Research Notes

This category will evolve into a hodgepodge of research materials that don’t fit elsewhere.  My approach to researching historical fiction is a place to start.

The perfect job for sufferers of OCD.

For the historical novelist – for anyone interested in history – the internet has brought about a revolution. We are floating in a sea of information that deepens and spreads minute by minute. It’s incredibly empowering, but it also has its dangers. If you came of age before the internet, you will remember how things were. An argument over supper about any given war could not be resolved by opening a laptop. If it was a Saturday night, you were most probably clueless until Monday, when you could call a reference librarian or go there yourself. A million questions, small and large, simply remained unanswered, and we lived with that. The capital of Peru, the author of Antigone, where Napoleon was held captive, when women got the vote – if you didn’t have access to a good encyclopedia, you wondered or started calling friends in the vain hope that one of them would know when Wrigley Field was built.

Since that time, we have gone from one extreme to the other. At two in the morning I can crawl through newspaper archives to find out the rent on a typical three bedroom apartment in Manhattan in the year 1900. I can look at museum exhibits on Edwardian dress or Bronze Age artifacts, or read an article on bovine diseases. As more and more becomes available on-line, things only get better. Or worse, depending on your perspective.

My husband, the Mathematician, has developed a particular expression he puts on whenever I start a sentence did you know: Just interested enough to prove that he is listening; just distant enough to discourage me from telling him exactly how pencils were manufactured in 1800. If I’m particularly animated about something I’ve found, he will raise an eyebrow a half inch or so to acknowledge my discovery. And that’s fair enough. I don’t understand anything about his work, either. For writers of historical fiction, there is a Too Much of a Good Thing Syndrome. You look up a particular murder trial that happened in 1799 because you need to know how lawyers addressed each other; three hours later you finishing reading about horse breeding in Turkey and can’t remember what you wanted in the first place, or why. A scene you’ve been trying to write for days simply will not come together. You decide that the reason for this is simple: you don’t have enough background information. In a part of your brain you are ignoring you know that the scene may not belong in the story, or the characterization might have taken a wrong turn, but these are thorny problems that make a writer anxious. It’s much easier to try to find out when they started using screens on windows to keep out flies. (Something I haven’t been able to track down, by the way).

How I cope. Or try to cope.

It’s when curiosity and compulsion get together that research starts to overshadow story.
Curiosity is, of course, a good thing. It’s when curiosity and compulsion get together that research starts to overshadow story. I think of it as the fraternity hazing syndrome: It took me hours and hours of work to learn how to make a boot, and by God, you’re going to learn it, too. Most usually we couch it differently. When the editor asks, so very gently, if maybe the research is getting in the way, you stand up to defend not yourself, but your readers. Of course they will be interested in the way Egyptians irrigated their crops, this is fascinating stuff. When you hear yourself saying – or just thinking – that kind of thing, you must recognize that you are in trouble. Your characters are being neglected, your story arc is in danger of collapsing. The simple truth is that just because the information is available doesn’t mean you have to use it. But there is hope. It turns out that the internet is both the cause of, and the solution to, this problem.* I f you find yourself luxuriating in two hundred year old classified ads for Restorative Liquors, don’t burden your story with all those glorious details. Use the smallest possible bit, and then take the rest of it and post it on a weblog. Weblogs are easily set up, and can be had for no cost at all. You can start one in ten minutes, and then use that space to share all the bits and pieces you have collected so lovingly. Readers who would have been irritated by a long description of early treatments for syphilis will come of their own free will to your weblog to read about such things, and (another bonus) discuss it.

The internet is not just a gigantic, 24/7/365 encyclopedia, it is also a communication tool, and a way for writers and authors to reach out to old readers and win over new ones. *With apologies to Homer Simpson.

My bitch of a muse

Heather Renee (click to go to her Flickr page) seems to be my muse’s photographer.

If I had a hammer, maybe I’d be a carpenter and maybe I’d work for somebody else, and maybe I’d have a time card. That would be good, because I could make bookshelves and cabinets. But really, it’s the time card part that appeals. Because with a time card, you have to be someplace, you have solid goals and the tools to achieve them. If you’ve got a time card, you don’t need to depend on a muse.

Because muses are not easy. A muse can be generous, yes, and shower you with ideas and images and words. A few authors have muses who won’t shut up. My personal muse is more of a bitch. Now, I often use the word bitch in a positive way, but here I mean it the other way: cranky, fussy, willful, stubborn, self-absorbed, possessive, opinionated. Sometimes I want to throttle her, but then the joke would be on me.

My muse and I have had a tough year. For a while there I thought she was going to walk out on me and never come back, but I had neither time nor energy to deal with her moods. When your kid is in danger or sick or lost, everything else becomes very small, and the Girlchild was in a perilous spot. Even a six foot tall, broad shouldered, chain-smoking transvestite bitch of a Muse has no power over the Mother-you. Writing? What’s that? Oh yeah, that contract thing. Would you move? You’re in my way, and I have a call to make.

As the crisis (or I should say, long string of crises) slowly resolved, other things began to impose on my conscious mind. Hey! Look at the size of that cobweb! Um, what is this … thing in the fridge? Oh, I guess we forgot about the propane bill. And the big one: wow, imagine that. Already six months behind on book six. When am I contractually obligated to deliver it? Really?

Time for my Muse to come back. I knew it would take some wooing, but I forgot how vindictive she can be.

Here is her rule, inviolate: Ignore me, and I will pay you back in kind. If you really piss me off, I will turn my back on you for a very long time. You may beg and grovel, but from me? Crumbs. Dribbles. Until I’m feeling generous again, which if I may be frank, don’t hold your breath.

During this whole period I regularly sat down to write. I suppose I was hoping my Muse would be understanding, as she likes the Girlchild; but no luck there. I did beg and grovel, and all I got were the promised crumbs. I’d look at the manuscript and force myself to write while she cackled in the next room. Book Six crawled along, dribble by dribble.

And not good dribbles, either. Nothing felt right. Then one day I printed out the ms to read it (something I do very rarely) and I realized that all those words I had put down in the hard times, words extracted one by one like slivers, stank. The story lines stank, the rhythm stank, the dialog stank. Muse sat in the next room affing her lass off while the truth dawned on me: For the first time in my writing career, I had to dump thousands of words and start over again.

Muse was satisfied with this sacrifice. She came back to sit across from me and keep me moving along. Of course, the usual nitpicking and snarky comments also came back, but the story was moving and shaping up. Carpenters have to put up with a lot of sawdust. I’ve got the Muse’s moods and her cigar smoke.

I’ve been writing pretty well for the last two months, but it’s all very tenuous. My muse is ultra-sensitive to any kind of external emotional interference. For example: earlier this afternoon I made the mistake of checking my email. She told me not to. Another irritating thing about the bitch, my muse: she’s always right, she always announces she’s right, and not in a whisper, either.

Today we got some not-so-great news that will require some time and energy, and the minute I closed the email the Muse got up and went to the door looking very indignant and put-out.

I said: Wait! I need to get another 1,400 words down today!

She snorted, stormed out and slammed the door shut behind herself. Maybe if I’m lucky and if I can get the other problem resolved, she’ll come back later this evening. I’ll be thrilled. I’ll write through the night, if the bitch will let me.

Wish me luck, on all fronts.

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