Research in Writing: Vodnik Chapter Ten

As I looked over this chapter, I discovered that–lo and behold, nothing really significant changed in it over the course of revisions. Obviously it didn’t really exist before Katka had a brain tumor, but once that got put in early on, this was a chapter that hung tough the whole time. I think a large part of that is due to the fact that it just worked well. Good tension, good introduction of conflict, character building, setting details–it’s a chapter that gets a lot done, even if it isn’t one of the flashier sections of the book.

When I’m writing a novel, my first drafts will only rarely have really effective chapters. They’ll be centered around one or two things: advance the plot or develop characters or something like that. But in a final draft, all the chapters need to be working on different levels. Doing multiple things at once, or else it becomes hard to justify their presence in the novel, and the material they cover gets gobbled up into a different chapter. (Brings to mind an interesting mental image of a society of chapters. Chapter Darwinism, so to speak.) This was a chapter that was formed and then defended itself from any intruders.

On the other hand, actually writing this chapter wasn’t too easy. Mainly because it starts off with the seizure, and I distinctly remember sitting at my computer, ready to write the scene, and then freezing. I had no idea what really happens with seizures. What are you supposed to do if a person has one? How do they respond? You make them bite something, right?

I had no idea, and in order to write the chapter properly, I needed to know. This is a case where having the internet is a great big benefit. Before, I would have had to go off to the library to do some searches. Now, it was a few keyboard clicks away. But I still had to inform myself and read up on the topic. Then comes the next trick: making sure the section doesn’t read like a medical manual.

Just because you’ve done the research for a section doesn’t mean you need to include it all on the page. I needed to know enough to understand what was going on, but then I needed to tell it all from Tomas’s point of view. That meant putting myself back into the frame of mind I started in: Tomas sees a seizure for the first time. He has to do something. What is it? Well, he did what I thought I would do in that situation–prior to all my research.

The paramedics then show up and do what they’re supposed to do. Through Tomas watching that, I was able to insert a fact or two, but the large bulk of my research went unused for the actual chapter. That’s okay. I’m pretty confident it was a better chapter because I was informed. Things like actually knowing what you’re writing about bubble up to the surface in surprising ways. I’m all for the subconscious.

Anyway. One last note–I struggled throughout the book with characters not wanting to talk to each other. Tomas’s family really has a problem with communication. There are so many secrets–big secrets–and nobody wants to talk. Ever. Tomas is frustrated that his parents do this, but he does the same thing to them with his problems in the book. This carries over into the racism of the book. Tomas experiences the effects of prejudice, but he also makes biased assumptions about others. No one’s completely free of this.

For the communication issue, it was difficult to get the balance right. I’m generally the sort of guy who’d rather just get something out in the open than hedge around it. For most things. So writing about a family that had years of experience ignoring huge gaping problems . . . it was a balance game. Because as an author, you don’t want to have the readers get frustrated with how little communication is actually happening. Characters can’t not communicate just “because.” There needs to be reasons, and those reasons need to be explained. Otherwise, it all comes across as a plot device, not an actual plot.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!

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