Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thoughts about Research

A recent post on Elle Strauss' blog got me to thinking about research.
I like things to be right in the world I create. I always imagine someone somewhere will pop up and say, "no, you're wrong about this detail," and then I have terrifying imaginary arguments with them. But sometimes research is about more than detail -- it's about getting the right feeling, and that's tricky.
My MC in How to See the Elephant suffers from (though I never use the term) what are supposed to be asthma attacks. When I revised it I saw that the asthma scenes fell flat: I didn't capture her fear and panic during the attacks, and especially her embarrassment when they happen in public. I felt I couldn't do this until I knew more about asthma. Needless to say, I don't have asthma and don't know anyone who does.
(At this point I am also saying to myself, why did you have to pick asthma? Why not migraines? You can do migraines. But in fact the asthma attacks serve as kind of a symbol of her imprisonment at boarding school; after she runs away she doesn't have them anymore. So I felt they had a function in the plot.)
My first stop was some of the medical textbooks I have access to at work. Here I got a clinical description of the pathology and physiology of asthma, its incidence, ramifications for public health, long-term management, and so on. Really, nothing to help me write a scene describing an attack from the point of view of a asthma sufferer.
So I went to Youtube. Maybe, I reasoned, I could find a video or two of someone having an asthma attack. There were way more than one or two videos, but they turned out to fall into two categories: 1) someone runs up a hill, then coughs a little, or 2) someone in an ER with a mask over their face. Youtube did help me correct a whopping error I'd made with having my MC lie down during her attacks. In fact, it's dangerous for anyone having an asthma attack to lie down -- they are supposed to sit or lean forward. (Immediate re-write there of about 5 scenes.) But other than that there just wasn't enough visible detail in the videos to help me write the scenes. And I also realized that watching a modern-day asthma attack, cut short or helped by an inhaler, wouldn't be the same as an asthma attack in the 19th century. My MC wouldn't have had an inhaler or much in the way of medicine.
We think of an illness as something which is unchangeable over time. A 19th century asthma attack can't be much different from a 20th century one, right? Well, I wasn't so sure. The pathology of asthma -- the swelling of the bronchi -- is the same no matter what, of course. But how a disease is perceived, whom it affects, how the symptoms are described -- these are all subjective. Asthma, for instance, was considered to be a nervous disease, with a psychological origin, well into the 20th century. So what I needed was a natural or social history of asthma, something that would describe asthma as someone in the 19th century saw it.
Well, with a little bit of careful searching, I found, on Google Books, a treatise written in 1882 by a Dr. Henry Salter, who was a pioneer of asthma research. (He was the first to show it could be caused by environmental factors like animal dander.) I learned a lot of interesting information from Dr. Salter's book. For one thing, Dr. Salter didn't seem to think of asthma as a terribly dangerous illness. He doesn't mention any fatalities among his patients and he describes attacks that go on for as long as three days, off and on. Dr. Salter was also convinced that smoking and city air were good for asthma. Like others of his day, he thought it was a nervous illness and he describes it as occuring in definite periods or cycles. Best of all, though, Dr. Salter devotes an entire chapter to describing "the asthma attack." Wikipedia describes the noise an asthma sufferer makes as "whistling." Dr. Salter describes the same noise as "like a mouse squeaking or a kitten mewing."
When I was done with the chapter I felt I had what I needed to re-write the scenes. In fact, I had to avoid the other pitfall of research, which is putting in too much information. The details were odd, but they were 19th century details, and the scenes worked much better for them. And I'm ready to have an imaginary argument with anyone who says otherwise.

3 comments:

Elle Strauss said...

Thanks for the link!

Mary Aalgaard said...

Excellent job researching. I was interested in the history of the disease, how it was perceived. That's interesting that they thought it was mental, or cyclical. What did they do to ease it? Steam? Rest? Liquids?

Laura Canon said...

Dr. Salter actually prescribes smoking, and also coffee (which is still used today -- the caffeine expands blood vessels.)