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Listening in the Distance: Or, Research and the Radio

One of the time-management issues I struggle with is knowing when research will enrich the writing project I’m working on and when it’s procrastination. I know I’m not alone in this. One way I’m learning to judge whether research is useful is whether I have a decent-enough answer to the question: how will this deepen a character I’m struggling with?

A couple examples: tea sets and 1930s women’s fashion. For “Over the New Horizon,” I spent far too long looking at women’s dresses, shoes, and hats from the early 20th century, which enriched the story. But I don’t think it did anything for Millie herself, other than to give her something to work against for a while. And for a novella I have under submission now, I spent far too long again scrolling through luxury dinnerware sites looking for something that I ultimately didn’t have a need for.

(Maybe I should have researched auto mechanics and their tools more for “All the Songs the Little Birds Sing,” but given that my partner has a garage full of tools and a solid working knowledge of these things, that he’s happy to answer my questions, and that outside of this story, I suffer from a useful (in this case) lack of interest in cars, I didn’t do much more than a cursory search for names of tools. But my lack of interest in cars doesn’t reflect a larger lack of curiosity about things.)

My current problem, if I can call it that, is that I’m working on a novel in which the POV character is married to radio enthusiast whose main hobby is AM DXing, searching for signals of distant radio stations within the static. Which means my currently open browser tabs are mostly articles and forums on AM DXing.

This isn’t my first dance with the distance. I’ve always been something of an insomniac, and I remember scrolling through the AM dial, pulling in stations from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado, Utah, and farther away during sleepless hours when I was much younger. I never recorded what I heard, though. Later, when I lived in Austin, I’d pull out my Sony sports radio while waiting for my early morning bus to work. I’d tune in 740AM out of Houston and listen to the news through the static just before the sun rose. This was in 2007, before I had a smart phone. Austin had an Air America affiliate, which was my usual ride home listen, but the station didn’t come in as clearly in the mornings, if I remember correctly. (Also, can I say I miss Air America?)

Since rainy weather tends to bring better DXing conditions, last night seemed a good time to try to catch something. I brought out my Sangean SR-35, which I bought as an emergency radio. It had been stashed in an emergency box, but I took it out with the intention of checking its batteries. I left it out after a couple power outages, since I’d rather drain its batteries listening to the weather forecast than my phone’s while checking the weather app and then inevitably flipping through news apps.

What did I find? Not much. The most distant station I picked up was 175 miles away from Dallas, KWPN out of Moore, OK. Which I don’t think counts as DXing.

Regardless of what I heard, it’s what my character hears–or doesn’t–that should focus my research.

That said, something in the search through the static put me into his head, which I need. So I’ll give DXing another go on a night when I can take my Sangean SR-35 outside. And if I don’t find anything, I think I’m going to have to build myself an antenna….

Have you found yourself lost in research? Did it pay off by enriching a character? Or was it an interesting means of procrastination?

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