Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Few More Tidbits...

A few days ago, I wrote about research in its more practical, contemporary clothes. Let me toss out a site here USNO site to look up info on astronomical events. Check out the data services link to find out what time the sun rose on March 3, 1892. Or maybe what phase of the moon hung in the sky. This was a really cool little link to find when I was reaching back to 1850, looking for as much authenticity as possible. But there is a lot of great information for contemporary subjects as well.

Another fabulous site for 19th century resources is a digital library of 19th-Century History, loaded with links to a variety of collections. And there's always the fabulous Making of America site.

Now, where do you get good stuff for your characters? Of course strong powers of observation are essential, but I have a favorite place to research people. No, it's not the local mall or the nearest Starbucks, although both are great places to observe teenagers.

Call me crazy or morbid or just plain psycho, but I love old cemeteries, the older the better. You would be amazed at the stories
you find written on headstones--sometimes in poetry, sometimes in emblems and dates, sometimes just in the name. Some of the more famous cemeteries, like Mount Hope in Rochester, have websites that describe the famous people dwelling in the earth there. So if you're looking for an interesting name, or just a fascinating story, check out an old burial ground.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Is Research Just for Non-fiction Writers and History Buffs?

Unequivocally, No. I know, I know...I've been just too excited about digging through the bones of 19th-century Spiritualism, but even in my contemporary writings, I am constantly looking for answers. The questions are sometimes different, but not always.

First, for any project I have to ask the when and the where. Even if the story takes place right now in my own back yard, I need to explore the setting in detail. If my readers are going to live in it, the setting should be as real and rich as possible, even if all the details don't actually make it to the page. The impression of them should.

What lives there? By that I mean plant life, wildlife, even what kind of people,...what sort of industry moves the town, etc.

I actually took several reading expeditions when I was working on WOS, just looking for what kind of wildflowers actually grow along the Genessee River or even what sort of stove would stand in an 1850 kitchen. Some readers might not notice if I've placed some strange cactus that grows only in the Sahara along the river bank, but one just might. Of course, I hope I never stray that far off the mark. But even in the present-day setting, the little things around the room or in the yard tell us a lot about your characters and their struggles.

Yes, towns have character, too. And your setting should be just that--another character in your story. Give it personality. Give it life. It needs to be more than a "Paper Moon sailing over a cardboard sea..." (to quote an old song and a fabulous movie). The setting has the power to completely alter the reader's perception of your characters, of the problems they face, of the tone of your story. Never underestimate that power of its influence.

Okay, I know I began this little discussion with "first...," but the rest will have to wait for a second installment. In the meantime, enjoy your research. Go out and lie in the grass, smell the air, count the houses, count their windows, notice where the moon rises and exactly how its light paints the trees at 2 o'clock in the morning. Research...

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Epistolary Approach

What ever happened to...the letter? You know...those pieces of paper hand-decorated with the most intimate of thoughts, sometimes the most carefully sculpted deceptions, often dipped in the sincerest of emotion and accented with a splash of sarcasm or a good bit of humor.

Take this little bit, for instance...

But with all this I am a weak man and a fool; weak, that I should be caught in the midst of my grave purposes by the gilded dust of a butterfly's wing.

From a letter written by Elisha Kane to Maggie Fox, c. 1853

Not that everyone needs to fill their letters with poetry and mush, but there is something infinitely more personal to a hand-written note, something so deeply connected. The writing itself is often lovely to behold. With the advent of computers, email, and the effortless keyboard, however, it's a wonder that any of us can remember how to sign our names to the mortgage payment! Aside from beautiful penmanship, there are the other elements of this life that only a letter can bring, bits that simply cannot seep through the computer screen. The feel of the paper in your hands. The scent of the writer--perhaps a little chocolate, or lilac, or something muskier. The sound of the envelope giving way to whatever device you choose to extricate the precious contents from their protector. The marks of its journey--stains and stamps and smudges. A letter gives you the whole sensual experience.

I'm scolding myself as well. About a year ago, I started a pen-pal relationship with a fellow writer who was looking for a pen pal via SCBWI's discussion boards. Absolutely! I love to write letters. Of course when the whole job kerfuffle began, I lost all sense of time and space and pretty much evaporated from the correspondence pool. (Sorry, Christine...hope you got my letter a few weeks ago!)

I have spent most of my life staring wistfully at mailboxes, praying for some little treasure (these days that would include a book contract!) to open and savor with a cup of tea. When I lived in Ireland, I ached for letters from friends and family across the pond, but the crippling can't-write-a-letteritis had already seized a generation and left my poor mail slot empty and unfulfilled. What dejection! The letter carrier whistling as he skipped right past my lonely old letter slot. May as well stuff it full of wool to keep the cold wind out!

It is so rare to find something other than bills or crappy invitations to steal my identity in that precious box standing guard at the end of my driveway. No matter how much I talk about it, however, I still need to do more to perpetuate the art of letter-writing. So...I've got my fountain pen and my stacks of interesting papers, and a proper "thank you" is on its way to a generous friend who loaned me her couch for a few nights...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Murder and Mad Weather--The Road to Rochester

You would never believe that when I left Lancaster County on Thursday afternoon, it was sunny and 50º outside--even up north in Rochester. 24 hours later we were in the middle of a mini blizzard. Of course I was oblivious to the snow storm brewing right outside the Rare Books Collection at the University of Rochester Library. My face was buried in piles of the most fascinating letters and pamphlets from the 1840s and 50s. With the research for my next book really taking off, I have that know, when your mind won't stop for a second, you can't sleep because you're constantly moving pieces around in your head, trying to figure out the best narrative approach and how much of your research really belongs, blah blah blah... Wow!

Of course the coolest tidbit I found was all about the supposed murder that took place at the Hydesville house in the early 1840's. Oh the details! Very exciting...but you'll have to wait for my book to find out more! Huge thanks to Mary and Rose for chasing down these wonderful documents and making copies for me.

My favorite part of the trip was hanging with my fabulous hostess and brand new YA librarian, Deena, and A2A blog buddy Kate. I felt as though I had known them for years. Kate, I hope your bronchitis is better! We all shared a tasty dinner at The Garlic Pit...MMMMMM! Later we hung out at Kate's house to chat a bit longer, and her kids were all the entertainment we needed. They are awesome! And a huge thanks to Deena for putting me up (or shall I say putting up with me!?) and especially for shoveling out my car.

Tuned in to the Weather Channel on Saturday morning, it looked as though the line of snow extended just south of Rochester--well, it turned out to be 2 hours south. So I decided to make a run for it and see if I could beat the rest of the storm. Two hours of white-knuckling past an endless stream of steel corpses along the median--good little Subaru--and I finally came out the other side of the storm. The next few hours were a mix of rain and dry cloudy skies. I had just crossed into Lancaster Co., PA, 25 minutes from home, so I called Deena to let her know I had survived. No sooner had I hit the "end" button and put the phone down when my car started to shake. Up ahead, a huge tree lay beside the road, stretching its gnarled finger tips across the right lane. Above me, a wall of clouds raced across the sky and I half expected a tornado to reach right down and sweep the highway clean. Once again, the knuckles turned white. A few miles from home, the stop sign was twisting in the wind, greeting everyone with 360º waves. Power lines were swaying wildly, dipping lower and lower with each gust of wind. I couldn't believe it! Maybe its the ghost of the murdered peddler following me home! 45 mph winds!

Whew! Home now with lots of great research and an itch to head back up to Rochester for more.