Writing in the Digital Age: Accessibility and Diversity

bigstock photo of old books and wooden ladderThe Neverending Research Source

In my musings about writing in the digital age, I’ve talked a lot about how the digital evolution has empowered the writer to get her work to the reader. But there’s another side to the digital revolution that readers benefit from unwittingly.

In the old days, before digital archive access, if a writer wanted to research a subject, it was off to the library card catalog. If a writer was very lucky, she lived near a university and had access to many books and the university library’s secret research weapon — the rare manuscript room, where older books and personal diaries were carefully preserved.

If she was not so lucky, then she made do with her local library’s stock, interlibrary loan (painfully slow and very hard to search), and many trips to used and rare book stores to dig up books for her personal library. I have many treasures from those days. And a few clunkers.

Then, in 1994, along came Amazon. Writers could search, by subject matter, for books on the topics they wanted to research. You still had to order the books, and sometimes they would be hard to get. But like a genie once let out of the bottle, the change that Amazon created with the simple access to a wide diversity and range of titles effectively changed the limitations of hands on research for most writers.

Then, in 2004, along came Google. Determined to scan and make every book, personal journal, obscure literary treatise available online, they faced objections from just about everyone. But, despite all the objections, writers everywhere can get access to historical documents without having to leave the comfort of their office (I have pored over Victorian etiquette manuals, and Tudor accounting sheets in the pursuit of just the right detail for some of my works-in-progress).

Most astonishingly, a writer can be in the midst of a scene and suddenly think, “I wonder what scholars have said about the bibilical story of King Solomon splitting the baby in two?” as I did recently while writing a short story. I wanted the actual text, to store in my Scrivener file and reference as a wrote. But, being curious, I followed various and sundry links (also known as procrastination by research in writer’s circles). I found a version of the verse that had the original Hebrew and the translation. I can’t read Hebrew, but I still found the page a visual reminder of just how old the story is (it is even older, as I discovered in my quick Google search of the subject — a shared story from ancient cultures.

However, what writers who spent hours, weeks, months weeding through old books in used bookstores and antique shops (my favorite is still The Old Chicken Barn in Maine) learn if they are diligent, still holds true for the more rapid digital search: sometimes you strike research gold. You find something that takes you in a completely different direction than you thought you were going.

I had that experience in my brief search of a very well known bible verse when I came across a legal journal article by Ann Althouse discussing the legal (and social) implications of Solomon’s story entitled “Beyond King Solomon’s Harlots: Women in Evidence.” Althouse connected the violence of Solomon’s “wise” solution with historical context: the rise of the warrior, the use of violence to quell dissent. The nuns in my Catholic school, and the lay teachers of my Sunday School classes would be in a tizzy. They had all striven to assure us that Solomon had no intent to split that baby, he was just trying to see which mom would step up and save it. The paper is worth a read, if you’re interested in such things.

The paper made me examine my story from a different angle (and gave me some notes for another series I’m developing). That kind of discovery is writer’s gold. It is rare enough to savor. But, thanks to the digital age, Google, and Amazon, it is slightly easier to come by.

Although I still love a good old book — and there is never a substitute for authentic personal diaries when you want to find out what people of a certain time and place really thought about life.

Did you ever strike writer’s gold (or reader’s gold, for that matter) by stumbling over some obscure work that changed the way you saw the world?

Kelly McClymer has written historical romance, fantasy YA, chicklit, and is now delving into the realm of what she wants to call cozy noir mystery. You can check out what she’s up to on her website, Facebook , or Twitter.

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Writing in the Digital Age: Accessibility and Diversity — 5 Comments

  1. This takes me back. When I was researching my Elizabethan books (Guardian of the Vision and Guardian of the Promise, Merlin’s Descendants 3&4 available as e-books here on BVC) I was concentrating on the Armada. One reference stated quite boldly that King Philip could have invaded England at any time for the 10 years prior to 1588 for the 1 Million ducat award from the Pope. He didn’t. Because he truly did not want Mary Queen of Scots on the throne of England. She was French. Her mother was French. She lived in France from the time she was 5. She considered French her native language. And all her living relatives were powerful French nobles and Church leaders. So Philip waited until Mary was executed. Then he turned her into a martyr and invaded with no danger of a French presence in England.

    Realizing that the invasion was a political decision and not a matter of faith is a major turning point for one of the characters and turns him away from one path to another.

    • Oooh, Phyllis, I love that one. It is so true. We learn a very polished version of history (written by the winners), until we start digging into the more arcane books.

    • This is kind of a simplistic reduction of Philip’s motivations, not taking into consideration that his faith was extremely deep (and strange, witness his filling room with religious artifacts like bones and skulls of saints, etc, and taking his sons in to visit them) but not taking into consideration the warp and weft of the Empire’s poltical difficulties. England was such a small part of Philip’s concerns.

  2. I’m not sure I agree, Sherwood. A sharp-eyed recognition that Philip did what was expedient for him doesn’t negate the impact of his faith. I know many people of faith who use it to help them do what they already wanted to do 🙂 So often, human nature can be boiled down to those simplicities, even in the larger context. And that’s what’s so interesting about those little moments of insight gold we find in obscure research books that don’t promote the party line.

    History has an infinite number of facets, but so often we examine only the ones that have been polished and admired (or, I suppose, reviled).

    • Agreed. But I resist the possibility of reducing to a single motivation; granted I haven’t read Phyl’s source, so I don’t know if someone has been pulling a Barbara Tuchman (judging people of the past by modern standards and or paradigm) but it sounded like it.

      As it happens I read a lot about the Austrian Empire, and one of the things few English-speaking historians (that is, until Andrew Wheatcroft came along) seem to get right is the Habsburgs’ way of looking at the universe. Even Philip Bobbit, whose The Shield of Achilles is admirable in so many ways, seemed to trip up in that particular aspect.

      So it looked like reductionism in action at this admittedly fourth-hand remove. And that is an error which can mess up historical fiction.