How Getting Hepatitis can Help your Writing

In December 2002 I came down with a 103-degree fever. Oddly I felt fine. Six days later, I felt great, but my temperature remained 103. So I took my wife’s suggestion and went to the doctor (nowadays, with small children, we would have to have a 103-degree fever for twenty days before thinking of going to a doctor). It turned out that, as a result of eating the wrong burrito, I’d contracted the hepatitis A virus.

“You’ll need to spend six to eight weeks in bed,” the doctor said, a devastating blow because it would cost me a substantial movie rewrite job (at the time I was working as a screenwriter, essentially commuting to Los Angeles from Palo Alto).

It turned out hep A wasn’t all bad. Two of my favorite activities are sleeping and reading. How often do you get to spend two months doing nothing but? I could keep only toast down, and I suffered haunting, recurring dreams of cheeseburgers, but, all in all, I was delighted with the disease. My family and friends took this as delirium.

More than anything, hepatitis nudged me into doing research to fill out the pirate manuscript I’d begun that fall in the novel-writing class I took at Stanford’s School of Continuing Ed. Ships are complicated, and I didn’t know my bow from my poop deck. My story involved an extensive duel between a superyacht and a clipper sailed by a bunch of actual pirates hiding in plain sight as a troup of pirate reenactors. To write the clipper scenes, I needed to know how the craft was rigged and sailed, and I needed to know about most every part of it, because about most every part gets blown sky-high. While in bed, I read about forty maritime books, mostly non-fiction, from Stanford’s singularly extensive maritime library—in several instances, I was the first person to check out the book in half a decade. If I hadn’t had hep A, I don’t know when I could possibly have done all the research. Or that I would have ever done it.  Or that the book would have sold (St. Martin’s published Pirates of Pensacola in 2004).

Now I’m a research junkie. Is that good? How much research is too much? At what point does research hinder writing, in terms either of time drain or diluting the creative process? How do you decide to go to a story location for research, or simply visit via YouTube? I don’t have the answer to any of these questions; I’m eager to know your thoughts.

In the interim, would I recommend hep A to other novelists? Absolutely. Just follow your doctor’s instructions closely or you could wind up getting published by Davy Jones.