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The seduction of research

October 4, 2011

October 2011

Doing research is fascinating stuff – and absolutely critical for storytellers.  That is why I found myself recently at the University of Washington library. It was vacation time and the place was like a tomb… perfect! I did what I usually do – find a relevant call number and then just wander around, looking at titles. I can’t tell you how many treasures I have found using this method. It’s insane – but it works. And that day was no exception. I found two references I NEVER would have found any other way.

But research, as everyone knows, is also incredibly frustrating and time-consuming. I can’t even count the number of times that I have followed a particular trail… only to have it peter out into nothing. False leads, misinformation, machinery that won’t work, conflicting facts and figures, institutions that change their hours on  a whim (ARGH!): it all adds up to grinding teeth and high blood pressure and lots of colorful language.

Another thing: research can be so seductive. You are completely engrossed in a fascinating subject  and – suddenly – you find yourself being led in an entirely new direction. You simply HAVE to find out more about this particular thing even if it is connected only by a gossamer thread to your main topic. So, you start to dig – deeper and deeper… it’s like an addiction. Unless you stop – right then – and think through, re-evaluate, remind yourself that this is not where you need to be, you’re going to waste a lot of valuable time. Unless… of course… you won’t. Because, sometimes, that seemingly wrong direction you are taking will lead you (surprise!) to the mother lode of information. So – how are you to judge? It brings us right back to that metaphor that all storytellers know and poets write about: two paths in a wood – and which one will you take? It’s your call – and I hope you’re right.

But the really exciting thing I discovered doing research for “Rebecca” had nothing to do with any of the above. Up to now, I have had very little information to go on – only Rebecca’s diary and a few historical references. But I had already begun forming an idea about the relationship between Rebecca and her husband, Isaac. And I sensed that this relationship was going to be key: a vital part of my story. There, at the Special Collections UW library, I found letters: between Issac and Rebecca and other members of their families – and I discovered that my ideas were  absolutely right! I wanted to jump up and down and shout. But – in the library – a radiant smile aimed at the nearest staff person would have to do. He DID look a little puzzled….

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