May 19, 2017

A Writer's Search History, Revisited

Last month I noted on Twitter: "My search history suggests I have small children and a drug problem. Happily, neither is true." Writing leads to a lot of internet searches, sometimes weirdly specific, often on topics that are odd or disturbing either individually or in combination.

Four years ago, I put together a post highlighting some search queries that had featured in my recent research. When I looked back at that post -- once I finished suppressing my panic about how it's four years later and I'm again, still, working on same novel -- I was amused (mixed with an additional dash of panic) to see many similarities with searches from the past few months.

→ Previously on Lisa's search history, I was seeking concussion information, and just recently I looked up "concussion check" and variations. As it happens, a different character is the subject of concern this time. Within the plot, this all makes perfect sense, but maybe I need to examine why my novel has a motif of head injuries. Related searches: "head wound blood", "bleeding from chin".

→ Last time, I wanted to know about the smell of vodka, and I didn't end up using the information. A couple of months ago, I put something in a scene about the narrator smelling tequila, but I wasn't sure it made sense and ultimately took it out. It doesn't appear I did any searching this time around, so I must have done some real world investigation, meaning the research didn't all go to waste.

→ In the category of "of course you can find that on YouTube", I recently searched "sound of a baby burping" and watched numerous videos, all in the name of essential research. More baby queries: "how long does it take a baby to drink a bottle", "when can baby roll over", "older child sharing room with baby". Incidentally, the baby and older sibling I was writing about are part of a brand new family of secondary characters introduced to the novel in this draft, since I didn't have enough people to revise already.

→ My previous search post discussed my brief desire to explore motel curtains for some reason. This year, my decor needs were about "bathroom tile walls". I'm reminded of a long-ago commiseration with a writing buddy regarding first drafts overly focused on describing wall and floor coverings.

→ "election day 2026" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly consider that the part of my novel that takes place in the future also takes place in early November. Election Day will be before the novel starts, and of course it's a midterm, so there shouldn't be a glaring absence if the characters don't mention it. Most likely, I went through this same panic cycle years ago.

→ "california shrubbery" is the sort of search I do when I suddenly doubt that an extremely small detail is realistic. I'm imagining a row of bushes in front of a house, which I think of as a very common yard feature, but what I'm picturing is a childhood home in Massachusetts, so do houses have those here? Several times a week, I walk around my neighborhood, but I guess I immediately forgot about this query, because I still haven't paid any attention to the question while outside my (unshrubberied) house.

May 5, 2017

April Reading Recap

Last month I finished reading two recently published novels (and I have more new releases in store for next month's roundup):

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad: The Second American Civil War starts in 2074 when a group of Southern states secedes after the United States government outlaws fossil fuels. Sarat is a young girl living with her family in Louisiana, on a coast reshaped by rising oceans, until nearby combat forces them into a refugee camp. As Sarat grows up in the camp and her family suffers further trauma, she learns to hate the North and channel her anger toward the cause of resistance.

Sarat is an intriguing character, and not an easy one to follow, because the horrors she undergoes and her resulting zealotry are tough to read about. El Akkad uses his background as a journalist, reporting from conflicts around the world, to fill this novel with grisly authenticity. I was very caught up in this book, and it also often made me uncomfortable, so it succeeds at telling an effective story.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sarat and her family, but excerpts from imagined historical sources appear between chapters, offering more context and explanation of the war. These were so well-developed that I was sorry we didn't get even more of the big picture. What's there, however, does an excellent job at providing a level of commentary on Sarat's actions, which the character is only able to see from the perspective of her singular goal. This is an inspired book in many ways, and I hope to read more from El Akkad.

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein: Karen has an amazing six-year-old son, a successful career as a political campaign consultant, and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In the time she has left with Jake, who she's parented alone, Karen is trying to create good memories and prepare him for life without her. She's arranged for her son to be adopted into her sister's family after her death, but these plans are disrupted when Jake asks Karen to find his father. From Karen's perspective, Dave gave up all parental rights when he ended their relationship upon hearing she was pregnant. But Dave is overjoyed to learn of his son's existence, and now Karen is terrified he's going to try to take her place in Jake's life when she's gone.

The premise sounds like a tearjerker, but I didn't personally cry while reading, I think because while Karen occasionally gives in to despair, the narration focuses more on her stubbornness, anger, and dark humor. This is a sad situation, sure, but it's also a complex one, and the story is mostly about the nuances of characters trying to do the right thing when they can't agree on what that is. I found all the characters real and sympathetic, and I was absorbed by their interactions. I also liked the glimpses into Karen's campaign work, which involves another set of fascinating interactions.

The narrative takes the form of a book Karen is writing for Jake to read when he grows up, and I think that frame detracted from the novel in more places than it improved it. I also felt the story could have used a stronger ending. Despite these flaws, I enjoyed this engrossing read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub finds the living authors with the most film adaptations: "There are plenty of writers whose works have been made into many, many films--William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Arthur Conan Doyle being the high rollers that immediately spring to mind. But with contemporary--read, living--authors, the field is a little slimmer."