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A Fiction Writer's Research

Q&A with Stephen Schottenfeld

Writer's image

Stephen Schottenfeld is a novelist and researcher. While writing a novel requires careful attention to language and the crafting of character and narrative, it also, perhaps not so obviously, requires a great amount of research. In the popular imagination, research conjures up images of scientists in lab coats or historians pouring over dusty manuscripts. But to enter into and convincingly depict the lives of others, a novelist must engage in a demanding and mercurial kind of research. 

Schottenfeld, author of the novel Bluff City Pawn (Bloomsbury 2014) and the recently completed This Room Is Made of Noise, sat down to discuss what research has looked like for him in his various projects. From gun-shooting to cob jobs, Schottenfeld reflects on how his research has influenced, but has not ultimately determined, his books.

What does research look like for a fiction writer, perhaps as opposed to a scholar?

I’m not a scholar, so I’d only be guessing at the difference. A fiction writer might begin with an image or a phrase, but…I guess both a scholar and a fiction writer could begin with some form of a question – or they pursue some line of inquiry – but I don’t know if the fiction writer feels compelled to answer it. Or maybe they define the word ‘question’ differently. Of course, I can imagine a roomful of scholars telling me I don’t what I’m talking about, so I’ll just apologize for my attempt at answering your…question. 

I’ll try to give a sense of the process for my latest project, a novel. A few years ago, I read an article in the Democrat and Chronicle about scam artists. So I went to talk to someone who was quoted in the article, who I thought could give me a sense of the ways in which people might be scammed in their homes by different kinds of contractors. I heard a story while I was there — a kernel of a story. It actually wasn’t about a scam. Or, maybe it was. If you heard the outcome of the story, you’d be suspicious of the man’s actions, but it was hard to know his intent, if there was really any exploitation along the way. It was certainly a different kind of story than the outright cheaters and rip-off artists we’d been discussing. Anyway, the story intrigued me, and I guess I was still thinking along the lines of fraudulent behavior and elder abuse. I went downtown to the Rochester Police Department, to meet with a sergeant at the Economics Crime Unit. He had a list of people and agencies who were involved in elder abuse prevention. That led me to Art Mason over at Lifespan.

In Art’s office, as I was listening to various instances of bad behavior and deceit, I looked up at the walls and saw photos – maybe mugshots, it’s been awhile – of people who had preyed on family members, the elderly. And I remember feeling this physical sensation, of pulling the story away from that flatness into something with dimension, something messier, about care and dependency, companionship and isolation, loss and gain. Something grayer, on the level of motive, and something more ambiguous, on the level of character. So, my main character, a handyman: what does he want? Money? Just that? Maybe he’s looking for something that, yes, could involve money, but also could involve not sexual intimacy, but family intimacy. What’s missing in his life, what does he need? I stopped thinking of my character as a criminal, and more as someone going through an identity crisis.

Then I did two types of research: I started talking to a lot of handymen, since I am not handy at all. But also, I wanted to learn about the jobs and repairs, large and small, and about customers, particularly about working with the elderly. I had met with another person from Lifespan who e-mailed me a list of local senior centers, and I started visiting them. I just sat at the tables, in Henrietta, Irondequoit, Webster. I met a woman, at the Webster center, who brought her mother there every day. I chatted with her often. She was an invaluable resource. There were other research elements – legal, medical – and, without telling you too much about the book’s plot, I talked with many experts in home care and memory care.

What are some less traditional types of research you’ve undertaken for a story or a novel? 

When I wrote Bluff City Pawn, I hung out at so many different pawn shops. I visited people who were avid gun collectors. I went to small auctions because that was a part of the book at one point. I talked to garden club members out in the wealthy suburb of Germantown. I tracked down folks from ATF to try to get an understanding of how they’d run an audit, an on-site inspection of the gun logbooks and the inventory. I went driving with a police officer who I had found out would go to pawn shops in his off-hours. He was just recently retired, a motorcycle cop. We went to a restaurant a few times together. I went to the auction with him because he was always looking to flip certain objects. I went gun-shooting with one of the pawnbrokers. He was a cowboy action shooter, and so we went target-shooting. I met up with a gold buyer, I talked to several home builders. I talked to my neighbor who had a fish pond, and I asked about the fish, the maintenance. I just realized you asked about “less traditional” methods, but I guess it’s hard for me to categorize what is typical or atypical, other than something standard, like, say, reading The Blue Book of Gun Values, if you wanted to learn about gun pricing.

For this current project, I went to Lowes to walk the aisles with a handyman, to watch what he did while making a supply run in the morning. Another handyman I had him show me on his iPhone what his jobs were for the past week. I went to a couple nursing homes. I watched a hairdresser cut hair. I knew that I wanted to write something about my character getting her hair cut at the end of the story. I wanted to see how someone cuts hair at an assisted living facility, so I went down to the basement where the salon was; I was brought down there by the manager. I said, can I just watch you do a couple haircuts? I asked questions, but mostly I watched to see how she touched her, how the elderly woman might react, how you might communicate with a customer who maybe lost the ability to speak or understand.

So it’s mostly field research?

Sometimes it’s phone calls. When I realized that Bluff City Pawn dealt with a particular kind of gun collection — Winchester rifles — I went on the Winchester Arms Collectors Association website. I know that I spoke to about four or five dealers. I was just trying to see how a professional might be looking at these valuable pieces, the pricing, what was going on in their mind.

Some of it is just calling, and some of it, in the case of Germantown, you know I moved up here to Rochester before I thought that Germantown was going to be a subject of the novel, the kind of suburb versus city angle of the book. So I returned to Memphis a few times and spent most of my time in Germantown talking to women who were very involved in the Suburban Garden Club and also the Charity Horse Show.

I took a camera. I didn’t have a smartphone, so I bought a cheap disposable camera and went up and down some of the streets that I knew were part of the book and just shot photos from my car. I don’t know if I thought I was going to use them, or if it was just something that I felt like I wanted to document.

For this current novel, I went to an antiques store in East Rochester to ask about Tiffany lamps. That’s where the book started. Also, I went into a bank and asked how they issued $10,000 to a customer. Because I knew that dollar amount was going to be a part of the book.

The information. It’s kind of fun. It’s sort of like a language to play with. It’s the specificity, the texture. I was talking to a handyman a few months ago, and he said cob job. I thought he’d said con job. In the moment, when I misheard it – when I realized that I had – I was sort of doubly thrilled by the whole moment, the phrasing and the mistake, because the book, in some ways, started with an idea – is this guy a conman? – but then it moved onto other issues, one of them being the slipperiness of language.

What is a cob job?

A cob job is sort of like something that’s cobbled together. It’s kind of derogatory. It’s sort of like, like your water heater or something, some guy sort of figured out a way to hold it together with this duct tape, so now there’s water flooding, and then you as the handyman, you have to take the thing apart to put it back together properly.

In this book, I was very interested in language that’s forgotten or erased, and language that’s repeated, where surprising patterns emerge. When the standards of speech break apart, what’s left – what does it represent?

Kathryn Davis once told me that she would research feverishly, and then she would not look at any of her notes when she was writing the book. Is your approach similar?

It is a bit of that. I collect pads and pads of notes. But I’m not transcribing the stuff into the narrative. On some level, it’s almost like you’re internalizing it, and then maybe some of it gets expressed back onto the pages of a story or a novel, in a different form.

All the research, it doesn’t give you a through-line or even a premise. It gives you details, which are important, and sometimes these details or bits of information can be so valuable and generative that you might even be able to build a scene around them. But you still have to create the characters and figure out their desires and the obstacles and the outcome, any you still have to make every sentence. Research can do a lot, but the writing demands so much more. 

When you interview people, do you explain that you’re a fiction writer and you’re writing a novel?

Yes. I feel like most people are happy to talk about their lives. Some are suspicious, and you feel really silly in those moments. You feel like an intruder, which I suppose is what you are, a nosy person with a pad, spying or something. In the worst moments, I feel not just bothersome but false. But, for me, it’s an opportunity to access worlds beyond myself. There are any number of ways that I could’ve felt the impetus to write about a pawn shop in Memphis, there were so many of them. So why did I spend so many hours there? I wanted to feel informed. I wanted to feel like I was writing it from inside that place rather than as a bystander.

Also, sometimes you have these incredible encounters with people. I love watching people show me how some task or ritual is done. I remember when I asked the pawnbroker once to show me how he shows the jewelry. How he opens the case, how he presents the merchandise on the glass. Show me how you return an item that’s coming out of pawn. I love feeling like I’ve watched those gestures, those small actions. For this book, I asked very specific questions to some of the caregivers about handling an elderly body. For the same tactile reasons, I guess.

How important is it to be accurate in your writing in the end, in the finished product, since it is fiction?

Some things I don’t know if there’s one way to say what’s accurate. I just wrote a moment where my handyman says how he goes to Home Depot and he recognized all the contractors who were at the Pro Desk, who were always there. I don’t know if that’s an accurate moment. Some handyman might say, “What, are you kidding me? That’s not accurate. There are so many people coming through here at any time, I’m not gonna know.” And somebody else might say, “Sure, I see guys all the time that I worked with twenty years ago.” So in that sense I think it’s plausibly within what could conceivably be true. And I also feel like at that point it feels true enough for me.

But there are issues where you’re dealing with something technical: misidentifying a gun, where you have the wrong specifications. In that sense, yeah, you want to get it right. Even though your error will probably only be caught by a very small subset of people. (This is assuming, of course, that any set or subset or subsubsubset is reading your work...)

More importantly, getting it right doesn’t mean that I’ve written a good book – it doesn’t even mean that I’ve written a good sentence. That could just mean that in that moment I’ve written a correct…feature. But, of course, I’m not writing a manual. Have I gotten at the characters’ motivations, have I shown a compelling progression, how is the pacing, the tone, are the sentences clean but complex, is there an interesting disturbance underneath them? There are so many things that you’re worrying over, and trying to achieve, that ultimately part of what you would define as accuracy is also the realization that there’s too much research. That you may be correct on an informational level, but it’s incorrect in terms of narrative flow; in which case, the writing is both “true” and bogged-down. I guess this is an error of addition, which can happen especially when you’ve heard something really good – some anecdote, maybe – and you don’t want to let go of it. If you research a lot, that problem is unavoidable.

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