Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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How One Paragraph Can Take Four Days

by author and TWC Associate Teacher, Michelle Cameron

I love research.

To me, there’s nothing more inspiring than discovering how my characters might have lived their lives – what they wore, what they ate, how world events might have affected them.

All of my writing tends to start with a single scene in my head. When I wrote The Fruit of Her Hands, the picture of twenty-four cartloads loaded with volumes of Talmud being driven to a fiery death in a market square in Paris inspired me. With my next book – the story of Judean exile during the Babylonian epoch – it was imagining what those captives must have felt, mourning their lost homeland by the twin rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. And in the series I’m writing today, the scene of Napoleon’s Jewish soldiers breaking down the ghetto gates of Ancona both astonished and bemused me.

printing press
Once that scene persists in tickling my imagination, I embark upon roughly three months of intense research. I try, in that short period of time, to read and peruse as much as I can related to my time period. Not just history books – artwork, architecture, and maps all inform the work. I try to get to museums – the Met is my favorite – several times when I’m doing my research.

My notes take several forms. The central document is a timeline that I usually divide into three columns: one for general historical events, one for historical events that I will incorporate into the novel, and one for fictional events so I can keep track of what needs to happen when. Then I have separate documents for major topics. What happened in the French court when the Jews tried in vain to defend their Talmud? What gods did the ancient Babylonians pray to? What did Ancona look like during the Napoleonic era?

In addition, I use the closet doors behind my head to pin up images – portraits of real-life characters and objects that will find their way into the work, as well as maps, street scenes, and renderings of what people in that time period wore.

What’s incredible about all this research are the story elements that grow out of it. Real life characters are woven into the fictitious story. Scenes suggest themselves. Slowly, the plot and arc of the novel take shape.
And then I start writing. But the research doesn’t stop there. In fact, the research never stops. The writing is often put on pause as I discover more I don’t know and need to. Which returns us to the title of this blog post.

Scene: a printer’s press in Paris during the French Revolution. I know why I need the printing shop, but I don’t know anything about what one would be like during that time period. Where is it located? What type of presses were used? What’s the process for turning out the pamphlets, the broadsheets? What time of day did the printers do their work? Since this is during a time of great turmoil, did they have to do their work in secret? What would happen if the King’s police raided them? What was the social structure like in the shop? How did the printed pieces get from the press into the hands of the revolutionaries, inflaming loud and passionate debates in the coffee shops?

It began with a single paragraph, all the questions above, and the need to do a lot of digging. Four days later – spent online and in various books – I have a full picture. Now I can keep writing – being very careful not to “dump” the history I’ve just gleaned into my work wholesale, instead using it just to flavor the work as needed.


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Preserving the Stacks of Treasures

These days the face of literature and learning are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know much of the time what we’re even looking at or why we bother to write.

I came across a rather interesting video that says it all both forward and backward:


It’s thrilling and terrifying. A truly brave new world. But my quandary goes beyond the welfare and future of publishing to something more essential: the preservation and accessibility of information and knowledge itself.

In many ways, information seems more accessible than ever. Certainly when my son has to write a report for elementary school, he can google everything he needs to know right from the computer on my desk. He looks at me in astonishment when I tell him that, in my day, that same report would’ve taken hours of research at the library.

I remember losing myself in the stacks – the long dim, slightly dusty corridors where spines lured me like whispered promises. As a child, my mother used to take me and my siblings for afternoons at the local children’s room where I would lie in a quiet corner surrounded by a carefully selected tower of books, musing for hours about worlds of imagination and possibility I’d never dreamed.

In high school I discovered that I could ask the librarian for the yellowed pages of newspapers published nearly a hundred years before. Not microfiche (which used to give me motion sickness if I scanned too quickly), but actual pages carefully preserved in an acid-free box kept somewhere in the library’s bowels.

It was in the hallowed Reading Room at the New York Public Library that my odd passion for dry academic tomes and archaeological reports bloomed. Their humble Pandoran pages opened like a treasure chest, filled with stories nothing else could have revealed. It was exhilarating simply to hear the subtle crack of a volume that only I and probably a half-dozen others had requested in the last half century.
New York Public Library
I could have discovered none of this without the library. Unlike the elite halls of wisdom of ages gone, public libraries in America are an incomparable symbol of freedom and equality. The concept of free public libraries is inherently tied to a free public education, a right that I pray no one can argue against, except perhaps in the hope to making the definition of “free” include “highest quality”.

But in this era where it seems everything is migrating online, libraries are under threat. Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie’s proposed budget includes a 74% decrease in funding for library services. According to a recent Legislative Alert posted on the New Jersey Library Association’s website, this cut will eliminate all statewide library programs and services. It will affect all types of libraries in the state and, once state funding is eliminated, New Jersey will lose $4.5 million in federal funding.

I don’t often take a public political stance, but loss of our libraries is more than a personal affront. It goes to the very heart of the American tenets of freedom and equal opportunity.

As a novelist, I could not do my work without the library. Even today, access to expensive research databases and obscure texts that I often obtain through interlibrary loan are the backbone of my research. The Internet is simply not enough. (And please don’t talk to me about the Devil – I mean Wikipedia.) With all the posting and scanning – legal or otherwise – going on online, there are simply some things that will never make their way into the digital world.

But the issue goes beyond my personal and peculiar penchant for the obscure. Libraries provide essential services to people without internet access (and yes, there are still quite a few!), people who long to learn what they do not know, who need jobs in this crisis economy, who are applying to schools or starting new businesses, who want to introduce their children or themselves to a body of literature that is otherwise out of reach – accessible and free to all.

When so many core values in America have simply slipped away in recent years, this one is simple, affordable, and more than worthy of saving.

Go to http://capwiz.com/ala/nj/issues/alert/?alertid=14842591 to let your legislators know if you agree. The library you save may be your own.


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Guest Blogging for Christina Baker Kline

I’m pleased and honored to be this week’s guest blogger on Christina Baker Kline‘s terrific blog, A Writing Year. Check out my piece about researching a historical novel: Judith Lindbergh on Raising the Dead.

And also be sure to check out Christina’s latest novel, Bird in Hand, coming out next week!