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Research as Muse

April 2, 2010

I’m one of those writers who can’t read a newspaper without wondering about the back story. There’s too much interesting stuff happening in the world, just waiting for me to riff on. That’s why research is one of my best cures for writer’s block.

Take for example, my recent research about the textile industry in Mumbai. Okay, before I lose you here, I’m writing a novel, not a history book, nor is the novel about textiles. However, my main character (MC) embarks on a new career that involves textiles. It has little bearing on how the story unfolds but it does inform some of my backdrop.

I hadn’t given it much thought until recently, when I realized I needed to plump up a subplot. My writing buddy suggested I add a scene, possibly at a textile museum. The idea sparked my imagination. Does Mumbai even have a textile museum? The city’s economy relied on its cotton mills  for more than a century, until about the 1980s when a major strike more or less led to its demise. But in my travels to the city, I’d never heard about a museum dedicated entirely to its greatest source of income, art, and fashion. I did an Internet search, of course, and emailed an uncle who’s a textile executive there. Then the juices started flowing. Not the writing juices so much as the idea juices.

It turns out the history of textiles in the city is pretty fascinating. During WWII, British India provided the Allied effort with the raw material that would become tents, uniforms, bandages, and stretchers. I also learned the head of the textile company my family worked for had been assassinated a decade ago by a mobster. In addition, the section of town the textile companies abandoned is being revitalized into a massive commercial district, with fancy malls and discos. Yet despite a long, glorious history, there’s still no textile museum in Mumbai.

Hm, what if…?

A similar spark occurred when I started working on the book’s sequel, set in Cairo. Some time after plotting, reading guide books, developing characters, sketching some initial scenes, and talking to people who’d visited the city, I lost steam. I had learned plenty about popular drinks and national foods and neighborhoods and where to plop down a hotel or an embassy. But the story was starting to feel one­-dimensional.

Then last fall, during the height of the H1N1 scare, I found out the government of Egypt had rounded up all the pigs in the country and slaughtered them—despite published evidence that pigs were not responsible for the “swine flu” epidemic. Better safe than sorry, they’d decided. As a bizarre result, Cairo became overrun with, of all things, trash. Yet another great example of how the truth is often more fantastic than anything I could make up.

It turns out that by killing the pigs in Egypt, the government put most of the country’s Christian minority out of work. Coptic Christians live in an area called Zabbaleen, which if you can believe it, refers to both people of that faith and to the garbage. (The slum/suburb where they live even translates to Garbage City in English.)

The double meaning of “zabbaleen” is not meant to be a slam on Christians, but a strange fact in itself. Members of the small, poor community in this largely Muslim city had forged livelihoods as pig farmers, catering to western hotels and restaurants. As a result, they also became garbage collectors, separating discarded food items from the trash they collected so as to feed their pigs.

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They then found resourceful ways to offload the nonfood items, recycling or reselling it. For example, they sold scrap metal to China, plastic bottles back to their own government for a few pennies apiece, even animals bones to factories to make glue. (How’s that for an image?) In this way, one report estimates that Cairo had one of the highest recycling rates, around 85%, in the world. That was the case until last year, when the government killed the pigs and deprived the farmers of their main source of income, in turn giving them little incentive to collect the trash. The city’s still feeling the repercussions, with piles of trash littering streets all over town.

Few of these details actually make it into my book, especially since my story takes place well before swine flu hit. But what I learned about Cairo from this bit of research gave me much of the context I needed to understand my setting, much more so than the guide books could offer. This new information gave me the spark for entire scenes, settings, and character development I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Little of these have to do with garbage itself (thankfully). But talk about inspiration–I guess one man’s garbage really is another’s gold. (Now if I only could finagle a trip to Cairo. Ahem, for research, of course!)

Anyone else out there for whom research spurs a story?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2010 9:33 am

    Fascinating! You somehow managed to electrify the subjects of textiles and garbage.

  2. April 2, 2010 11:04 am

    This is a really great example of how research can unearth the unexpected. Thanks for sharing this, Supriya.

    I am a fan of research myself, and will often go off on a tangent to add colour to my writing, and the more tangential the better. I just love the connection between pigs and garbage collection… how tangential is that!

    • April 2, 2010 4:24 pm

      Thanks, David, and welcome aboard! And yeah, the tangential stuff can be fun, as long as it doesn’t turn into quicksand. There are days I can put off writing in the name of neverending research.

  3. Heidi Noroozy permalink
    April 2, 2010 11:51 am

    Oh, absolutely, Supriya. Research sparks ideas for me. On trips to Iran, I’ve long been fascinated by the rebellious youth culture there and how young people defy authority in subtle and not so subtle ways. There’s been a lot written on the topic as well, and I combined what I’ve observed with my reading to create a subplot for my WIP. Like your textiles and garbage collectors, this isn’t the the focus of my story, but enhances it (I hope).

    • April 2, 2010 4:26 pm

      I’ve read part of your new work in progress and I definitely agree that’s a fascinating theme to cover. I was kind of hoping you’d share an anecdote about your recent youtube research but maybe the world isn’t quite ready for that story. 😉

      • Heidi Noroozy permalink
        April 2, 2010 8:40 pm

        I’d put that right out of my mind. Maybe a good thing…

  4. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    April 3, 2010 5:30 pm

    Most of my stories take place in the medieval ages or in a time frame similar to it. (The technology is the same basically) So I do A LOT of research about that era. And I still learn new stuff every time I search! I mean medieval ages weren’t the same for all countries and it changed over time (13th century was not the same as the 14th!) Some of my recent novel ideas have spurred on the edge of sci-fi (I blame Greg for this!), so I am going to start doing research on technology and computers, etc.

    I LOVE doing research! In school I was the one that could find stuff other people couldn’t! Mostly because I don’t mind scrolling through lists of links to find what I want!

  5. April 4, 2010 2:26 pm

    Harley, only someone juggling seven projects could take on medieval AND high-tech. 😉 And yes, I know you what mean about the amount of research involved in anything historical. Jeri Westerson, author of a fabulous series of “medieval noir” books, put this in perspective for me. She told me if she can research and place her novels in 1380s England, I should be able to set mine in contemporary Cairo with much less research sweat. BTW, Jeri actually created the “medieval noir” genre after agents said her books didn’t fit into any of the existing ones. Pretty cool, huh?

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