Thursday, February 26, 2009

When Research Crosses the Ick Factor

I have to do some research for a chapter I need to write in the manuscript I am currently working on. Now, when I say "research" I often mean "experience." Much of what I research cannot be done online or from books. I do not write historical stories. I do not write paranormal or science fiction, I write about carriage drivers set in a real city working for a company based loosely on the one I work for. My main character is a widow with brain damage who is missing her left foot. I am not any of these things (okay, people who know me will argue about the "brain damage" trait…) But, be that as it may, I can pull many of the events that occur from real life.

One example of my research:

I got a tattoo because I needed to experience what it was like. Ended up I did not use the "experience" in a scene but it made me more appreciative of the process. And what I discovered was this: The "pain" was not that big of a deal (although my Tat was placed in a meaty part of my body, so it did not entail much nerve/bone contact, which I understand amps up the "owie" factor exponentially) What I did learned was this: The itching while your tattoo heals surpasses the boredom, pain, and other mildly annoying things one puts up with during and after the process. No one told me this. In fact, the itching was never even mentioned by anyone. So, that’s was what I learned from that specific endeavor. And you cannot scratch it— it scuffs the ink.

Another example of my research was unintentional, but informative. I try to visit former carriage driver Wease twice a year. She lives in the beautiful Cache Valley 90 minutes north of me. On my last visit I was accompanied by The Fabulous Todd. Now, several of my minor characters are gay. So is TFT. During our weekend visit I learned more about the life of a homosexual man than, as a middle aged heterosexual woman, I ever needed to know. I will not elaborate, but I will never be able to watch baseball the same way again. Anyway, the one thing I took away from our weekend is the phrase "Strictly Dickly," which it turns out applied not only to TFT (never had sex with a woman, only men) also applies to me. It will be used in dialog in the current WIP.

Now I need to research a funeral. Not your everyday, "Great Aunt Mildred died, we're going to her wake, we're bringing a casserole" kind of a thing, but specifically utilizing a horse drawn hearse during a quasi-military funeral. For this I need to have three things aligned:

1) Someone has to die
2) They had to have been a member of the military
3) The family wants to incorporate a horse drawn hearse in the ceremony.

Not as easy as it sounds.

So I have asked Ro, barn manager extraordinaire, to include me, if at all possible, the next time these three pre-requisites are met. She advised me to pick the brain of the carriage company owner because he is an encyclopedia of knowledge concerning these tributes, as he should be. Knowing proper procedure and protocol is essential when bestowing honor.

We do "regular" funerals;

Uncle Bob was a horse lover; his family knows he would have appreciated the gesture, so they hire us to carry the casket to Bob's final resting place. This type of thing I can get first hand from Ro. She is a widow, and the carriage company performed this service for her at her husband's funeral. So she has described the event for me. But that, to me, is not the same as riding up top with the driver, viewing the cemetery from that vantage point. Watching the mourners walking behind the hearse. The smell of the flowers, the feel of the wind, the sound of the wheels on the asphalt/gravel/dirt as we slowly roll down the road/path/pasture we are driving on.

Because considerable time has passed and her emotional wounds have healed, I can talk to Ro about aspects of her husband's passing; the anger she felt about the way the Utah Highway Patrol informed her. The shock, the disbelief, the panic at realizing that she was a widow and their six-month old son was now fatherless. The relief she felt because her friend was there with her the day she received the autopsy report in the mail. The utter lost and fragile feeling she experienced while waiting in the social security office, papers in hand, baby on her hip, to file a claim. The overwhelming reality of it all.

So my question is this: When does research take a dive and end up as morbid curiosity?


Anonymous said...

My current WIP features a killer who uses a fancy belt to strangle the victims. I don't have a fascination with that form of death (I'm against death in all its forms) but I needed a murder weapon that would leave behind very specific clues. Lucky for me & my ability to sleep and to feel relaxed at all, the murders take place off the page. I wish we could order the real world as easily as we order our books.

The funeral I remember best is the one for JFK. Have you seen the films of that?

And I am eager to see how this funeral affects Carlos, if it brings up any memories for her. Good lord, Driver! You're a very nervy writer.

Lisa Deon said...

I have seen the JFK funeral. Luckily for me I don't need anything quite so elaborate.

Christina said...


I've done 5 police funerals here in Philadelphia in the past year, at 4:30 in the morning...We use a restored 1898 hearse and a pair of grey Percherons.

If I can be of any help, you're free to pick my brain... I can also give you links to some vid.

(We've also done a number of non-police funerals, including one in a tropical storm, another one where one of the horses got scared of a trash truck and we nearly lost the casket out the back, another where the casket got stuck in the hearse on the brake, and a military one where the hearse high-tailed it out of the cemetery once the casket had been deposited and one of the staff noticed the drill team with rifles for the 21-gun salute.)

Anonymous said...

Might this be of interest?

Lisa Deon said...

Thank you for the offers of assistance and the link. Because it is a work of fiction I get to play with the degree of officialness (Is that even a word?) it's the taste, touch, smell, feel things I have to experience and then put into my characters words.

Christina, at my friends grandfathers funeral they dropped the casket and it was thisclose to openeing up...

Christina said...

Before I started doing funerals, we had a funeral where the casket DID open up, before they loaded it in the hearse. Apparently, the funeral director was there in her heels trying to close it again like it was some overstuffed suitcase!

Anyway, there's the cycling of the hooves and the drums... they go in and out of sync because the horses and the drums are at different speeds (and the horses themselves go in and out of sync).

There's the rattle of the casket followed by the thunk and lurch of the hearse as the pall bearers slide it in on the rollers and the squeak of the crank as the prongs that hold the casket in place get cranked down.

At a funeral in North Philly there was the wafting of pungent marijuana smoke emanating from the purple pimped-out K-car that found its way into the procession in front of the hearse.

Happy researching!

Lisa Deon said...

Hahaha, Christina that is some funny shit right there, my friend.

Pimped out k car. Nice.

Belle's personal assistant said...

Tell you what. If Dad croaks anytime soon and Mom lets us use the horses for his funeral, I will let you tag along. Marine, Special Forces Green Beret the whole nine yards. Veteran of Vietnam and Afghanistan. Belle WILL NOT be pulling. She would end up back in Wyoming quicker than we could pick up all of the pieces.

Widow with brain damage and missing appendage? What a happy story.

Have fun with that.

Anonymous said...

Pooner-- this seems to go right along with your strickly dickly

Lisa Deon said...

Widow with brain damage and missing appendage? What a happy story.

Actually, it's a romantic comedy.

Um, arn't you the person who just told me I if her dad croaks could crash his funeral for research purposes?

Mingu- A College in China

Christina said...

I still want to know how someone with one foot climbs off and on the carriage. :)

Lisa Deon said...

Prosthetic limb. Her amputation is below the knee. Early on in my driving "career" a woman trained who had a similar condition. Driving, getting up and down on the box, no problems. The issue she had was pulling the carriage into the barn. At that time the lot was gravel and you had to get a running start to be able to pull it over the 2 inch "lip" between the barn lot and the (concrete floor) big barn.

Now it's all cement, and I'm sure she would have no problem at all. The rest of us less than perfect specimens of humanity can do it.

I'm off to Idaho for the weekend, kids. Everybody Wang Chung tonight.

Sagebrusheq said...

In town till Tuesday please advise.


Lisa Deon said...

\Sagebrush Eq,

Funny, you left the great white north and I went up there.

I am not signed up to work monday. If you still want to take a ride I would happy to meet you at whatever time and ride with the driver. MBA usually works Mondays/Tuesdays, and she is a great hostess.

The number to the barn is 801 363-TOUR. The barn manager is in Mondaysn 9-5 and can make a reservation for you. She in turn can get in touch with me.