Thursday, December 27, 2007

Weird Wisconsin: A Trip to Plainfield

Before the holidays, I embarked on a research trip/family and friend visit to Wisconsin. The research portion took me to Plainfield, Wisconsin, the location of my novel. I stayed in the one motel in town, a creepy 10-room place called the R&R. All guests had to register at the Mobil station down the road, and the R&R shared a parking lot with Spice, a franchised trucker-porn shop. Believing I would be killed that very night, I parked my rental call three doors down from my room, #7. The room was dingy, but livable for one night. As I sat on the bed taking off my snow-covered boots, I looked down a saw a purple press-on nail on the carpet. Classy.

During my 24 hours in Plainfield, I scoped the town for more literary locations, as well as landmarks. I found Gein's property out on a lonely wind-swept road containing a field of tall pine trees. I also found the Plainfield Cemetery and the location of Mary Hogan's bar. My last stop before heading back to Milwaukee was meeting with former Wautoma mayor Marv Wagner. We had a three-hour chat over breakfast about local history, politics, and folklore of the area. Wagner has proved an invaluable resource for the book.

So was the trip worth it? I would say yes. But I am in this never-ending mental debate about whether to invent the details to fit the story or try to do as much research as possible and match the story/setting to real-life? Any opinions?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Erik Reads at Guerrilla Lit

Shameless self-promotion time. For those out there in the New York City area, I'll be reading from my novel-in-progress "Plainfield" at the Guerrilla Lit Reading series, along with Jessie Male, Bernie Kravitz and Connor Coyne. This installment will be held on Wed. 11/28 at Bar on A, 170 Avenue A (@ 11th Street) at 7:30 p.m. For more info, check out


Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Useless Web

As I venture deeper into my novel, I'm finding the Internet--sadly enough--more useless. Sure there are some great resources for academic research, but often you get only an abstract instead of the full article. Or the site is organized in such an obtuse way that I spend a half hour repeating multiple searches and still come up with nothing. Wikipedia is well-organized and thorough, but I feel that I have to get two confirmations elsewhere of any fact I pick up from there. Google Scholar articles are usually too obscure or specific to be useful. Lexis-Nexis is good for current events but not for historical research.

I'm beginning to come to terms with the fact that the Web is not the easy way out. Sometimes the traditional ways are still the most effective. So I think that means I'm going to have to work the phones for experts and spend hours in the library.

Am I wrong or just not finding the right sites?


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Writing Tragic History

My first journalism job after college was an editorial assistant for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I answered phones in the newsroom, typed agate (obits, military notices, events calendars, and so on), took dictation from reporters in the field, and edited stories for the community sections. I learned two valuable lessons in that newsroom.

1. There are only two things you are NEVER allowed to screw up: obituaries and winning lottery numbers.

2. I did not want to become a reporter for a daily newspaper.

I learned lesson #2 by watching the young reporters in the newsroom. Most cub reporters start by covering the police beat, because of the long hours and relatively straightforward nature of the reporting. There are no "insiders" or Deep Throats, just victims, witnesses, and cops. The reporter covering "cops" as we called it, would spend his or her shift listening to a police scanner. They learned the code numbers and geography of the city. If something went down, they would dash out and drive to the scene.

If the incident was significant (big car accident, shooting, home invasion, rape, etc.) the reporter would call in the story. Sometimes the reporter would have to yell amid the commotion of sirens, crowds of onlookers, and grieving family members. Although the excitement of the cops beat was enticing, I knew I didn't have it in me to approach a mother as her son lies dead on the pavement, riddled with bullet holes, and try to get a good quote.

In researching my novel "Plainfield," I am reminded of that time in my life. Along with studying the anthropology of Central Wisconsin at that time, I am also performing phone interviews with residents, asking them to recall a time in history they would much rather forget. Some are barely old enough to remember the horrific crimes of Ed Gein in anything other than scary bedtime stories and local lore. But some, such as sheriff's deputy Ron Thurley, remember that time vividly. Thurley served as the county's jailer for many years, and recalled the time when Gein was captured and spent time in the Waushara County jail.

The residents I've spoken to have been generous and insightful. And for that I am very grateful. But that is not to say everyone has been cooperative. As I expected there were people who refused to assist in my research. I tried to explain that I was not writing another sensationalized "true crime" book on Gein, but some felt that anything written on that subject only opened old wounds.
So the question of the week is whether anyone has had a similar experience while researching a work of fiction or nonfiction, and how you chose to deal with it. What are the ethical implications of writing about a tragic event either using or circumventing the people directly related to that event? I look forward to hearing your stories.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Researching Everyday Life in a Different Time

One of the biggest challenges I am encountering while writing the novel "Plainfield" is finding good, reliable sources that cite the objects of everyday life in the early 1950s. Wikipedia is a good place to start, but I am very apprehensive about basing specific details on this source alone. Recent stories about nefarious editing practices on Wikipedia have further amplified this notion for me.

In some ways, it is easier to write about an earlier historical time, such as the Civil War or the turn of the century, that about the early 50s. The reason for this is that the 1950s were a truly transitional time for American technology and culture. Television, Tupperware, plastics, power tools, processed food, and modern kitchen appliances all came to prominence during this time. And because I'm writing about a small Central Wisconsin town, it is difficult to know the timetable as to the adoption rates of such technologies (or even know on average how many people had such items in their homes in, say, 1953).

Oral history has helped answer some of these questions (more on gathering oral histories coming soon), but many of my interview subjects were very young during the period in question. And it is sometimes risky to make assumptions about an entire group of people based on one subject's memories.

Therefore, I have spent countless hours trolling the Internet for good source material. In the beginning of the novel, I was looking up every detail as I was writing the first draft. But that process became incredibly time-consuming, slowing down the creative process. Now I'm putting in placeholders, then going back in the editing phase to fill in blanks.

Here are some helpful historical sites that I've found so far. But I'd love to get your recommendations and hear about similar challenges for you and how you tackled them.

Infoplease timeline: A good general timeline on big historical events from 1950 to 1999.

PBS Living Center: Although a bit sparse, this interactive exhibit has some useful items, such as a Sears catalog from 1950.

American Social and Cultural History: This Smithsonian Online exhibit has a vast list of links to social, cultural, military, domestic history and more.

Fifties Web: As an alternative to IMDB, this is a good place to find old TV shows. Just watch out for the pop-ups.

The Nifty Fifties: Contains a list of useful 50s links.

Also, I've found that browsing magazine ads from this period is a good indicator of what products were available/popular during this time.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why the Hell Would Anyone Want to Read This Blog?

Greetings Fellow Writers,

This is the first entry of my writing blog. With the countless scores of blogs (including writing blogs), what could I possibly hope to bring to the table? My goal for this blog is to discuss some of the challenges and issues I've faced in writing both fiction and nonfiction, and create a dialog that may help others like me pounding away at the keyboard every day in obscurity. Although I am not purporting to be an expert of any kind, I will share some lessons I've learned and tips I've picked up along the way about process, using technology, performing research, striving for publication, and so on. I do not presume to teach anyone how to write. I simply intend to explore some of the practical elements of writing for thought and discussion.

About Me
I am a fiction writer and journalist originally from Wisconsin but now living in Brooklyn, NY. In my day job, I am a senior editor at PC Magazine (in charge of the mag's news section), and I recently completed an MFA degree in fiction writing from The New School. Currently, I am working on a novel called "Plainfield," which takes place in Central Wisconsin during the 1950s. I will be posting more about the novel, discussing roadblocks inherent in this type of project, offering my solutions, and asking you for your advice and feedback.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to hear from you.