How Much Does a Bear Weigh? (And Other Things a Novelist Needs to Know) by Alysia Constantine
My Google search history and my little notebook of Things to Remember have become quite amusing reads this year. My second novel, Olympia Knife, tells the story of a woman who grows up in a travelling circus in early 20th Century America, and in researching that book (even if it was often only on Google and not through airless hours in the library, as I was trained for), I wound up seeking the answers to a hundred little questions that presented themselves: how much would Viselik, the trained bear, weigh? How many of those mean, alcohol-soaked clowns could fit into a clown car, and is it a special car? When was the circus canon invented (in case I want to shoot a character out of one)? How do you swallow a sword?
Since the novel takes place in the early 20C, this research was made ever more important by my need to be historically accurate. I also wound up researching period circus costumes, customs of the time and early 20C American slang. (My favorite discovery: “It’s all jake,” as in “everything’s cool”.) I even found myself trying to figure out when folks in the U.S. started saying “OK.” (In case you need to know, it was originally a joke in Boston ‘round about the 1830s… cool Bostonians liked to abbreviate everything—“That’s an NG” instead of “That’s a no-go”, for instance—and OK stands for “Orl Korrect,” which is the 1830s Bostonian’s Intentional Silly-Talkin’ way of saying “All Correct.”)
My point, I suppose, was that the old saw “write what you know” will only get you so far. In my case, it means all my novels would be about middle-aged, fat, disabled, white, first generation, lesbian professors who live in New York and have two dogs. That would dubiously be good for one novel, but after that, one probably must move on. On the other hand, I’ve never been interested in “historical fiction,” either—like sci-fi, much of it seems too caught up in the details of the unfamiliar world, and privileges those details over good, strong characters, beautiful language and sensory detail (the good stuff, of course, doesn’t… hence my love for Octavia Butler).
So how does one strike the balance between research and writing when one’s writing something creative? It’s a version of that same predicament about whether good writing requires routine and diligence or inspiration. (I cannot count how many people, upon hearing that I write novels, have made the assumption that I sit around eating bonbons and waiting for inspiration to strike. I must then explain that if I did that, I’d never write anything at all, because I usually find other things—things that don’t feel like work, like sorting through my fourth-grade papers or arranging my socks—more inspiring, and that writing, at least for me, is work and often an unpleasant task I must make myself do on the regular by, usually, sitting at my laptop for a prescribed 6 hours a day.) Eating bonbons is pretty good, too—as long as I’m also working.
What I’ve finally discovered, well into my forties, is that for me, writing works best as a tightrope walk balanced between inspiration and routine: I must get myself inspired within the confines of a routine. Research helps with this—I can spend hours flipping through pictures of early 20C circus performers, or reading about the history of poi spinning (that’s twirling stuff, often stuff on fire, for you uninitiated folks). But if I limit myself to twenty minutes of research, which must be followed by an hour of writing, I have the inspiration I need to feed me in the drudgery, and the structure to make sure the drudgery gets properly drudged.
Here’s the disenchanting, unromantic truth: writing is usually neither fun nor magical nor John-Berryman-wild-eyed-crazy-inspired. Writing drunk or high doesn’t usually make for good writing, either, at least in my experience. (Lots of writers wrote in spite of drinking or drug use, not because of it.) Dead Poets Society got it 100% wrong: writing is work, often unpleasant or tough or boring or just unrewarding in the moment, and rarely does it involve standing on your chair and bursting with emotion and quoting Whitman. And almost never does a writer get to witness the effects of the writing (except when a reader makes the effort to find her and tell her about it, ahem, friends).
I’m not trying to make writing sound more difficult than it is, or more important, I’m simply trying to demystify it here.
It’s the same thing I had to learn when writing about circus stuff, too: I was really drawn to writing about trapeze performers and fat ladies and bear trainers, but what I found was that the more real I made these characters, the more I had to think about what people threw at Minnie the Fat Lady while she was on stage (newspaper, rocks and hair pins, mostly), or whether Samu slept in his bear Viselik’s cage at night (yes, he did). I also figured most of their costumes smelled like sweat, and the air around the Flying Knifes was always filled with chalk dust from their hands. And the clowns were mean and cliquish and a little bit ominous.
Oh—and in case you were wondering and your Googling finger is broken, the answers to the questions I began with are, in order: about 400 pounds; between 14 and 21 clowns in a car without seats; the first human canon ball performed in 1877.
And how do you swallow a sword? Very carefully.
Alysia Constantine is the author of the novels Sweet (2016) and Olympia Knife (2017). She lives in the lower Hudson Valley of New York with her wife, two dogs, a cat, and a cucumber vine that has completely taken over the garden and produces ridiculous, armlength cucumbers.
Her next book is Olympia Knife. It will release on 11/3/17:
Born into a family of flying trapeze artists, Olympia Knife has one small problem: When her emotions rise, she becomes invisible. Everyone in the traveling circus has learned to live with this quirk; they banded together to raise Olympia in a loving environment when her parents vanished midair during their act, never to return. But the same fate befalls Arnold, the world’s shortest man, followed by one act after another, until the show is a crumbling mess of tattered tents and terrified troupers. Into this chaos walks Diamond the Danger Eater. Olympia and Diamond forge a friendship, then fall in love, and, together, resolve to stand the test of time, even as the world around them falls apart.