Writing Right with Dmitri: Listening for Research
This month's Create is all about local claims to fame. In some cases, that means you're getting your inspiration from the air you breathe. What makes your spot on the landscape memorable? Don't know? How do you find out?
You could go on an internet search, of course. Or take a walk down to the neighbourhood library. Or head for a local museum.
But you could also ask a local informant. You know, the kind of person who points to the big new Walmart and says, 'I remember when it were all fields…'
That kind of informant.
What do you want from a good informant?
- Age. No use asking teenagers, even if you can get them to take the i-thingies out of their ears. They'll shrug and say, 'I wasn't born then, who cares?' The belief that civilisation as we know it began five minutes prior to the birth of the individual in question is universal in teenagers. And they sleep through history class. Forget them. You want somebody older than you. Somebody old enough to remember something interesting. As a kid, I was lucky enough to have a lot of elderly friends. Boy, could they take you time travelling around the area.
- Experience. My piano teacher travelled to New York City by bus when busses didn't have motors. My elderly neighbour hitched a sled ride up the hill from the carters back in the (snowy) day. My dad spent the summer of 1942 plucking chickens in Detroit. You see what I'm driving at? You can look up all the data. What you want to know is what they lived through. Which brings me to…
- Loquacity. That means 'talkativeness'. You want somebody chatty. 'I'll bet that was interesting.' 'Yep.' This is not what you want. You want somebody who, when you wind them up, just runs and runs…
- Willingness to share. It's not enough to be talkative. Your informant has to want to let you in on the experience. It helps if they answer questions, too.
And what do you bring to this? A willingness to listen, an inquisitiveness that asks good questions and encourages the story to go on, and…the suspension of disbelief.
'And there I was, face to face with John Dillinger…'
Do not at this point suggest that this is unlikely. Continue to listen in rapt admiration. You can sort out the lies later. For now, enjoy.
What can you do with this storytelling? You can use it as the basis for further research. You can let it inspire you to delve further into the local legends. Or, you can just let it inspire you by triggering your imagination to make something up yourself. Take your pick.
But look at it this way: you never waste your time when you listen to older folk tell their stories. It's a mitzvah, for one thing. For another, you've made a friend. And who knows? Maybe the world didn't start five minutes before you were born.