S.G. Browne

The Writing Life: Research This

I recently watched half a dozen episodes of the reality television series Jersey Shore in the name of research. Since I don’t watch much TV, and rarely, if ever, watch reality TV, I felt it was imperative to get some insight into the dynamic for the short story I’m writing about the Seven Deadly Sins living together in a reality TV type environment.

I have to admit, while the first three episodes of Jersey Shore were for research, the last three episodes were because I couldn’t look away. Fortunately, I haven’t given into the temptation to do more research by watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

When it comes to research, I tend to be more of an armchair researcher rather than going out into the field, using the world at my proverbial fingertips to help add details to my writing. These details, I feel, help to enhance the mythologies and universes I create and ground them in a sense of reality.

While writing Breathers, for instance, I added a good deal of information as to what happens to the human body when it decomposes and what cadavers are used for when donated to medical science. Most of this information I found in STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. Had it not been for that book, I wouldn’t have known that a cadaver head is about the same size and weight as a roaster chicken or that when maggots feast on subcutaneous fat it sounds like Rice Krispies.

In addition to the various aspects of human decomposition that helped to give Breathers it’s somewhat dark tone, I also researched wine, recipes, reality television, granaries, the SPCA, the Sistine Chapel, Social Security numbers, and how to apply makeup. All of this was accomplished by using the Internet, though I did visit the Soquel Cemetery to add atmosphere to those scenes. And all of the headstones I mention truly exist there.

As for Fated, the time I spent in Manhattan definitely helped to add some details to the scenes that took place there, details I otherwise would have missed. Like being able to hear the traffic on the Hudson River Parkway while sitting on the promenade beneath the cherry blossom trees. Or that there were cherry blossom trees to sit under. However, I never set foot in Scandal’s in Queens to get a lap dance or had a drink at Iggy’s on the Upper East Side.

Since Fate has been around since the dawn of man, I wanted to include his personal relationship with humans over the millennia.  So I did a fair amount of research on world history, using details about Henry VIII, the sinking of the Titanic, Neolithic man, the Renaissance, the Hindenburg, Moses, the birth of the Roman Empire, and the Black Death, among others. This helped to add a realistic element to my supernatural universe.

I also researched the ingredients of crystal methamphetamine, celebrity deaths in Los Angeles, shopping malls, world population, the Greek Gods, New York City real estate, strip Scrabble, BDSM, the Daytona Beach Dog Track, and the fact that in the state of Minnesota it’s illegal to have sex with a bird.

Oh the things you can learn on the Internet.

Filed under: Breathers,Fated,The Writing Life — Tags: , , , , — S.G. Browne @ 10:55 am

S is for STIFF

The digestive organs and the lungs disintegrate first, for they are home to the greatest number of bacteria…The brain is another early-departure organ.  “Because all the bacteria in the mouth chew through the palate,” explains Arpad.  And because brains are soft and easy to eat.  “The brain liquefies very quickly.  It just pours out the ears and bubbles out the mouth.”

The previous kernel of post-mortem knowledge comes from Chapter 3 of Mary Roach’s STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, a wonderful little book about what happens to the human body after it stops walking around and starts to smell.
STIFF was instrumental in my research into what Andy and the other zombies in Breathers might have to contend with as they confronted the reality of their decomposing existence – sloughage, bloat, maggots feasting on their subcutaneous fat.  All of the everyday things zombies worry about.  In addition, STIFF also provided some insight into the consequences they might face should they get a little too uppity:

Over the past sixty years, the dead have helped the living work out human tolerance limits for skull slammings and chest skewerings, knee crammings and gut mashings; all the ugly, violent things that happen to a human being in a car crash.

From STIFF I learned that when maggots feast on subcutaneous fat it sounds like Rice Krispies, that when the internal organs liquefy they turn to chicken soup, and that up until 1965, necrophilia wasn’t a crime in any U.S. state.  Not really sure what made everyone change their mind then, but since I was born in 1965, I’m sure there’s some cosmic connection.
What made STIFF such a pleasure to read, rather than simply pouring through a bunch of facts about putrefaction and rigor mortis and forensic science, was the funny, matter-of-fact style of Mary Roach.  Her humor and light-hearted irreverence toward the dead makes reading about impact testing and anal leakage a lot of fun.  No, really.

If you like a good non-fiction read with a touch of morbid fascination, then I recommend you pick up a copy of STIFF.  As Entertainment Weekly says, it’s “Gross, educational, and unexpectedly sidesplitting.”

(Next entry:  T is for Tom)

Filed under: Breathers,The Writing Life — Tags: , , — S.G. Browne @ 4:17 pm