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Monday, September 19, 2016

The nature of research

What am I doing? Among other things, reading about the types and sources of cloth and ribbon excavated from a seventeenth-century privy in Massachusetts. Fascinating.


  1. And the key question: why are ribbons and fabric in the outhouse? Weird!

    1. One speculation was that a wife with a wandering husband (there was one) tossed his clothes down the hole! Also, things like broken shoe ribbons would have been too short to be useful. It was clearly a family of wealth.

  2. Research can be seductive; it's so much easier than writing, you're tempted to tumble into the pot you're stirring and stay there. In one of my novels, Jana, pilots small planes for a living and I reckoned the sparse dialogue between her and air traffic control might be a steady counterpoint to her otherwise emotional life on ground. For she is facially disfigured. Ultimately the web offers riches but you have to dig. And, having dug, you look for immersion:

    Clumps of trees like tight green sponge, cars idling along narrow roads like iridescent beetles. A seat of privilege in a well-found vehicle she could trust, linked to like minds who spoke the same pared-down language.

    "Auch approach. Foxtrot-Sierra Delta Romeo, Cessna 172, from Biarritz to Montauban, 20 miles west of Auch, altitide 3000 ft, VFR tracking to Fleurance."

    Jana acknowledged the compressed code of aviation: this is where I am, moving towards you; afterwards I will move towards somewhere else. So specific, so clear, so formal.

    On the one hand the demands of her profession, on the other day-to-day messiness. Tens of thousands of words on I flew with her, talking as she did. It was the only novel I was reluctant to bring to an end. Someone suggested I revisit the same area and same characters in another novel but there are no second acts in love affairs. Jana suffered naevus flammus, was involved with a man who had his own infliction, yet Jana was also calm and skilful Foxtrot-Sierra Delta Romeo and the web ensured that that part of what she said was authentic and could be poignant. But now there's no reason for me to go back to that midden and look for hard-faceted truffles. My equivalent of your cloth and ribbon - good luck.

    1. If I go to another place/time than my own, I tend to go to one where I already love the literature of the time and feel comfortable and can "walk around" with some ease. Then I look things up (like cloth) when I have a particular question (like about cam let for a cloak.) The results are so fascinating. I don't believe in doing too much research--it bogs everything down, and so many people clearly feel the need to pack all their research into a story, which does not work. Exactly the right amount is good. But the question is how much is exactly the right amount, of course.

      That's an interesting balance between the cool and the passionate you suggest in your novel. I have a great stack of novels by people I know that I have promised to read, but I'll have to add one of yours. They sit there for ages, though, as I also have to do reviews and such at times and get way behind. My life is a bit too crammed in general, it seems, though a lot of that is having three children. And three children are fine, so... I'll just have to be hyper-organized, I guess.

    2. No, please don't. I hate the thought of any sort of obligation. Besides which it was necessary due to exigencies of the plot for certain characters (The novel is set mainly in France!) to adopt a view of the USA that I don't necessarily share.

      The quote was merely an attempt to show we are, from time to time, in the same line of business. Also you make the point I should have made; there's nothing more stodgy than an over-researched novel. Just recently I came across a huge pile of print-out dealing with a very obscure aspect of aviation and realised I hadn't used a single detail from this dredging. The stuff I did use fed the belief that flying will be esoteric for most readers and its nature is best conveyed by dialogue between those who know what they're up to. The passage I'm most proud of is entirely dialogue and probably only three pages long - when Jana first meets her Texan instructor (who never reappears) and gains his grudging approval. Mine too except I was much less grudging.

    3. You are infinitely surprising! Very amusing to have someone tell me not to read his book!

      And what a curious line of business it is....

  3. I discovered you because of Glimmerglass (which I enjoyed very much) and my fascination with the Leatherstocking Tales. I hope to visit that part of the country one day (I'm from Oregon). Cooper distracted me back to Walter Scott,

    And I'm a can check me out on

    But I wanted to write about privy discoveries. You may want to read the fabulous Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, a true crime book about the man who inspired Dickens and Wilkie Collins to create the detective novel in Bleak House and The Moonstone (still the finest detective novel in English). What Mr. Whicher finds in a privy is grisly and fascinating.

    1. I have a very vivid memory of a murder (though can't remember anything about where) that involved canning jars and a privy and the murder of a husband. Down South, maybe?

      That sounds interesting; I am a big fan of "The Moonstone" and "The Woman in White." And of Dickens, too.

      Thanks for stopping by--I'm glad you liked "Glimmerglass." Cooper has left some strong traces here, and is part of the reason I wrote that book. I always thought that I'd write something about the fantastic aspects of Cooperstown: the castle in the lake, Muskrat Hill in the lake, the tower in the woods, the confusing between reality and fiction with Cooper names and places, the old mansions, etc. (I once had lunch in the gatehouse that I used in Glimmerglass. The mansion had burned, so I felt quite free to make up my own.)


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.