Craft Essay: “On the Value of Experiencing Research” by Sara Lynn Burnett

April 3, 2020

Thinking about writing a story that’s set in a place you’ve never been? Check out today’s new Craft Essay from Sara Lynn Burnett: “On the Value of Experiencing Research.” Once you’ve finished, plan your trip! (Once we’ve finished social distancing, of course.) Read on:

If your character needs to go to a post office, (a building I’m wagering many of us haven’t been into in a long time), go to one.

When first entering the Caribbean hospitality industry I was handed Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival by a hotelier. It was a reverent sort of hand-off. Everyone in the industry on the islands seems to have read it to the point where “Don’t stop the carnival” is a term used without explanation and in reference to the novel’s plot to describe a hospitality situation where everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.

Don’t Stop the Carnival was published in 1965. It’s dated. It has problems. Its attitudes toward women, Caribbean people, and the LGBTQIA+ communities are antiquated and offensive. If it was positioned as an anthropological work of the US Virgin Islands, the publishers and publicists were wrong in doing so. Tiphanie Yanique was quoted in an essay in the New Yorker stating that her novel, Land of Love and Drowning, was penned in part as an answer to Wouk’s inaccurate portrayal of Virgin Islanders. So what is it about such an outmoded book that makes it so widely read by hoteliers, even today? While Wouk didn’t get island life right in his novel, he got hotel life right. Don’t Stop the Carnival is a tragicomedy about the illusionary paradise of running a hotel in the Caribbean and it is based off of Herman Wouk’s personal experience—he managed the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island in Saint Thomas.

In my quest for more road maps on what to expect from the industry I came across another 1965 novel, Hotel, by British-born, Canadian-raised Arthur Hailey. Again, I was impressed by the accuracy of the hospitality world (and saddened at how little has changed in 55 years). Hailey describes in astounding detail and weaves into his narrative things that only people who have worked in hotels would know. How did he do it? It turns out that he did it the same way that Herman Wouk did. He lived it.

Both authors didn’t just read books about their chosen subjects as research, they went and experienced it for themselves and that authenticity with regards to the hospitality industry shows. Hotel is the story of an independent hotel in New Orleans, the St. Gregory, but it comes to life through the endless months Hailey spent during his research phase living in the Royal York in Toronto (now The Fairmont Royal York Hotel). The general manager agreed to give Hailey unprecedented access, so he moved into the hotel, interviewed and shadowed employees, read 27 books on hospitality while he was there, and conducted a thorough survey of every last detail throughout the entire thousand-plus room historic building. He did all of this before sitting down to write Hotel, which ended up being his first commercially successful novel.

The window into that world he provided, the accuracy of it, made him a bestseller, so he did it again with Airport and then Wheels. With Wheels he was welcomed behind the scenes at General Motors and Chrysler in order to research the automotive industry where those who observed him said that his interview speed was slow, just one or two people a day, which I like to think is because he was listening carefully, extracting information and details, following tangents that speak to the truth of the interviewee. And he did it all of it without a notebook. In a 1971 article by June Callwood Arthur Hailey says “I keep my hands in sight and empty. Nothing stops the flow of information faster than a notebook, particularly if the discussion is on some sensitive area.” Callwood continues her observation of his methodology: “Later that night, stretched out on his hotel bed, he uses a hand-held, battery-powered dictating machine to put down every detail he can remember—descriptions of the location, décor in the office or home, the noise level, everything.”

Arthur Hailey’s novels were so successful he ended up in a $4-million-dollar house in a Caribbean nation I once worked at a hotel in: The Bahamas. He had a powerboat named after his wife, Shelia, also an author and whose sole novel was titled I Married a Bestseller. Hotel spent 48 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, Airport—65. Formulaic and mass market? Probably. Well researched? Absolutely.

In today’s connected world it’s all too easy to google whatever it is we want to know, and I for one am thankful for that. But if there’s a lesson that these two novels have taught me, as dated and out of touch as they are in so many ways, it’s the value of going the extra mile when researching and how that effort breathes authenticity into your writing. These two novels are 55 years old, but I’ve read and reread them both within the last two years because they spoke to the things I’m experiencing now while working in hotels. It’s the value of a primary source over a Wikipedia article. It’s the nuance.

If your character needs to go to a post office, (a building I’m wagering many of us haven’t been into in a long time), go to one. What does it smell like? What has been dropped on the floor? What stamps were issued during the month / year your scene takes place? Talk to the person behind the counter. Ask them about their job. Ask them about the people who come through those doors. I promise you’ll find more there in observation and conversation than you ever will online and it’s those details that brings stories to life.

by Sara Lynn Burnett


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