Dear literary hearts,
The writing process is not so simple. Years ago, a doctor friend announced to me, “Next year I’m going to write a novel.” I smiled at her and replied, “And next year, I’m going to perform brain surgery.” She got the point. Writing is complex AND complicated. It begins with research.
In each of my novels, I have tried to focus on a profession that interests me, but isn’t my own: dance, banking, the film world in the Twenties, and now, criminal law and physics. My novels have all been set in history; while I’m moving closer to our time in Irrevocable Trust, it is, nonetheless, placed in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s. Without thorough research, I couldn’t write as seamlessly and accurately as I’d like.
How did people speak at the time? What did they wear? How was the culture different? Was an expression I like contemporary to the setting? It’s highly irritating to me, and I know to you, when we read a poorly researched book with dialogue that could only be au courant today, while the book takes place yesterday. (Imagine, for example, a war correspondent in 1942 saying “user-friendly” in a broadcast!) Setting a correct scene requires as much time as forming the characters and figuring out the plot. And what’s even harder is making sure the scene doesn’t obtrude; the background cannot take over–it is, after all, background. A bad writer says, “Look how much research I’ve done! See how clever I am?” A good writer says nothing at all.
In my salad days, all research was done in libraries. One of my best friends, geologist-turned poet/artist/photographer Dee diSomma, has written an ode to the wonders of the Stacks when we were in college. Here’s how it used to be when we were in our late teens and early twenties;
The Triggers of Memory (by Dee diSomma, 2015)
While cleaning up, I came across something that I cherished, now probably obsolete: my UC Berkeley library card from when I worked at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Nice enough on its own, but it had magic, too, because there was a rubber-stamped addition, “Admit to Stacks.” Yes, I had stack privileges. And, to a word-junkie like me, there is no smell in the world better than the wonderful, bookish smell of library stacks. I pity the younger folks who may never know the geeky lust for that magic rubber stamp on a library card, or the addicting, enchanting aroma of the stacks. And, yes, it was back in the Ordovician period, at least, when we used card catalogs. Take your Proust and his madeleines; give me the stacks!
The stacks were a marvel and a very useful research tool. When riffling through the “Subject” card catalog, you could find other books, etc., that were related to your field of inquiry. Very useful, but once you were in the stacks, at the shelf where your target book was supposed to be, magic was in the air. (All that caution was due to the misbegotten maggot-infested accumulations of slime, also known as “book thieves.” A pox on all of them.) With luck, your book was there. But! you were now in a place where, nearby, all manner of other books, similar in topic, were to be found. And some of those close neighbors were just a bit off your topic, but good enough to warrant a look. And here is where the magic occurred. Those books kindled ideas, thoughts, possibilities, that lifted your mental view point higher, so you could see more of the near-by terrain, with connections undreamed of. That, the wonder of proximity on the shelf in the stacks, brought your scholarship to a new and higher plane.
I do not believe computer searches are quite the same. I use them all the time, and, by dint of rephrasing my search criteria, have found wonderful things. But somehow, that sense of the magic of books, the written word, to be picked up and touched, the serendipity of physical closeness, all that is missing with the computer. For me, the answer is NOT “either/or”, but “both/and.” Praise to the stacks! Arcane though they may seem to the younger scholars, they are worthy of continued use. Go, younger scholars! There is magic afoot in the stacks. It is waiting for you to come and discover!
(Ben and Sebastian with some of our books.)
And then came married life and the novels. I lived in Pasadena, CA, where we had a splendid public library. I made friends with a number of its librarians, and they allowed me to take research books out “on a vacation.” This meant I didn’t have to return them in six weeks, but could go three months or more. Sometimes I could call them up on the telephone and they would be able to answer a specific question. When I moved to Beverly Hills, I was already a published author, and established a connection with Michael Cart, the chief librarian, when I was invited to do a reading there. Michael was kind enough to allow me the same vacation privileges.
When I married my late husband, Ben Pesta, I landed on a gold mine. He haunted used bookstores as much as I did, and he introduced me to the book catalogues Labyrinth and Daedalus, which feature an enormous quantity of stellar books on sale because they are a few years old. What did I care if a book on the Tudors was published today or two years ago? And so, we acquired a personal library of 5,000 books filled with research material we could update whenever we needed to.
In the Nineties, however, life transformed itself with the advent of easy access to online research. Once I got the hang of it, I used what I found on the Internet to give me instant answers. Fashions in 1985? I could see them immediately. Nazi war camps? I could read history and see photographs in cruel detail. I spend a great deal of time on the Net now, documenting Trust. But I’ve never stopped reading books that go much more deeply into the subjects that fascinate me.
When I wrote The Four Winds of Heaven, I was terrified that research would slow me down and bore me. Instead, I found such joy and pleasure in what I was learning! I was reminded of the Stacks. And today, I’m still reminded of them every time I search for a necessary piece of information.
Dee, you were right.