up in Ireland, she might be more inclined to have learned Irish Step as opposed to ballet.  I suddenly understood this character so much better than I had two hours before this conversation. We talked through this shift and it allowed her to show me more about their Irish step program.

If I had just emailed her questions or done a video chat with her, I would never have gotten to this epiphany.  It was born from seeing their photos and a casual conversation we were having while I sat there.  I was there during a toddler class, so I was chatting with some mothers and seeing the ebb and flow of life at the studio.

The same could be said about my visit to the Miami yarn shop in October.  I really just wanted some facts about running a store in Miami (as opposed to New England).  By going to visit I got to see the people who came to the shop and hear their stories about being shop regulars.  I saw the community that seems to form around group knitting.  It helped me re-frame this story around the shop.  I was able to use their stories to inform the characters in my novel.  It’s not something I would have seen and learned if I hadn’t gone to visit them.

I know online research seems so much easier, but I am quickly coming to the decision that sometimes you can only accomplish things by going to a place and meeting people.  I am now actively looking for these opportunities.  I will still do research online, but expect to hear more stories about the research the involves visiting places and meeting people face-to-face.

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