Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Favorite Kind of Research

By Lisabet Sarai

When it comes to research, I'm a bit lazy. Occasionally I'll get bitten by the research bug and spend a bunch of money on books – I dropped nearly a hundred bucks on material about Mayan mythology and culture when I was working on Serpent's Kiss – but usually I'm content with relatively superficial visits to Google or Wikipedia to answer my factual questions. It helps that I don't tend to write much historical fiction. My few attempts in that genre have confirmed my expectations that it's a huge amount of work! No, I have to admit, I'll coast if I can, trusting my imagination and my intuitions when a more scrupulous author would be hitting the reference department.

There's one area, though, where I'm willing to do almost unlimited explorations in the interest of verisimilitude – preferably going to the original source – and that's my settings.

Anyone who's read much of my fiction (all three of you!) knows I often set my stories in foreign destinations. That's merely a symptom of the fact that travel is quite my literally passion. I've probably already shared the story of how my husband seduced me with tales of his adventures in Paris, Instanbul and Bali. Sex, love and travel totally intermix in my mind and my memories. So perhaps it's not surprising that I get story ideas when I'm on one of our international jaunts.

My very first published short story, “Glass House”, draws heavily on my experiences in Prague a few years before I wrote it. Even now, a decade later, rereading it brings back the weird, almost absurd beauty of that venerable city, the edgy, offbeat magic that infects its cobblestone streets and stone bridges, soaring cathedrals and basement pubs.


“Let us walk down to the river,” he says, bringing me back to the present. “It is nearly sunset. And there is something that I would like to show you.”

We make our way westward toward the Vltava, in companionable silence. I am struck by the fact that, after all, I do trust Lukaš. For all his swaggering and sexual innuendo, he has treated me with respect. I know how easily he could have taken advantage of me; he probably knows it, too. Somehow, though I have told him nothing, he also senses my conflicts. He knows without being told that I am not free.

Clouds stained by the sunset heap high over the water, which flows gray and smooth like molten lead. Vermilion, ocher, coral, azure: ordinary color names do not apply to these flowing, burning shapes.

Against this multicolored background the spires and towers of Prague Castle on its crag across the river are fairytale silhouettes. For a long time, I simply stare, as the forms merge and change in the dying light. When I finally remember Lukaš, I see he is grinning again, as if he could take credit for this spectacular display.

“Is this what you wanted to show me? It is wonderful!”

“Not exactly. Look across the street.”

The first thing I see is a massive rococo building of yellow stucco, dripping with ornamentation and topped by an onion dome. Then I see the building beside it, and stop short.

It is totally fantastic, whimsical, and bizarre. It began as an ordinary, modern office building, with square windows and a flat roof, facing the river across Smetanova Street. But grafted onto this edifice is a second building, all of glass, shaped like an asymmetric egg timer and leaning at a crazy angle against the staid office block. The sunset colors reflect in its multifaceted façade, so that the building seems to shift and move.


Then there's Amsterdam. I've been there several times, but six or seven years ago we spent an entire week in a tiny guesthouse just around the corner from the train station. Something kept drawing me back to the red light district – maybe the fact my previous visits were prior to my rebirth as an erotica author. I found myself fascinated by the women in the narrow, rose-lit windows, wondering what their lives might be like. The experience ultimately produced my BDSM tale “Shades of Red”.


I've been obsessed ever since last night, when Jane and I wandered through the red light district, staring at the women who waited behind the glass in their rose-tinted rooms. We wove our way through clumps of nervous, intoxicated men who were all staring, too. I could smell their sweat, underneath the beer and the pot smoke. I could feel their lust. It infected me.

They barely noticed us, two teenagers in jeans, although the tight denim in my crotch was so wet, I half-expected they'd catch my scent and turn to me. They had eyes only for the bodies displayed in the rows of windows lining the canals.

Some of the women were ripe, blond, Slavic-looking, their breasts exploding out of their lace brassieres. Others were slight, deliberately child-like in Gidget-inspired bikinis or brief plaid kilts. There was a Brazilian beauty with golden skin and coffee-colored eyes; a voluptuous African princess with strings of ruby-hued beads dangling in her ebony cleavage; a serious-looking brunette wearing dark-framed glasses who sat, shapely legs crossed, like a secretary waiting to take dictation.

Some of the women posed. Others danced suggestively, or made lewd gestures at their prospective customers. There were masked women in leather, snapping riding crops against their boots. There were women whose pierced nipples and labia showed clearly through their translucent garments.

Men clustered around the dimly-lit windows like moths hovering by a candle. Mostly they'd just look, inflamed by the mere thought of all this available flesh. Sometimes I'd see a hushed conversation through a half open glass door. Such conversations might end with the man turning away, disappointed, rejected, or perhaps simply unwilling to pay the asking price. Other times the door would open wider, just enough to admit the supplicant. Then it would close and the red velvet curtains would be drawn, hiding the rest of the dance.

Those curtained windows drew me. I couldn't stop imagining what might be going on behind them. I knew it was a straight commercial transaction in most cases, a workman-like blowjob, or a quick, bored fuck. Still, I imagined occasional revelations, epiphanies, ecstasies -- meetings of strangers pre-destined to be lovers, brief but unbearably intense conflagrations of lust, lewd and mystical connections that would live in his memory, or hers, long after the curtains were flung open again.

I'm nineteen. I've had enjoyable but ultimately frustrating sex with two boys my age. I know that, practical as I am, I'm a bit of a romantic. Otherwise, I would not have continued to roam the red-lit alleys long after Jane gave up and went back to the hotel in disgust. As the Oude Kerk chimed two AM, I wandered up Molensteeg and down Monnikenstraat like some horny ghost. The crowds had thinned. The curtains were mostly drawn. Some of open windows were empty. Next to them were the signs: KAMERS TE HUUR. Windows for rent.


I remember those church bells, ringing through the damp, mostly deserted Amsterdam streets. I just had to capture them in a story.

Then of course there's Bangkok, familiar and yet ever strange after two years of living there and many visits since. I was there not long ago. The city's changing – there are more skyscrapers now, and everyone including the beggars has a cell phone – but the description I wrote nearly a decade ago, in “Butterfly” is still pretty accurate. Except for their piercings and tattoos, the bar girls haven't changed much...


One of my mates, Charlie, knew the city well. He checked us into a comfortable, ridiculously cheap hotel in the middle of the tourist district. Bewildered and dazzled, I followed him along sidewalks crammed with vendors hawking watches, tee shirts and toys, trying to avoid tripping on the broken pavement.

Beggars with shriveled limbs extended their bowls in silent entreaty. Blond, ragged-haired tourists in shorts and sandals, slender Thai women in tight jeans and silk blouses, monks draped in saffron, policemen standing stiffly at corners, their revolvers prominently displayed: it seemed that the whole of the Bangkok was here on this one street. Meanwhile, an endless line of vehicles crawled by us: tint-windowed Mercedes, sooty trucks, and rickety buses with people hanging out the doors. The air was heavy with diesel fumes, frying garlic, and jasmine. We dined at a quiet restaurant on a side lane, where the young waitress giggled every time we spoke to her. Then Charlie took me off to see what he called "the real Bangkok" - the go-go bars and sex clubs.

We sauntered into the "entertainment plaza". Three stories of indoor bars and clubs surrounded a central court, which was crowded with open-air bars and stalls selling skewers of grilled chicken, fresh fruit, and fried locusts. As we walked along the second-level balcony, bikini-clad girls tried to lure us inside their establishments.

<"Come inside," they crooned. "One beer fifty baht. No cover charge." Briefly, the woman would hold back the dark cloth draping the door, offering a tantalizing glimpse of flickering lights and bare flesh. "Take a look, no charge, come inside."

The more energetic of these young marketeers would grab us by the hand, and laughing the whole while, try to pull us in. It was all good-natured, though. We'd extricate ourselves from her strong fingers and thank her. "Not now," we'd say. "Maybe later."

"Why not now?" she'd say, stamping her foot in mock anger. "Don't you like me?"


I've been lots of places I haven't written yet. There are stories inside me set in Instanbul, in Tokyo, in Lisbon. I'm sure they'll find their way out eventually. Of course, sometimes I'll want to set one of my tales somewhere I haven't traveled (at least not yet). Then I do have to do some research – but it's a pleasure.

A few months ago I wrote a short story that takes place in Varanasi (Benares), India. My one trip to India didn't take me anywhere near that ancient, sacred center. I spent delightful hours pouring over websites, gazing at maps, trying to grasp a sense of the place. I don't know if I succeeded (I haven't heard yet whether the tale has been accepted), but I'll tell you one thing: I've added the place to my (all too long) travel wish list!


  1. Hi Lisabet!

    I've always been drawn in by your descriptions especially of Thailand and the red light district there, I think because there more than other places a lot of the glamor is stripped away and the women you show have a kind of human sad quality such as "Butterfly".


  2. all research ... and, it's tax deductable!

  3. Hi, Garce,

    Actually, most red light districts end up having that same quality. The sexiness is all in the tourist's or the customer's mind.

  4. Hello, Widdershins,

    Unfortunately, I usually come up with the stories only AFTER the travel! Also, I imagine that the IRS would look with a jaundiced eye on a deduction of several thousand dollars from an income that barely reaches that level!


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