A Fact Should Be Loved...
A Fact Should Be Loved...
by Judith Glad
I love to research. I like it so much that sometimes I forget the most important thing about writing fiction--that I'm doing it for a specific purpose--to create a world for the book I'm writing.
When I start planning a book, I read everything I can find about the place where it's set, the history that might possibly have influenced the characters' lives or, for a contemporary, their professions. I check weather records, geological setting, moonrise and sunset times, bird and plant lists...you name it. For an historical, I read old newspapers and magazines; for a contemporary, I look at what was in the news and what music and TV shows were popular when the characters were growing up.
And then I have this overpowering urge to tell my readers what I've learned.
Thank goodness for critique groups. Mine is really good about bringing me up short and reminding me that I'm telling a story and that the scenery, the weather, the history are only there to provide the framework for my story.
A long time ago I wrote a contemporary romance, a book that will probably always reside in the deepest, darkest corner under the guestroom bed. The heroine was a plant ecologist. I'd heard someone say ‘write what you know' at a conference, and I knew how to be a plant ecologist. Oh, man, did I write what I knew. My heroine told how to set up a sampling transect, what plants grew in the wetland she was studying, and why we use binomial nomenclature in botany. Oh, yes, and she fought with the hero, who was a pure scientist and hated consultants (I knew about that too, having been a consultant for some years). Don't ask me why or how they ever found time to fall in love because however I wrote it, I know now it was pretty unlikely.
On the other hand, there's something really cool about all the research I do. I now know how to pack a mule, and how far he can carry that load every day. Swedish is no longer a totally foreign language to me. Rescue helicopters use a ‘forest penetrator' to lift people out of heavy timber and other inaccessible spots. Diatomaceous earth, commonly known as chalk, is used for cat litter, to soak up oil spills in garages, and in metallurgy (although I haven't the faintest idea what for). And that's only a small sampling of the neat facts I've found while doing research.
Most frontier saloons sold what they called ‘rye whisky' but it was really a mixture of high-proof grain alcohol, water, quinine, tobacco, and whatever else they could think of to put in for flavor and to stretch it. Along the same vein, brew pubs aren't all that new. Most frontier saloons brewed their own beer. and some of them did a pretty darned good job of it. They took really good care of their bottles too because new ones weren't always easy to come by.
There have been steamships on the Columbia River since 1836. The Beaver was built in London, but before she left England her paddles were secured on her deck. Then she sailed around the Horn, stopped off in Hawaii, and reached Fort Vancouver one hundred sixty-three days from Gravesend. Her paddlewheels were reinstalled, and she went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company. But not just on the Columbia. She also steamed to Puget Sound and to the Russian settlement at Sitka, Alaska, each year, trading along the way.
There's this great little book on my shelves titled Name your Baby in Chinese. It includes quite a lot about casting horoscopes in Chinese. I'm a Rat, my husband's a Monkey, and apparently that's about as auspicious a pairing as is possible. We think so.
Right now I'm working on a book set in 1816. My hero fought in Canada, rather than at Waterloo, which led me to read up on the War of 1812. I started out in a textbook left over from college, but it didn't tell me a lot. The library was much better. I skimmed half a dozen books and discovered that school hadn't taught me anything at all about that war. In fact, a common nickname for it, "The Forgotten War," is pretty close to the truth. Most of us learned that the British burned Washington, D.C., but how many of you knew that the British Army had occupied much of northern Ohio and a good bit of upper New York State?
I often start out looking something up and get lost in trivia, only to emerge hours later well-informed but without the answer I was looking for. It was bad enough when the only places to do research in were my bookshelves and the local libraries. The World Wide Web, though, with its incredible wealth of fascinating facts and interesting data, is enough to drive someone like me to total distraction. Why just this morning, I was looking up a synonym, which led me to an online thesaurus, that pointed me to Dictionary.com, and then I saw the link to Project Gutenberg.
Now there is a feast for the fact-lover. Project Gutenberg is "the oldest producer of free electronic books (eBooks or etexts) on the Internet." I first found them when I bought a reader so I wouldn't have to read my books on the computer. It didn't take me long to discover they had some of my childhood favorites--Tarzan, Allen Quartermain, Little Women, and more and more and more--all free for the downloading. Not just fiction. For instance, they offer numerous issues of The Atlantic Monthly and more are released all the time. Of course, they're a bit out of date, having been published in the middle of the nineteenth century. But what a treat for the history buff!
Several of my books have started out with an odd fact I gleaned while looking for something else. In an article about the transcontinental railroad, I saw a mention of Bear River City, Wyoming, a Hell-on-Wheels town that died spectacularly in a riot in November 1868. Another started with a single sentence about the first telephone system in Idaho, and I couldn't stop looking until I found the rest of the story. And there was the story about the woman with two small children who was kicked out of a wagon train somewhere on the way to Oregon just because her husband had the bad luck to die of cholera. That one started me thinking about the folks who might have stopped along the way through no choice of their own.
The best part of research is the surprise element. You never know when something you've learned will brighten your day. We were driving to Crater Lake recently, along a winding mountain road in the Cascades. As we came around a corner, I happened to see a sign: Kwiskwis Creek. "Squirrel Creek" I said to my husband. "That's what kwiskwis means, in several northwest Native American dialects."
I felt really good the rest of the day because I'd actually used one of my beloved facts.