Poking, Prying, and Asking Questions

Zora Neale Hurston, the American anthropologist, folklorist, and famed writer (1891-1960) wrote about the process of conducting research in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.

I love the way Hurston phrases this, reminding us that research doesn’t have to be a dull inquiry into mundane issues but can be an epic quest to discover the secrets of our world.

Zora_Neale_Hurston_(1938)
Zora Neale Hurston, photo by Carl Van Vetchen (1938)

Since research is a “formalized curiosity,” research must begin with a question, it has to start with a mystery that you feel compelled to understand. But as Hurston explains, research is not an idle curiosity but a focused inquiry. Research has direction, it is “poking and prying with a purpose,” not just digging around for the heck of it. For curiosity to be called research, it needs to have a purpose and a direction. And the more you learn in the process of your research, the better you are able to tailor your original question to get to the answers you want.

Many times you won’t find the answer you set out to learn, in my own research experiences I usually discover that my first question and intent was wrong, and I need to change my question, or rather, I need to change the assumptions that prompted my first question. This happened when I was researching for my Master’s thesis, I had to reexamine and redefine the ideas that informed my initial questions.

Right now, I am conducting research for a children’s historical fiction novel I am writing that centers on an enslaved girl that flees slavery in the midst of the Civil War. The protagonist and her mother encounter enormous obstacles during their escape, from slave catchers and hostile strangers, to hunger and the elements in order to find the Union Army and attain freedom.

Although this is a fiction story, every good writer, particularly those writing historical fiction, embarks on research to make the world of the story real for readers. When I decided to write this story, I developed a list of topics and questions I needed to investigate in order to help me create a plot and characters that felt as real and true as possible.

Going back to the question of research, when you first begin the process, the first question is often the most broad and can lead in too many directions. In my case, my first question was along the lines of ‘what was it like to live as a child under slavery?’ I already have a solid understanding of American slavery and the Civil War, but there’s no such thing as too much research, and I wanted to be immersed in the time period so that I could describe the world in a realistic way—with all the details and color that make a another time seem as real as our own. I’ve been researching smaller details about daily life. Where you look, and what you poke around for is always determined by your knowledge. After you pose your first question and do some digging, the questions multiply.

For me, research into childhood under slavery led me to the Works Progress

Patsy Moses FWP Slave Narratives
Patsy Moses, 74 (1936-38), Library of Congress Manuscript Division

Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives Collection.  Writers working for the WPA interviewed over 2,300 former slaves and wrote down their experiences and recollections of slavery. Collected during the late 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (1936-38), the firsthand accounts contain a wealth of details about what it was like to live as slave.

After going through the sources I came up with new questions that I needed to investigate further:

  • How was the experience of slavery different for someone that lived and worked on a large plantation versus a smaller farm or home?
  • How was slavery different if a person lived/worked in a rural area versus a town or city?
  • How was life different if a person lived alongside a handful of other slaves versus within a larger slave community?
  • How was the experience of slavery different if the slave owner was not a wealthy agriculturalist?

These questions forced me to think about the setting for my story, the location of Civil War battles in relation to populated areas, slaves’ knowledge about the war, and on and on. There’s too many questions to go into here, but in my future posts I will dig a little deeper into specific sources I come across and talk about my developing research questions.

Check out the Library of Congress website  (loc.gov) here: https://www.loc.gov/

And the Slave Narrative Collection here: https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html

It’s an enormous collection, so I suggest you read through “Understanding the Collection” to get a better sense of the scope of the collected interviews.

If you want some more background on Zora Neale Hurston, check this great website: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/grand-jean/hurston/chapters/siteintroduction.html

Incidentally, Hurston herself was involved in the WPA project to collect the stories of former slaves: https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snintro09.html

See you next week! And leave questions or comments below.

 

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