Once in a while I need to do specific research for my novels. Where did Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show appear and when did they travel to Europe? What were the clothes and hats like in the 1950s? How much did a Plymouth Barracuda cost? Interesting stuff.
But there’s another kind of research I do. It’s called listening.
I listen to strangers talk in doctor’s office waiting rooms. I listen to friends and family tell stories. I listen to the news. I listen and try to glean all the little gems people drop as they go about their lives.
Yesterday we went to visit a friend who recently turned 93–Bill. He grew up on a farm in Virginia with eight siblings–he was smack in the middle with one much older brother and a whole bunch of sisters. I asked him what his job was on the farm.
He said he had plenty of sisters to handle the hoeing and his older brother had grown up and started his own family, so he got to plow. He used a blind horse named Harry to prepare the fields. Harry could plow a straight row and was smart enough to know when he came to the end of the field. He’d turn on his own and head back the way he came. Bill said he’d plow three or four rows before he even needed to touch the reins.
Harry was also a champion racer. On Sunday afternoons the community would come together and boys being boys they’d get to racing their horses. Blind Harry with the homemade saddle Bill cobbled together would win almost every time.
“He could stop, too. He’d skid all four tires and put his head down and I’d go sliding over his neck,” said Bill. And he grinned. Like he wished he’d could do it one more time.
Now that’s my kind of research. And all I had to do is listen.