Immersion Research

Immersion Research

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I’m 150 pages into my novel and I am at THAT point—the one where you come up with excuses to stop writing. Well, I think in my case it is a good place to be, because I am writing a novel set in a city I went to once, for a day, when I was 19.  After speaking with my thesis adviser, we decided it was time I went out there, to San Francisco, to research places that are specific to my novel so that I would have accurate representations of them and to see if I would be inspired by anything there.One of my stops was the City Lights Books store. This is a famous store and small publisher where Allan Ginsberg first read “Howl.” They published this poem and were part of a large court case about the decency of said poem. They became a huge landmark for the beat movement and are an important part of my novel. I’m glad I went, because the store is different than I would have imagined it. It actually gave me a bit of inspiration for the scene just being there.

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Pier 39 was another place I needed to go. I needed to observe the sea lions as my character would in a scene that is pretty pivotal to the novel. I also needed to go to Dolores Park, explore the Mission District, and walk around Chinatown. I took copious notes, sometimes feeling inspired to just write short segments of the novel in between notes about what might work in certain places of the novel and such.

There was a very interesting thing that I had to do. I had to immerse myself in a place that my characters visit. It’s a very crucial place to the novel—without it, the novel wouldn’t exist, and there would be no point writing it. I didn’t want to go, and I was slightly scared of the place and knew that my moral compass would normally steer me clear of it. Characters, though, do things that we aren’t comfortable doing. That’s great—we can explore the world through the characters. However, as writers, we have to understand the characters and the places and how they work in the place. So, I had to suck it up and do what my character did—I had to go into a gay bathhouse. When my novel is done, all the details will be there, but luckily, I had a friend go with me.

When doing something like this, going somewhere you’re uncomfortable and wanting to make it obviously aware that you’re there for work and not fun, I have a few suggestions.

  1. Make it clear that you’re working by having a notebook and pen out.
  2. Be polite with people that you talk to. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable. Explain to them what you are doing and why. Sometimes, they’ll want to ignore you, but others will engage in conversation.
  3. Make sure to hold your camera or phone in a way that no one knows you’re taking pictures, especially in a place where you aren’t supposed to have one.
  4. Make sure to have a friend there—not only will that make you feel comfortable, but it will make it so you have a person to bounce ideas off of and someone with whom you can compare how the place made you feel and the overall experience.
  5. Find a place within the place you are immersing yourself that is quiet and hidden where you can write notes as quickly as the ideas come to you.

As writers, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable at times. That’s okay, as long as you know what you are doing and how to maneuver yourself through the situation safely. I think that if you aren’t doing this, you are being disingenuous as a writer. What place is most out of your comfort zone that you have had to go in the name of your art, MarginAliens? Let me know in the comments!