Monday, April 26, 2010

Research tip of the day: learn when to shut up

I spent three days last week visiting my parents in the heart of Oregon wine country.

It was a great chance to round out last month’s research for LET IT BREATHE by peppering wine industry experts with questions I neglected when I was too busy snickering over phrases like “bung hole” and “node pushing” and “head suckers.”

I’ve blogged before about my fondness for research, both the legitimate sort and the kind that requires my husband to have fake sex with me on the bathroom counter.

But there’s one tip I want to share with anyone doing field research for a book: learn when to shut up.

I know I’ve suggested formulating a list of questions and conducting interviews in a professional manner. But sometimes in the course of research, you’ll encounter someone so passionate about your subject that they’ll grab hold of the conversation and take off running in direction you didn’t anticipate.

And when that happens, be prepared to shut up and write. Fast. On the back of your notepad or your hand if you run out of blank pages.

Forrest Schaad explains dirt to my dad.
This happened to me during my visit to Sokol Blosser Vineyard and Winery in Dundee. I called ahead to arrange what was supposed to be a 20-minute tour and wine tasting.

It lasted over two hours.

Cellar Hand/Tasting Room Associate Forrest Schaad was like a walking wine industry encyclopedia. I learned what a “Sasquatch Harvest” is and how weather conditions in 2006 created one. And I learned how the wine produced then differed from 2007.

I learned how to use insects and bluebirds and feral cats to control vineyard pests. And I learned that Oregon’s state soil is called jory.

Seriously – a state soil. Can you name yours?

We strolled the vineyards and cellars and tasted wines in the precise spots Forrest insisted would bring out each wine’s best characteristics. As we stood beside the vines with a cover crop of clover and sweet pea under our shoes and the smell of damp soil and spring onion in the air and the wine swirling in our glasses, I had to admit – it did taste different.

By the end of our tour, my head was brimming with ideas, my writing hand was cramping, and I’d discovered ways to fix every issue critique partner Cynthia Reese flagged in last week’s read-through of my first three chapters.

After explaining the environmental importance of soy-based ink on wine labels, Forrest smiled a little sheepishly. “That’s probably a lot more information than you wanted.”

I shook my head in vehement denial. “I could suck your brain dry all day – you have so much great information.”

(As a side-note, I don’t recommend beginning a sentence with those four words when speaking with a man you’ve just met. Judging from the look of alarm on his face – followed by relief when he realized what I was actually saying – I probably could have found a better way to express myself).

So I guess the take home message (aside from not accidentally propositioning strange men) is that research is about more than just gathering information. It’s about unearthing the passion and the personalities in the world you’re trying to capture in your novel.

And with that, I’m off to write about mealworms.
Forrest shows us the bottling process at Sokol Blosser.

18 comments :

Chantal Kirkland said...

You are so funny. I'm just going to sit in the corner and listen now.

Candyland said...

Hahaha. Yeah, starting a sentence, with those four words, TO A MAN, probably not a good idea.

Linda G. said...

Ha! Bet he was actually masking disappointment at how you finished the sentence. ;)

Oh, and Virginia's state soil is "Pamunkey." I kind of like that.

Xuxana said...

Erm, wait a tick. Is that a dildo in your blog pic?

I only just noticed the handcuffs, then I looked to the left and...

hehehe

Tawna Fenske said...

Chantal, it's amazing what I can learn when I zip my lips (which rarely happens...and no, that wasn't another sucking reference).

Candyland, it was made more awkward by the fact that MY DAD was standing next to me!

Linda G, Pamunkey, I like it! You'll have to make sure that ends up in one of your books.

Xuxana, shhh...my mom hasn't noticed that yet! When I created the header, I debated whether that was going too far. I finally decided that the sort of person who would notice and identify it is not the sort of person who's likely to be offended by it. Now that you've "outed" me, I may have to reconsider!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

danicaavet said...

Hm, yes...must remember not to start a sentence that way, especially when talking to a research source.

Not sure what our soil here in Louisiana is called, but I think most of us would just call it mud. ;)

Cynthia Reese said...

Bwhahaha! I had the same, "omigosh, she DIDN'T say that" reaction that your wine expert probably had with the first few words in that sentence.

And I'm glad you found your answers!

Oh, and Xuxana, I write on the far tender endof the spectrum than Tawna, poles apart, so in my view, that thing is just a really, really BIG tube of lipstick. Oddly shaped, and I can't imagine needing THAT much lipstick. But maybe Oregonians have big mouths?? :p

Southpaw said...

Words that should never start a sentence...words of wisdom.

Xuxana said...

Yeah, what Cynthia said. It's just a tube of really big lipstick. The lip plumping kind. Oh dear, did I really just type that?

KAK said...

Lemme guess, your dad didn't even blink when you blurted that, just eyeballed the bottom of your glass and shook his head.

Daughters. Gah.

India Drummond said...

Great story... sounds like a fabulous day out! These little research trips make the (boring) typing part of writing much more bearable!

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

My state soil? I think it's called sand.

I don't blame you for mentioning sucking to Forrest. I mean, I'm sure you'd had some wine and he is...

Never mind. I'm going to shut up.

Claire Dawn said...

You should especially not use those four words to proposition a man who's made you a phallus-shaped wine bottle stopper. Jus' sayin' :)

Lani Woodland said...

Sounds like you learned a lot! It sounds like a way better way to research that reading it in a book! Congrats!

Tawna Fenske said...

danicaavet, I am sorry to say I was unable to identify a state soil for Louisiana. However, if you'd like to move to Illinois, you can lay claim to Drummer Silty Clay Loam as your state soil.

Cynthia, sure, that's it! It's just a really, really big lipstick. One that requires batteries.

Southpaw, well, I wouldn't say they should NEVER start a sentence... :)

Xuxana, LOL on the plumping lipstick!

KAK, I actually asked my mom if my dad even remembered that exchange. Nope. Didn't even catch it. He did, however, snicker when the guy talked about bung holes.

India, it was indeed a fabulous research trip! I'm meeting some really amazing people over the course of writing this book.

Karen Amanda, you know, I've now had four women who've read this blog ask me if Forrest is married. Uh, not exactly one of the questions I asked in the course of my interrogation. Forrest, if you're reading this, you're apparently a wanted man.

Claire Dawn, good point about the phallic wine stopper. What is it with me making inappropriate comments when wine is involved? Never mind, don't answer that.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing - as his Mom it brings joy to my heart-words and all!

Tawna Fenske said...

Anonymous/Forrest's mom,

Wow! Are you really his mom? Gotta say, he's one of the best interview subjects I've ever met in 8+ years of novel writing and 8 more as a reporter/feature writer. Incredibly knowledgeable and helpful without being condescending or boring. Nice job with that one :)

Tawna

Anonymous said...

Yep- really his mom. Got a nice Mom's day card from him. :)