One of the pleasures of writing is doing research about a subject that makes its way into fiction. My new collection of stories, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, is set in the contemporary world, but even so I had to do research for the book. I needed to learn about the characters’ professions and find facts about the locales where stories take place. Two stories refer to World War II and Holocaust survivors; I had to be sure the details were correct.
I wrote the stories over time. Compiling them into a book was a different process from writing a novel or individual pieces. The stories in the collection aren’t linked, and I needed to make sure each story, character, and profession was unique.
Much of what happens in fiction is serendipity, unanticipated, no matter how carefully a writer plans. A story idea changes as I write and is influenced by the characters, my imagination, what I see and hear in the world, and the research I’ve done.
And my research can become part of a story, often in unexpected ways.
“A Celebration of the Life of the Reverend Canon Edward Henry Jamison,” the last story in the new collection, is narrated by a Jewish woman. Her cousin marries an Episcopalian minister. The story is about intermarriage and how love changes over time. At the end, the narrator sits in an Episcopal church during a funeral service. I had once been in an Episcopal church during a service and was fascinated by the ritual. As a Jew, though, I’d felt like an outsider, especially when the congregation went to the front of the sanctuary for communion, and I stayed seated. I didn’t know enough about the service to describe the details accurately in the story — didn’t understand the order, what a priest might say, and when the congregation would rise and sing.
After I wrote the story, I called an Episcopal church in New York, explained my questions to the woman who answered, and she directed me to a sacristan. He told me what happens at an Episcopal funeral service, and also about the Liturgy of the Eucharist, theology, the prayer book, and what a sacristan does. He suggested resources on the Internet and the prayer book. We looked at some together on our computers. We talked for a long time about faith, G‑d, life, death, the lack of control in the face of death, the service and its intent. I had assumed he would give me a dry account, but the conversation was full of substance, spirituality and hope; we compared the Episcopal and Jewish traditions.
His descriptions were poignant, lifted me up, and so in the story, the Episcopal service lifted up the narrator. That section of the story had ended on a negative note, but after I spoke to him, I rewrote it. I was able to include a correct chronology of the service and to end on a note of farewell and joy, just as I’d heard in the man’s voice.
“Bare Essentials,” another piece in the collection, is about love, divorce, and an affair. In the story, the narrator tries to understand what strengthens or weakens relationships. I decided she would edit medical research papers for a journal, studies about bacteria, Campylobacter or C. difficile. I did research before I wrote the story and learned about the ways bacteria behave and interact with a host. This became part of the narrative. Early in the story, the narrator says, “I know that a hundred trillion good bacteria call the body home. Even the mouth has several species of bacteria…The body is like space or the ocean, a vast unknown, like the mind. Like a relationship.” Later she tells the reader, “People are, in the microscopic regions of the heart, not so different from bacteria…Some are resilient. Others disappear in the struggle to survive.”
The characters in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life have a variety of jobs and life experiences. There are lawyers, real estate agents, Holocaust survivors, doctors, businessmen, a relocation expert, teachers, an employee of the United Nations, a postal worker, rabbis, and others. Stories take place in Poland, New York, Nashville, Denver, Chicago, Vienna, and Michigan. In my research, I found details for the settings. I learned about the characters’ jobs and professions so I could add descriptions to give the characters authenticity.
This was both hard, exacting labor and joyous work. I felt as if I was an actor or as if I had experienced all these jobs and lived the different lives in all the various places.
As I researched and wrote the stories, I discovered that the act of writing can open up new worlds not just for the reader, but for the writer as well.