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Doing Real World Research for Writing - or 'Touching Grass'

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

As an FDA-certified Gen Z-er on the Internet, I've commonly come across the phrase "touch grass" as a response to a uniquely deranged post or comment (and said it a few times myself - we do a little trolling here). The implication behind the expression is that the recipient has spent so much time inside, plugged into the horrifying online sphere, that the only cure is to step outside and feel the sunshine on their face, breathe in the rich clean air, and their fingers across the soft grass. They've avoided doing real world research for writing - or 'touching grass'.

A more polite elaboration is that in order to gain fresh perspective and reorient priorities, one must detach themselves from what faceless profiles on the Internet are saying and get out in the "real world," immersed in the wholesome sensory stimulation of nature, until mental clarity and inner peace are found.

Obviously "touching grass" isn't the holy miracle cure for all of society's ills. But like with most things, when a nuanced approach is sought, there is a lot of merit to this sentiment - especially when it comes to us writers.

In my recent novel Hell's Gulf , one of its principal themes is the value of personal experience. While protagonist Rowan Vane certainly learns the importance of getting outside and exposing himself to new, challenging perspectives, this theme has a much more meta application to the book as a whole.

As a college student down at Florida State University, I didn't spend most of my weekends at CollegeTown; rather, I took day trips down to North Florida's wildest places: St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, Alligator Point, Mashes Sands, and the Apalachicola National Forest among them. It was at these places I had experiences I couldn't have gotten anywhere else: from the mundane, such as the taste of salt and the smell of rotting foliage; to the sublime, such as the disorienting mazes of pine trees and the primordial colors of coastal coarseness; to the downright hazardous, such as stingrays, rattlesnakes, and sharks.

Can you spend the rest of your life indoors and get all you need for your writing via research? Absolutely. You can do that. Some do, and some do it very well. However, I believe that on a pure aesthetic, sensory level, there is absolutely nothing better for your craft than seeing things for yourself, to share the same space with these happenings. Now, I'm not telling you to go get lost in the woods and eaten by sea creatures. But reading about and watching videos of shark fishing will never be the same as seeing one slide out of the sea in the flesh onto shore...hearing its flank scrape against the sand, feeling the rough sandpaper of its skin, witnessing the gouges its thrashing fins leave in the beach. These things dig under the skin of your brain in a manner that text or screens will never even scrape. They dredge descriptive words to the surface, suggest actions that would never come to you otherwise, bring glossy colors and sheens to your eyes that the imagination alone could never hope to concoct. Am I telling you to take up shark fishing, a hobby that is not only dangerous, but expensive and consuming? No. But if you ever get an opportunity to witness it, or accompany someone doing it, then why the hell not? Step outside your comfort zone and immerse yourself with something new, you'll never know what that experience could suggest for you.And obviously this sentiment doesn't just apply to shark fishing, or anything that can only be done on the coast. Anything unfamiliar, yet novel and adventurous, can serve as a luscious spring of inspiration for you that no amount of study or research could hope to impart. I only speak from...well...experience.

Back to Hell's Gulf, it's no exaggeration when I say that I could not have written this story without my travels and my experiences. How else would I have known about the cutting ferocity of a ladyfish if I hadn't faced the brunt of their strength before? No LBSF (land-based shark fishing) video could have prepared me for what I'd encounter when I hauled my first man-sized shark upon the shores of Alligator Point. Where else could I have seen the incongruous beauty of gnarled trees, their roots snaking into the bay water of Mashes Sands beach? If I hadn't met those two fishermen at St. Marks who were absolutely slaying the fish compared to everyone else, their voices rising up in obscenity-filled banter every time they hooked up, where else could I have garnered inspiration for the characters of Jerome and Sebastian Clermont? It could have happened. I could have written Hell's Gulf without any of these things. Hell, I knew plenty about fishing and sea life and wild places before I ever set foot in Florida. And it might have been good. But I highly doubt it would have been as good.

When I typed the final line and looked back at what I'd written, I saw something incredibly personal, something boasting a direct pipeline back in time, threading through every pungent odor, every cantankerous creature, every untapped setting I'd ever embarked through in my travels. Hell's Gulf is a novel caked in mud and soaked in brine and bloodied up, because I too am someone who's been caked in mud and soaked in brine and bloodied up. That's not something you can just learn about, or simply make up. That's something you have to live yourself.

So, if you ever find yourself stuck, if ideas are scarce, if you don't know where to start or where to go...I have one piece advice for you:

Go outside and touch grass.

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