History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

25 August 2008

Voyage of Distraction

Parliament, the actual building was my self-directed subject for today. It is fascinating but the distractions of life, the Internet and the pursuit of a deadline kept me from enough research to sound informed on even the most basic discussion of its architecture, much less how the space was used, destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. Like all aspects of the way people live, it fascinates me and someday I will write that post.

Then I decided that I would write about research itself and how much I enjoyed it and what a distraction it can be. How often has it happened to you: you become fascinated with what your characters were reading, wearing, eating and the story slipped away as you read more and more about the origins of the use of, say, cinnamon?

My post began:

Research has been one of my favorite pastimes ever since I discovered the nonfiction section at the library. In college when I was looking for a subject for a peper I would wander the stacks in the appropriate area and find a book or two or four that would catch my attention, spark curiosity.

That’s how I found WJ Cash and his book, MIND OF THE SOUTH. To this day I have no idea if this book has any merit but it helped explain segregation to me. Not
that it was acceptable, but why it existed at all.

Then I was distracted (Do you see a theme here?) and thought, I have constant access to the Internet. I can find out if Cash’s books was valuable or just a bunch of myth and babble.

Amazon gave me exactly what I wanted. Could it be any easier? MIND OF THE SOUTH, first published in 1941, is not only a classic on the post(Civil War) South but it is still in print. Wow, good pick, Mary, I thought. It made me feel better about a book that has so shaped my thoughts.

Distracted again, I read the Amazon reviews. M. Bromberg wrote the best summary of comments: “The fact that Cash's work has been vilified and re-evaluated over many years, even by the reviews here, is an indication that the concepts and issues he described more than sixty years ago are still debated today -- a true picture of the mind of the South in the 21st century.”

Art Chance’s review struck me as the closest to my experience and well written: “I can feel Cash in my very bones; a dose of Tom Watson populism, a dose of Mencken's cynicism, and a whole bunch of the self-loathing that a defeated and impoverished people wore like tattered old clothes every day. Some neo-Southerners call Cash a South-hater, but they miss the point; Cash wanted desperately to love The South, but could find little to love except myth.”

As I finished that review I looked again at the name of the reviewer and noticed that he was from Juneau, Alaska. Hey, I lived in Juneau. It’s not a big place. Maybe I met him. Distracted again, I clicked on his profile and then used the almighty Google and found out he works for the Alaska State Government and has written Amazon reviews for everything from a book on modern hydronic heating (huh?) to how to prepare a case for labor arbitration. I KNOW he is an Alaskan at heart, his interests have that amazing Renaissance quality that made me feel so at home there.

I found his phone number too and want to call and ask if his son is back from Afghanistan yet and how is latest wood-working project is going (info found in two other reviews). Of course I’m not calling him, this is a sufficient invasion of his privacy (but it was all on Amazon). I think my next step is to email some Juneau pals and see if they know him. Maybe I did meet him. In any case, at this point, I feel like I know him.

In the end it was a person named Art Chance who caught my attention and where I spent most of “research” time this morning. Could that be why I write stories that are character driven and that, as much as I like research, it’s the story that will capture me?

Finally I Googled WJ Cash himself. His story is so like a novel that I am going to save it for another post. Or you can check out Wikipedia yourself. In case you need a push -- he moved to Mexico in 1941 and one night told his wife he was being followed by Nazi spies.

What has distracted you lately? The Olympics? A good book? The Veep Sweepstakes? The last weeks of summer? Please tell us so that I know am not alone.


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

God, Wikipedia for me is the biggest time sucker there is. Everytime I'm researching one of my Scandalous Women, the first place I head is there. After clicking the 95 seperate links that lead to yet another wikipedia article, you then have the external links. Yowza. Before I know it and hour or more has gone by!

In regards to the Houses of Parliament, my first trip to London during the summer that Prince Charles married Lady Diana, I got to take a tour of the Houses of Parliament. We were severely admonished not to sit on the lovely leather seats which was hard because we were all tired after a day of sight-seeing.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, Elizabeth -- I have read about the leather seats - hope some day to see them in person.

What makes Wikipedia so accessible? We all know that it is not 100% accurate but it is the first place I go too.

Now if I had access to the mysterious JSTOR I might try those articles first....

8:35 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I know. I get so frustrated when I look up something and it leads me to JSTOR. How does one get access to that? I wish I knew.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great post, Mary. I'm distracted by all of the possibilities you mentioned -- the Olympics, the conventions (now that Biden's the Dem. nom., I had to read the article on his wife that my mom emailed me from the NY Times), the end of summer and the deadline for my nonfiction wip that looms like a Dementor ...

And even within my research, much as I try to stick to the information I will need, I get distracted. In my research on Marie Antoinette for a book that focuses on royal marriages, I can't help but take notes on the way the hairstyles were constructed, what fabrics were used in MA's garments and how she selected them, etc., etc., and even the details surrounding "the affair of the diamond necklace" (don't get me started on the execrable film starring the woefully miscast Hilary Swank) -- all information that there will be scant room (if any) to use in my book. I have been finding it all too easy to get distracted by very cool historical events that I just won't be able to include for reasons of page/word count, or because they're just plain too tangential to the stories I need to tell.

I empathize on the JSTOR articles. It frustrates the hell out of me, too, when I find a JSTOR article that I just know has good research in it (as opposed to Wikipedia which contains errors and unless you know they're mistakes, you're doomed to repeat the information when you incorporate it into your own work.)

Elizabeth, can we get them through the NYPL "CATNYP" research part of the NYPL web site?

9:59 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

We all can relate Amanda, but just think of all the info you will have at hand for Blog posts. I especially want to hear about how the hairstyles were constructed.

Hmm, I might try my local college library for JSTOR access.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I hadn't thought about that. According to the JSTOR website, NYPL is one of the participants in JSTOR, so I suppose it is possible.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

"The JSTOR collections are available at thousands of participating libraries and institutions. However, if you are trying to access JSTOR from an off-campus location, you may not be recognized as being affiliated with a participating site. Please visit your library's website to login to JSTOR, or contact a librarian to learn about options for remote access. If you have an account issued by your institution or organization, you may immediately enter JSTOR via the Institutional/Organizational login page."

10:37 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I have to return a bunch of library books by Sept. 4 so I will ask a librarian if (and how) I can acccess JSTOR from my home computer with my CATNYP card id #.

One of these weeks I'll have to do a pouf hairstyle post. I'm up again this Wednesday, but would have to dig up the info, so I'll have to post about another topic in the meantime.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh yes, Amanda, do a pouf hairstyle post! I wanna read it!

Let this be a place where all hoydens can use that great research that never made it into the book! Or did. ;-)

1:09 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

My whole life seems like a distraction from the book I'm... uh... not quite writing (more like believing in). New York on top of Berlin on top of RWA... and this week I'll be checking out a course to audit at SF State -- by the same excellent professor who did the history of detective fiction -- called The Vampire Tradition.

And then, of course, there's the convention. Tearing up for Ted Kennedy. Kvelling over Michelle Obama's fabulous aqua dress...

5:54 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm with you, Pam. I even gave Teddy a standing ovation from my home office, even though no one else was around to see it.

LOVED Michelle's dress, esp. the asymmetrical neckline yet the brooch placed in the center. Please-oh-please where can I find classy, figure-flattering dresses with 3/4 sleeves?

9:10 AM  

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