Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Let Fly Your Inner Anthropologist 

Not long ago I had coffee with an SFPD Homicide Inspector. We chatted about crime scenes. A friend of mine, who just happens to be an Assistant District Attorney in San Francisco, set it up for me. Yep. That’s me. Hanging out with ADAs and Homicide Inspectors like it’s No Big Deal. Just me and the City’s movers and shakers.

Dontcha just love research?

Maybe it’s because I was trained as an anthropologist, and then worked as a social worker. I adore listening to people, watching them, studying them, interviewing them. Even in my latest occupation–painting murals and faux finishes in people’s homes—I love listening in while I paint. When you work in someone’s house for a while, you become a piece of the furniture. Rich people, especially, seem to easily forget you’re there. Not that I'm a gossip, but it fascinates me to see how differently people view the world. Give me a glass of wine and a few hours, and I could tell you stories

Which is precisely my point. When we writers talk about research, most of us think of Google –and indeed, it’s a fabulous, irreplaceable resource. (Seriously, what did we ever do without it?) But to me, the biggest part of being a writer is listening, watching, observing. In anthropology, "hanging around and noticing things" is a legitimate form of qualitative research, called "fieldwork."

For my latest series featuring a witch with a vintage clothing store, I've gone to coven meetings and spent afternoons wandering aimlessly around Haight Street scouting secondhand clothing. I've interviewed witches and store owners. I've mixed up herbal balms and observed a clothing conservationist doing the laundry (much more interesting than it might sound).

If I sit around waiting for my imagination to come up with random ideas, I’m in for a long wait. Life, on the other hand, is chock-full-o' stories for the borrowing. The other day I noticed a torn note under a windshield wiper: “Amber: call this number. Trust me. 555-8769” ... my imagination was stoked. Was it from an old boyfriend? Could Amber owe money to someone? Was it a job opportunity? Has a child has been kidnapped and only Amber will be able to save it?

How about a ratty leather satchel left on BART, covered in French stickers? A frail old woman being helped from the bus by a punk in a thug outfit? A stripper with a chatty streak? Life is fascinating, and everyone has a story. I mean everyone. The kid on the way to school with a backpack half her body size. The fiftyish neighbor who lives alone with cats. The mail carrier who keeps misdelivering mail. They’ve all got something to say…and even if they don’t, I’ll bet I can make something up for them based on clues in their dress, bearing, and mode of speech.
Overheard the other day while standing in line for coffee: “So the stripper says to me, this guy is obsessed with the Lord of the Rings. He wants to be Frodo and her to be a Faery Queen. 'Cept, of course, naked."

Hmm, I feel a story coming on.

I love research.


Christine said...

: )
Lovely post! As a fellow student of anthropology (now a library tech) I can definitely relate.

Hailey.Juliet said...

Thanks Christine! We anthropologists have to stick together ;-) Seriously, I'm always amazed at how many people say they hate research...for me, that's where the fun begins. Oh, and yay for libraries!