Friday, June 26, 2015

Digging in the Dirt

By Art Taylor

This week's question is a timely one for me: "Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?"

In the last two weeks, I've been gathering information on Edgar Allan Poe's first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, which has been called the rarest book in American literature. Only 12 copies of the 40-page pamphlet—self-published "By A Bostonian"—are known to exist, and the last time a copy went up for sale, it fetched $662,500 at a Sotheby's auction, the highest price ever paid for a piece of American literature. (Fun backstory: When the 12th copy was discovered, back in 1988, it was found at an antique store in New Hampshire; a customer bought it for $15, and that one auctioned later that year for $250,000—a nice return on investment.)

Just Google any of the keywords above, and you'll find tons of information, of course—but what I've been interested in is a different bit of history: One of the 12 is missing, stolen from the University of Virginia's Alderman Library back in the early 1970s and never recovered.

Here's a glimpse at the research I've done on this—and a thank you to the folks who've helped me:

  • Tracking down the original AP coverage, thanks to a librarian at George Mason University, since the library's database for AP articles doesn't go back that far
  • Gathering information from U.Va. thanks to a media relations representative who's gone above and beyond the call of duty in answering emails (and who very graciously said he enjoyed my story "The Odds Are Against Us" and invited me to get together with him if I came to Charlottesville)
  • Getting information on security issues from such old journals as The American Archivist and Georgia Archive and from the the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries—and still trying to track down an old copy of Library Journal from 1974 with an inventory of everything that was stolen
  • Searching for the 1988 Sotheby's catalogue which detailed the history and condition of the Tamerlane that sold then and also provided information on other copies of pamphlet (I can buy the Sotheby's catalogue for $60, but I haven't gone there yet)
  • Reading many, many pages of notes from the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (a tremendous resource)
  • And, of course, reading the full contents of Tamerlane itself—including various versions of the title poem (and from elsewhere in the Poe canon: "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "William Wilson" and a little bit of "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-tale Heart" and....)
How much of all this is going to make it into the story I'm working on? So far, I've got about a two-page scene where two characters talk about the fact that there's a missing manuscript and what happened to it.

Overkill maybe on the research... and yet...

And yet: Rather than just providing detailed backstory for me to fold into a conversation, all that reading and research has sparked my imagination toward the plot of my own story and seems to be helping to shape what happens. 

Part of this may seem obvious, of course: If I'm fictionalizing a story around a true-life event, then I have to be faithful in some ways to what actually happened. (I feel strongly about this, but others do not; consider, for example, some of the novels built around the Gardner Museum heist in Boston.) But it's more than that too. My story isn't just adhering to the details of what happened, but it's being shaped by possibilities spinning off of those "what ifs" from the brainstorming that goes hand-in-hand with dense research.

I'm hopeful that at least part of that process might work.

Beyond that, I'll simply agree with many of the comments that my colleagues here have mentioned already this week. The way we writers incorporate research into our stories should never bore or burden, and a little goes a long ways. 

On the Road with Del & Louise

In another direction, just a quick bit of news. My forthcoming debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, to be published September 15 by Henery Press, is now up for pre-order at many places, including at my own local independent bookstore, One More Page Books and More in Arlington, VA, which will be hosting my book launch on Saturday, September 19.

Click any of the links below to pre-order—or if you want to save your money, you can first try to win an advance copy through my Goodreads giveaway, running now through Sunday at midnight.

One More Page (pick-up):

One More Page (shipped):


Gerald So said...

I've read each blogger's response this week with interest because my favorite series character to write is a 1930s aviator. That's decades before I was born, and yet I like not having to keep up with cutting-edge technology. I also like the idea, factual or not, that it was easier to do things (or get away with things) back then.

I've read some biographies of early flyers and some flight manuals, but in writing the stories, I rarely use that research consciously. Most of the time, my protag isn't shown flying, the idea being he gets into the juicy trouble stories are made of when he doesn't have the option of flying away.

I think the purpose of research is to give readers the sense that the story you've made up could have actually happened, but trying to be completely true to life can hamper creativity. I often have to remind myself I'm writing fiction. By definition, it's not meant to be completely true to life. To help remind me, my protag has evolved into a lying, unreliable narrator.

Art Taylor said...

Good points, Gerald--about the balance between research and writing and between fact and fiction.

I had a professor once who said that to achieve a sense of authority on some topic, you needed about three points. Maybe it's a big of jargon or a technical detail or whatever, but three different points would convince a reader that you (or your character, I mean) knew something about a topic.

While I was taking that class, I wrote a story about a character who worked at Kinko's (back when it was Kinko's) and had to use the big document scanners to scan architectural drawings. So I went to Kinko's and the staff there VERY graciously taught me how to use one of those machines. I took notes, wrote down some of the terms, gathered some details--then put three of them in my story.

After the workshop in class, one of the students asked me when I'd worked at Kinko's and for how long. :-)

A lot of this is sleight of hand.

Meredith Cole said...

Great post, Art! I've enjoyed all the articles this week, too. It's fun to see how much (and how little) research people do for their stories--and how much makes it into the final novel/story.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith! And I'm trying not to let my own research take over my time! (It's been fun...)