Research: The Best of Writing

“What’s a Qivittoq?” Dee was getting unbearably cold now, the chill entering her body like it would never leave. “What’s that?” (Extract from Anori)

Choosing the most effective word can be painfully tedious. Is she really unbearably cold? What about terribly cold? Desperately cold? What word translates the feeling for how cold she is? One word works and the other. It goes back and forth in the edit, until the word works as it should. Whatever that means.

A much more immediately satisfying part of writing is the research. Anori is speculative novel set in Greenland and so futuristic elements as well as aspects of Greenlandic culture are needed to develop the setting.

Aeriel view of icebergs outside of Ilulissat, Greenland

A Qivittoq is a mythological, often evil creature – akin to the Ojibway’s Wendigo – is derived from the custom of banished a person who violates the sacred codes of society.

Thule Air Base also came up in my research, a United States military camp where a B-52G Stratofortress loaded with nuclear weapons crashed in 1968. This led me to think that nuclear weapons might have created a Qivittoq or two.

Disko Island glacier

Other research for Anori included Earth-out-of-view Syndrome (a psychological disorder when one can no longer see Earth), O’Neil Cylinder (mining asteroids in space), Cave Swallows (birds in the Yucatan), dry dock (lifting boats out of the water for repairs) and cantilevers.

The cantilevered architecture of Jenny Polak’s Offshore (Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, New York)

The trick of effective research is not allowing it to completing distract the work at hand… unless a book on the trivia of research is to be launched. (Is there a market for that?)

Impossible Character: Dee Sinclair

Sex sells. And Dee Sinclair is all about sex. Not just a sex worker, she is a sex performer, taking high-paying jobs to perform for exclusively perverted clients in remote locations such as French Polynesia, Greece and Qatar.

She is an orphan girl, her only sister dead, an alcoholic, drowned. But she won’t talk about that. She won’t talk about anything except her exotic cat, a serval, named Apollo.

Photo credit: Michael Nichols (National Geographic)

She doesn’t actually talk about Apollo either. She doesn’t talk about anything to anyone. She feels herself as distinctly separate, an adjunct, an afterthought, a second thing. She feels like she doesn’t belonged anywhere, except sitting alone on the fire escape. She knows that no one who really cares, that no one who would miss her. She just wants to be left alone.

Dee makes her first appearance in My Bad Side and then in Anori, the first book of The Cx Trilogy. She spends much of her time in the ice-choked emptiness of Greenland, a place she treasures because of its mind-numbing isolation.

And then she is suddenly being chased: Dee watched her hands flash up in front of her face, first one and then the other, fists clenched, just her pinkie out on her left hand. She had heard the helicopter come over the glacier, the rotors reverberating off the ice, sharp and then suddenly faded. She heard nothing now. She was mute. Not her footsteps on the hard ground, not her gasping for breath, not the truck door swinging wildly open, not the engine starting, nothing. Dust swirled up ahead, other trucks going to the launch tower. She couldn’t get the truck to go fast enough. The tunnel took forever. She heard something on the other side, helicopters again, as she headed to the tower. But she couldn’t see. There was only the dust and then Valerie on the edge of the first platform.

As the protagonist, Dee operates as the reader’s stubborn vehicle entering the impossible parameters of science fiction – the space ships, three dimensional internet, artificial skin, and most of all, the idea of leaving Earth for another planet. She doesn’t buy any of it. And neither does the reader. Until it is there and there is no denying it. As much as she (we) can’t accept it, it is there.

Dee works especially well for this book because of her personality. As hard as she tries to separate herself from everyone in the world, she becomes more drawn into a mission that aims to do just that – leave the planet altogether. The irony is that, in her efforts to be apart, she of course becomes deeply committed to the others on the journey into the emptiness.

Thematically, the book is a challenge, as it focuses on abandoning, and ultimately rejecting, our society for something else, and the impossibility of doing that. After all, wherever we go, we are still what we are. And so as impossible as Dee might be to access, it is because of that that she works as an excellent conduit for the book.

Ice Friday: Qasiagssaq, The Great Liar

Qasiagssaq, men say, was a great liar. One day, when he had been in his kayak, without even a sight of a seal. He noticed a man from his village towing in a big black seal. Qasiagssaq rowed behind the man and stole the seal.

“Qasiagssaq, you have made a catch,” cried his fellow villagers. “Where did you get that tow line?”

“I have had it a long time,” he answered, “but have never used it before today.”

The other man from the village returned. “I got a big black seal today, but it was taken with my tow line.”IMG_4620The next day he was out again in his kayak and said to himself, “What is the use of my being out here, I who never catch anything?” He went to shore and lay his knees across a stone and used another stone to hammer his knee caps.

When he returned to the village, he told the villagers, “An iceberg calved right on top of me so that I barely escaped alive.”

Some time later, Qasiagssaq heard that a couple in another village had lost their child and went to visit. “Today my little daughter, Nipisartangivaq, is doubtless crying at her mother’s side as usual.”

The mourners looked up eagerly. “Ah, how grateful we are to you! Now your little daughter can have all her things.” And they gave him a cooking pot, beads and a great quantity of food. When he returned home, the other villagers asked where he got so many things.

“An umiak started out on a journey, and the people in it were hurried and forgetful.”

Towards evening, a number of kayaks arrived; the people from the other village had brought meat for Qasiagssaq’s daughter. When they learned that Qasiagssaq did not have a daughter, they asked for their cooking pot to be returned.IMG_4614The next evening he returned home and told the villagers he had found a dead whale. They rowed out for it and asked Qasiagssaq where the whale was.

“Over there, beyond that little ness,” he replied.

They rowed there and found nothing and asked again.

“Over there, beyond that little ness,” Qasiagssaq replied.

This happened again and again until the others finally said, ‘Qasiagssaq is only a trouble to us all. Let us kill him.”

And at last they did as they had said, and killed Qasiagssaq.*

*Greenlandic Folk Tale, as collected by Knud Rasmussen