Between the Lines: Research Vortex

by Brenda W. Clough

vortexOnce in a B&B in Athens I met a guy who was writing a novel about the Trojan War. He had been researching for six years or so, and was just considering crossing over to Hissarlik to see the site. That was forty years ago, and I still haven’t seen the novel. I assume he fell down into the research vortex and never emerged. I know this vortex well. But like Virgil in The Inferno I know the way out at the bottom. Shall we take a tour into the depths?

If you are researching a subject or a period I am sure we agree that the very least you could do is to read all available fiction and nonfiction about it. Depending upon your wallet and your cunning, this could take mere years, or the rest of your days. Earlier this season I spent a week in Portland, OR, where I became instantly ensnared by Powells, to my great cost. The trick here is to constantly refer back to the library catalogs in your home town (Powells has wifi!). If the book is available to borrow do NOT buy it in Portland! Phyl Radford tells of a friend who researched by simply going to Powells and bringing home the entire shelf on the (admittedly not too huge) subject. My Trojan War novelist acquaintance might need to rent a truck. Goodreads is searchable by subject, and the ‘want to read’ function allows you to amass all the unavailable books in a handy list for future shopping trips. The dangerous thing about this method is that if the book is not in your library and not even on Goodreads, you really will have to buy it when you see it at Powells. Otherwise you may not find it again until the Valar remake Middle Earth. At least that’s what I told myself, when my suitcase weighed 80 lbs.

Unless your subject is irredeemably downmarket, there is an entire separate anti-matter universe, something like Qward, of academic writing about it. In this reverse-universe all our polarities are reversed, and being interesting or accessible is bad, not good; there is no plot, character or explosions and the writer would prefer if you did not understand what he wrote. Ph.D. theses, articles in scholarly journals, presentations at MLA conferences — these things do not kick up on, mostly. Engines like Gale Powersearch are the portal to that other reality, so very different from ours. Access this either through a school or university, or through your local public library. With any luck there is a society or association of postdoc eggheads studying your obsession, and they have a web page and a journal. If you are very lucky indeed back issues of that journal are available on line! Which brings us to the other reason to be cozy with  your local library. Inter Library Loan opens libraries across the nation to your greedy little hands. ILL will even email you academic papers in pdf format. On the topic of my current obsession I keep mine, printed out, in a gigantic 3-ring binder. It is four inches thick and it is full, but it was worth it. I found the exact right sentence in a single article, and erected an entire novel on it.

A sojourn in academe and you might need to relax your brain from post-structuralism and the Derrida citations. Rebound over to movies and TV shows on your subject. IMDB kicks them up. Netflix to my aid! Remember that the best help for an impoverished author is again the public library (which you have already paid for, with your tax dollar) — I am sure you spent all your ready cash at Powells and are now skint. Borrow the movies, if you can. If you live in a major metropolitan area, there is more than one library district within your reach — I have library cards to five or six counties within driving distance. Oh, if you still have any money, don’t neglect stage productions, explorable at the Internet Broadway Database.

And then? Well, to get properly into the mindset of your characters you could read or see the things they read or see (or did read or see). There are period  newspapers, magazines, music reproduced on YouTube. And then there are things to do: clothing, firearms, horses, which all have to be right anyway, so you might as well get started. You can find the entire Epic of Gilgamesh, recited in what we must assume is the authentic Akkadian. There are videos that show you how to put your hair up in the style of the Roman empress Sabina. You can bid, at Christie’s, on a piece of hard tack from the Scott Polar Expedition. (I have to assume this was from his first attempt at the Pole, because he wouldn’t have had any leftovers on the second one, when he starved and froze to death.) There’s an entire life out there: your character’s. You could learn it. You could live it.

Do not assume you are off the hook if the work is set in the future, or in an imaginary universe. You could invent those books, movies or shows. It makes the world you are building more deep, if you know the very latest ditty they are singing in 2268 in the spaceport nightclubs on Neptune. I have actually fallen down this rabbit hole, writing the book and lyrics for an entire musical for the near-future characters to stage. (There was no drama like it over at IBD, so what choice did I have?) You can waste a ton of time this way, and no, it is usually not possible to spin off the book and lyrics onto the boards and so wring some value out of your work.

This, I hope you realize, is endless. This is the bottom, the center of the Inferno in which you have to abandon all hope. In Dante’s vortex the star tenants at the bottom were Judas and Brutus. The research vortex has a star tenant too — J.R.R. Tolkien. When The Lord of the Rings was a monster hit, the publishers got down on their knees and begged Tolkien for more. They didn’t get any. He was down the rabbit hole — not writing The Silmarillion, but designing the tiles those Elves were walking on in Rivendell. An elf has got to have decor, right? You think Elrond Halfelven is going to live for an entire Age of Middle Earth scuffing around on flooring from Ikea?

By this time you may have noticed that I enjoy research, almost as much as I enjoy actually writing the work. How do I avoid being like the Athens guy, with his never-seen Trojan War novel? There is a secret exit out at the bottom of the Inferno funnel, right over here behind Satan’s hairy tush. The great historical novelist Mary Renault revealed the secret. Write the book first. Then research. This prolongs the rewriting amazingly, but at least the book is done. If you research first, the vortex will get you, and you may never get around to writing the actual novel.
The eHow Like a God, by Brenda W. Cloughbook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe. And it is available now in an audio book edition which is read by Bronson Pinchot!

My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.




Between the Lines: Research Vortex — 4 Comments

  1. ElizaBeth Gilligan had this problem while researching her Gypsy Silk series.

    Then she watch one of the chair-throwing, volatile daytime “talk” shows featuring two rival Romany tribal chiefs. When she could understand the curses and tirades in Romany amongst the chair throwing and head bashing, she figured she’d done enough research.

    I’ve written 2 books on the Magna Carta, one fiction, one non-fiction, and I’m still collecting books on the era and the ramifications of the document.

  2. Oh, that’s the other terrible thing — you never get better. Even after you write that book about the Magna Carta or about Scott freezing to death on the ice, you still perk up when a new book comes out on the subject.

  3. I have reached the point where I am ready to write a series I have researched off and on for years. Carefully, so as to not overwhelm the alternative present of the book. Everything else will have to be researched after the book is finished. Bless you for sharing Renault’s secret!

    • Of course Mary Renault was especially able to do this because she knew practically everything about ancient Greece anyway. And more importantly ancient Greece actually existed, and you could go and look at tablets and ruins and so on. To make it all up out of whole cloth, a little more challenging.