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.
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!