Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why Fact Is Important In Fiction

Yesterday, I learned a great deal about my WIP's protagonist, JK. More specifically, I realized her occupation -- which is important to her central conflicts -- won't work. I have to scrap most of her scenes and go back to revise her character arc outline.

You see, JK is deeply affected by a death that occurred in her early childhood, and her sub-conscious obsession leads her to ignore her true passions and pursue a career as an end-of-life caregiver.

At least, that was the plan until yesterday. I'd scheduled a meeting with a hospice nurse whose daughter and mine are in the same class. She in turn invited her collegue, and the three of us sat down at the private care facility they operate. I'd arrived prepared with fifteen or so questions to guide me through the interview.

I needed to understand how patients come to be under their personal care, and what exactly their jobs entailed. But those things weren't what I was most interested in learning. The questions I couldn't wait to ask were: What was it like the first time you witnessed a patient die? Do you become emotional when some patients pass? What's the worse death you've ever witnessed? Morbid, right? As I'd anticipated, the direct experiences they shared with me shed light on how I can craft JK into the character I envision her to be.

Unfortunately, I also realized that JK is too young to be a hospice nurse. I see her nearing her mid-twenties, at that confusing time in a person's life when she must face her childhood demons or resign herself to a lifetime under their oppression. The nurses told me it's unheard of for a nurse straight out of school to be hired by a hospice organization. There must be a minimum of clinical experience in a hospital setting, they said. I learned this when they responded to this question: What personality characteristics do you possess that helps you the most in your job as a hospice nurse? They both answered, "Self-confidence." During follow-up questions, they explained the patient's family members look to the hospice nurse as the expert, the one who garners their sense of security at a time when they feel helpless and frightened. A hospice nurse calls all the shots, relying on her ability to quickly assess a situation and prescribe a course of action. Unlike a hospital nurse, who isn't allowed to change a Band-aid without a physician's order. They both agreed that a nurse fresh out of school is simply unqualified to perform the tasks thrown at a hospice nurse.

So, I have some decisions to make. Either I have to alter JK's age so that she's worked in the field long enough to be a hospice nurse (which undermines most of what I already know about her), or I have to change her career path. Perhaps she's finished undergrad work and taking a year off before nursing school? During that time, maybe she's working as a Home Health Aide in a hospice environment. No matter what, I have a lot of rewriting to do.

One thing is for sure: Yesterday, I felt like a novelist. Conducting research was exciting and enlightening. I captured sights, smells, and sounds from the facility. I talked briefly to two of the hospice patients. I've been invited by the nurse to follow her on rounds one day next week, where I'll record as many descriptions and emotions as possible.

What kinds of research do you do for your novels? What tools do you bring along: notebook and pen, audio or video recorders, laptop computer, camera? Do you have any advice for me as I continue my research?