Saturday, April 18, 2009

Life Fills Our Pens

By John Ramsey Miller

We have been talking about research this week on these blogs and I’m going to touch on how life provides the majority of research that finds its way into our work. Life as our main source of material, and the material that matters most on our pages.

As I get older my major characters grow older with me because I understand aging and how older people relate to the world, and how the world affects them. For instance, I don’t mind change as long as things remain the same. But I also think I see younger characters more clearly, and especially how they relate to older characters, and how older characters see them. Somebody once told me that young writers depend more on style and older writers more on substance. We write what we know, and what we get to know is what life does to people, and how they get through it.

I am writing a book now about how an older man meets his teenage granddaughter for the first time and it changes his life in rather dramatic ways. I won’t go into details, but it is about how their relationship forms and evolves, and how the trials they are subjected to attach them to each other. In writing, I am drawing on my relationship with my granddaughter who is fourteen. She was seven when I first met her, and I was just a stranger who’d been thrown into her life. Mostly I bored her, until I taught her something useful that she was interested in––shooting guns. Now she’s a crackerjack shot, and she is so because I took the time to teach her gun safety and the relationship between her eyes, the gun’s barrel and the target. I doubt she’ll ever do more than shoot targets, and she may not do that given the strong draw of her other interests like texting her friends, boys, and fashion, which does not these days seem to include Eye protection, Beretta shooting jackets, lace-up boots, and Carhardt canvas pants. So it goes. I just wanted her to be able to protect herself, but in the process we bonded. I used that relationship in my WIP (work in progress), but I changed shooting to fishing. That was my research.

Last weekend we had chicks born in our new incubator, and I can’t tell you how amazing, delightful and flat wonderful it was to see the little feathered creatures fighting their way out of their hard shells. Nature. Nothing like it. Two of the Silky chicks had hip dysplasia, and couldn’t stand because their legs were at right angles. One of my nieces and one of my granddaughters had the same problem and they wore a brace for months after they were born to correct the angle of their legs. My wife went on a chicken board and discovered this happens sometimes when the hatchlings are crowded and can’t stand up just after they are born. And you can’t help them by opening the incubator to make room by removing the broken shells because opening it threatens the yet to be born by lowering the humidity. Lowering the humidity means the yet-to- be hatched could stick to their shells and perish. From the experience of other people who’d faced the problem, and after it was safe to do so, my wife and I took band-aids, cut long thin strips, and taped their legs at the correct angles so they could stand and walk. That came from my wife’s research. We’re just talking about fifty-cent chickens, and it was either splinting or taking a sharp pair of scissors to their necks. Not worth the effort, most chicken growers would say. But we had seen them fighting to become part of this world for the short time God grants a chicken. The mechanical interference proved successful, because we were willing to try it. I can kill game, and I do, but I love life and, while that’s quite a contradiction, so much of life is just that. Left to nature’s whims and solutions, the chicks would have starved to death or been pecked to death by the healthy chicks. Nature doesn’t well tolerate weakness or difference and animals. It culls its mistakes and accidents. And animals, like humans, can be cruel and prejudiced against anything different.

Humans are complex creatures, and we will likely never understand why we are so intolerant of people who are not just like we are. A friend of mine says that humans are just killer monkeys with clothes on, and maybe he’s right. It often seems like it. But when killer monkeys take the time and energy to save a pair of tiny birds, it gives me hope––not only for my own salvation, but for yours as well. So that’s more material for another time and another blank page.

Research is to good writing as Cool Whip is to sliced strawberries. You can go without the topping, but its infinitely more satisfying with it. While we all go to the internet [or other reference material] when looking to make our stories accurate (in the fact department), our human behaviors mostly come from our observations and not from a link to Psychology Today or Abnormal Psychology Tomorrow.


  1. Wow. That was rather eloquently put. I...

    you should be a writer or something....

    Have a wonderful weekend, chicklets and all/. :-)

  2. Excellent post. I think what separates humans from the other killer monkeys is out ability--when we choose to exercise it--to get past the initial impulse and take what we consider to be the better course. No one is responsible for their initial impulses; it's how we act on them that shows our character.

  3. Great post John. I'm a strong believer that all the research you really need to write a good story is to live and observe the relationships around you. The rest, as you say, is topping. I know that consciously or not a draw upon all my experiences and I'm hoping more insights will flow with age (not entirely convinced I'm that insightful yet!) I know having children has had a profound impact on me and my writing (when they allow me to get around to doing it, that is!)