Monday, March 12, 2012

Historical Research: Or, an Excuse to Feed My Book Habit

I'm a collector. I collect quotes, photos, images, art, random thoughts. I've been doing this since I was a kid. Later, in college, I covered the walls of my freshman year dorm room with the stuff--mostly any statement I considered inspiring, made by writers and artists I was enamored with at the time. I seem to recall a lot of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Frank Capra on my walls. (My collage also included a purely academic photo spread from Vanity Fair of Texas newcomer Matthew McCoughnahey. It was called "Lone Star." He was wearing blue jeans, boots, and a cocky little grin. I think I still have it.)

These days, when I begin a novel, I always begin with images--physical or imagined. If an image or scene pops in my head, I get it down. If it's something I see in a magazine or book--I've even collected quotes from tea bags and Nike ads--I pin the image to a bulletin board I use expressly for this purpose.

Filmmakers do something like this, but they call it "storyboarding." Though my version isn't nearly as organized (and how I wish it were), it's a fun, visual way to make an idea present during my creative process.

Here's what I've got going for the novel I'm working on now:

It all started with the guy in the center: it's an anonymous photo I've had--and been captivated by--since 2008, when I was a writing resident at the Vermont Studio Center. A friend of mine, another writer, had it, and let me make a copy. The grainy, blown-up image has been itching at me since then. I can only assume from clues about the man's dress and hair style that it's from the 19th century. Who the man really was, I have no idea. But now he's a main character in my new novel.

Whenever I have a random thought about the novel--plot, setting, what have you--I jot it down on a piece of paper and pin it to the board. It's not organized, and it's not neat. In fact, I'm in the early stages, so this is about as good as my storyboard is going to look over the next year. It'll be covered in Post-It notes and other cut-outs and pictures in no time, and will eventually resemble something like a framed scrap heap.

I don't have a system. I'm not a plotter (however much I'd like to be). A novel, for me, grows organically. I have to get it down, then figure it out. Hopefully, I'm learning how to do this better... and hopefully, my MFA program will help. 

What I do love (like a cold Corona Light with lime on a hot Carolina beach) is the research process. Right now I'm dipping my toe in the cotton boom of the 1850s in coastal South Carolina. It's a fascinating, dark, strange and glittering world. And I'm just getting started. So far, my physical research looks like this:

That's basically a short stack of Internet articles and a book I just ordered about James Petigru, a venerable Charleston lawyer who was against secession and didn't care who knew it. (This was a very big deal in the antebellum South, and especially in Charleston, S.C.) When he died in 1863, he was memorialized--indeed, lauded--by Confederate and Union sympathizers alike. I've found him fascinating since I first learned about him in the 8th grade. (Yes, I'm that girl.) And I want to know what life was like at that time and in that place for people who felt the way he did.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. When I research, I bury myself. I've got three other books coming in the mail, and four on order via interlibrary loan. On advice from an historical novelist I respect, I'll soon be planning a researching road trip to S.C. to delve into the newspapers of the time. (What I'll do with my two year-old, I don't know. But I'm sure she'll sit quietly by my side while I spend hours looking at microfilm.)

This novel has been on the backburner for a while now, ever since pregnancy and new motherhood threw a wonderful, exhausting wrench into my writing life. But now it's back. I'm back. And I'm learning to fit my old way of doing things to my new life. It may take me a helluva lot longer, and I may have to purchase stock in a Costa Rican coffee farm to stay upright during the process, but I can do it.

No comments: