True Confessions: When Research Gets Scary

Remember this photo?

I posted it sometime last year (?) to show how big my stack of research books was getting. Of course, that stack has grown since then, and let’s not even count the books that have come home from and gone back to the libraries.

I find research at once exciting, inspiring, and frustrating. I read so many pages, and–lots of times–I just find myself diving into the world my characters live in. I discover facts that make story connections leap into my brain, read about social and cultural trends that unfold personality layers and conflicts, and find beautiful little details that I can use for setting and atmosphere.

Other times, I can’t find what I want.

That’s what last week was like. I spent way too much time on the Internet, obviously googling all the WRONG terms. I browsed online, trying to find the right books to enlighten me. Can you say dead end? Picture Wile E. Coyote painting the “tunnel” on the rock, the Roadrunner zipping through, and Wile crashing absolutely into the stone. Yep.

So…I’m going to the library on Tuesday. My wonderful bookmobile librarian has helped me figure out that some of the stuff I need is at the San Jose State University library, which I can actually get access to with my San Jose REGULAR library card (they’re connected somehow, by one of those magic, wand-waving library affiliations). And she’s told me, kindly, but firmly, that I need to go there.

Now, I like libraries. I LOVE libraries. When I was little, my sisters and I were just like the kids in Edward Eager’s books, checking out our 10 books from the library, per week, and sharing them around so we’d have (wait, let me do the math) 30 books each to read. My school librarians were always friends, because, you know–they didn’t have to do an ounce of work to get me to read. (Although I do wonder what my 4th-6th grade librarian thought of me checking out Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain multiple times during those years. Secret? I thought it was a fantasy novel, but it was SO big, I never cracked the cover to find out the truth!) Libraries are cozy, warm, and–let’s face it–smell like paper and ink.

But library research? Um, not so much. I’ve done my share. In 10th grade, I wrote my nonfiction research paper about fairies (yes, really), and you can imagine that  took a bit of digging. I did my master’s orals on the Brontës and my thesis on Wuthering Heights. More digging.

I don’t [Insert appropriately whiny tone here.] like it, though. I find it…overwhelming. It’s like trying to solve an Agatha Christie mystery, without any assurance that Poirot will actually tell you what happened at the end. One reference leads to another, leads to another, leads to…you get the point. And even if you DO find the actual document you want, it won’t necessarily be a lovely memoir or well-written history book. It might be…an academic article! Or an original source that’s filled with numbers and statistics and data, all in someone’s charmingly scribbly, totally illegible cursive.

I know, you’re thinking…well, why the heck is she writing historical fiction. Oh, because this silly girl came to me, as I was reading about the 1913 Suffragist march on Washington, DC, and said, “I want to be at that march. I need to be at that march!” And now I’m in love with that girl, totally stuck with the belief that she’s right.

Which means, yes, I need to be at that library. I’m listening to all of you historical-fiction and history writers (Yes, you know who you are–stop looking over your shoulders to see if I’m talking to someone else!), and I’m going to put my worries in the hands of a librarian. I’ve blocked out all of school hours on Tuesday, and I’m driving to downtown San Jose, and I’ll have my notebook and my pencils and my questions and my open mind, and I’m going to put myself in the hands of a kind, supportive, technically-savvy librarian.

And, hopefully…

that painted black spot on the rock face will turn into a real tunnel for me, and I’ll come out the other side, with the details and atmosphere I need.  Wish me luck!


  1. Marwa Elnaggar says:

    Oh wow, Becky, it’s as if you are reading my mind! I’m at the scary phase of research for a novel set during the Crusades, and I’ve discovered that the further back the historical era you write about, the more difficult it is to write about. I have to dig through both English and Arabic sources. It’s overwhelming, it’s scary, it looks like it’s never going to end, but it’s also fun. Or maybe I’m just a nerd. I’m going to head over to my MA alma mater (American University in Cairo) soon to access the library, which apparently has every book I need (or so its online catalog claims). Good luck to you in your own research, and here’s to research :)))))))


    • beckylevine says:

      Good luck to you, too, Marwa! I’m doing 1913, and I feel like, yes, it’s far enough back, I can’t really talk to people who remember it (or haven’t found any yet!), but there are still people who will definitely know if I get it wrong!

      Yes, here’s to research!


  2. Go, library girl! I know you’ll have fun!


  3. Kelly Fineman says:

    If you already have the call numbers for a couple of books to pull as soon as you get there, it will go more smoothly and you will find yourself in the swing of it in no time – and my prediction is that you will actually enjoy playing “student” again for the day. It’s what happened a few years back when I finally broke down and went to Baltimore in order to do research at Johns Hopkins University (they had a copy of a book I needed and couldn’t find locally). I put that trip off for months, figuring people would know I was a fraud. But if they did, they didn’t care.


    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, Kelly, this sounds like how I’m feeling. A fraud, or totally clueless, one of those. But I’m guessing, if I push myself, I’ll come out feeling a lot better. I do have one magazine article I need that I know they carry, so that’s a start.


  4. Good luck!

    I’ve spent the last few weeks drowning in electronic research, getting sucked into interesting sites that had dubious connections to my story… Now I need to synthesize it all and write something good. Really good. *sigh* Can you say overwhelmed?


    • beckylevine says:

      Sherrie–it IS overwhelming (wait till you read my Friday post!). The only way I can cope with this is to tell myself to slow down. I want to get back to writing, but if I rush this part of the process, the writing will only be frustrating. It takes time. Sometime this week, I’ll be turning the one empty file drawer into Research Station–maybe getting more organized will help.


  5. Amy G. says:

    Courage, Becky! You’re doing exactly the right thing, and with luck you’ll end up enjoying it after all. Bring a call number or two if you can, and then look at everything else on the shelf, too. I’m guessing you’ll find some great stuff — and I’ll bet it won’t be as tedious as a table full of numbers!


    • beckylevine says:

      Amy, the librarian did find me one call number, and I found several possible books on that shelf–good advice. I haven’t figured out yet what I did find, or how helpful. That’s for this week! Thanks. 🙂


  6. Jana says:

    I feel the same way you do, Becky. Doing research can be exciting or like searching for a grain of rice in a mound of confetti. But, have fun. This is history we’re talking about–the lives of those who paved the way for us. It’s all great stuff.


  7. Becky, I used to say I didn’t want to write historical fiction because I didn’t like research! At this point, that just astounds me. But what I was really saying was “I’m afraid of the microfilm machine!” I felt so inadequate. I think this is why I keep saying how I love much I librarians and archivists. I’m finally figuring out that mostly I just need to show up. After that the expert in residence is there to help. Now the hardest part is finding a parking space on some college campus!

    I’ll be eager to hear how your day in San Jose went. You will blog about it, right?


    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, this is exactly the feeling, and now you mention it, I do remember feeling intimidated by the microfilm, too. Or rather ALL THOSE DRAWERS of microfilm. I’m blogging about it on Friday–definitely!


  8. Rebeca says:

    I feel your pain. I love doing my research online, but at the library–oy gevalt! Most of the time I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing (and I worked in Gov’t Docs when I was an undergrad, so shame on me). And I also feel like I’m being a HUGE nuisance when I ask the librarians for help. However, the last time I did some digging at the Tamiment Library at NYU, I have to say the librarians were super nice and I found some info I was looking for on Alvah Bessie (I’m writing a a novel in which the Rosenbergs, the Spanish Civil War and the Hollywood Ten figure prominently).

    Let us know how your research goes. Oh, and I bought your book! I can’t wait to read it. I just started a small critique group and I always feel that my crits could be better.



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