I try to keep a schedule for the blog posts but some weeks it just doesn’t fit comfortably. And comfort becomes important as I juggle two writing projects. (Not to mention planning a launch party for the third novel.) One of the current projects is genealogy. It’s been years in the making, documenting the lives of my great grandparents, researching the times and places in which they lived, the ways in which they traveled. Not that it’s all fact. That’s not possible. I have to make it clear in the text where I draw my own conclusions. Otherwise, I can and will note my research sources, admit my suppositions, do my honest best to memorialize these people whom I’ve never met.
The other work in project is fiction and it grows daily. I hadn’t planned it, am surprised that all these words demand my attention. Or maybe it’s the characters who want me to recognize them, let them live on the page. Problem is, I don’t know where we’re going or where they’ve been. Fictional characters don’t leave a paper trail. And because I don’t plot early on in fiction, the characters do what they want. In less than 10,000 words so far, I have three strong characters and another two about to emerge. If the plot goes where I think it might, there will be others. It’s out of my hands despite my fingers on the keys.
In both of these projects, rewards spring up when I least expect them. A character whom I imagined as passive sticks out her hand, welcomes in a stranger, takes charge of the scene. Instead of a petite white woman, she’s a stately black woman. Who knew? Ancestors rarely show their faces but I find their lives in census records, city directories, immigration lists. Truth and fiction are not so different this week. It’s hard work keeping up with all these people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“A book report is an essay discussing the contents of a book, written as part of a class assignment issued to students in schools, particularly in the United States at the elementary school level.” So says Google. I dreaded that forced march through long prose to prove that I had read the whole book. I coughed up the plot, the conflicts and the characters. Stated the theme of the book. Convinced my classmates and the adult with the red pen why I liked or disliked the book. Seemed to me there were only two choices, neither one comfortable. What did I learn from these assignments? I learned to hate book reports, and some kids learned to hate books.
Therein lies my angst over writing book reviews, the grown-up version of a book report, minus the spoilers. Yesterday I chatted with an editor seeking a review for a poetry book he has in hand. I once knew the poet well. What if I don’t like the work? What if I cannot gush and praise and send readers rushing to their bookseller for it? What if I feel merely tepid about it?
Must I warn a vulnerable public to keep away from dull, clumsy books? With so much new poetry, fiction, and memoir to choose from–probably half a million books published annually just in the US–I can do readers a favor if I warn them about the flaccid, florid, horrid books that usurp valuable shelf space in libraries and bookstores. Or I could wax wise and inflate my ego by elevating my taste to the measure of all things literary. Well, my grandma told me that if I couldn’t say something nice to shut up. Granny was sometimes right, so I deflected yesterday’s editor toward a new book of poems that I am excited about, that I can honestly recommend and not sound like a snob, a paid hack, or a crank.
You’ve heard the adage about using the whole buffalo? Hold that thought. I read this week James Alexander Thom’s The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, in which he warns about the danger of relying on the digital storage of extensive research, and the need to retain the material after a book is published, in case some picky sniffer challenges you, or better, you are asked to speak about the book in the future.
I was reminded of the laptop I killed by watering a philodendron hanging over my desk. Ouch! Further more, the CDs on which I had backed up don’t meld with my current computer. (In fact CDs are pretty much obsolete, a fact driven home when I realized that the only device I own that plays my CD music is my car.)
Alternatively, I’ve long touted the use of index cards–cheap, portable, easy to sort or color code, and impervious to dripping plant pots. (Realistically, you can lose them or have your tote bag catch fire. So far I’ve lost a few but the tote bag is intact.) Given Thom’s convincing argument for hardcopy back up, I spent a useful hour this week tidying my card catalog. I tossed index cards that had lost the connection to whatever topic I had researched. I kept the bibliography cards, where I record the author, title, and location of books or online information that I’ve found useful. I record where I made notes from the source in question. Because I date my journals/notebooks, a typical entry might be “Notes: Jan 2016, p. 7.”
Ta da! I can continue my compulsive scribbling as I read, and I can retrieve the scribbles if I need them. Some part of the beast has become unexpectedly useful, like burning dry buffalo chips in a new campfire. All my “chips” are arranged alphabetically by topic in a file box made for index cards. If the house doesn’t flood or burn or get ransacked, my research is safe. That’s a relief.
The inter-net is a rabbit hole. I jump in and hours later poke my head up into the sunshine, startled that the day is bright blue. This morning, listening to The Baroque Show on Colorado Public Radio, I heard that Bach’s eldest son was his favorite. That, I thought, must have created ill will, chaos, jealousy among his huge brood of talented offspring. Well, this tempting diversion from morning pages drew me into roads not only less traveled but also some never taken. Picking up my tablet to search was all too easy.
Fact: Bach fathered twenty but ten of his children died early, some shortly after birth, including a set of twins, and some lived about three years. One boy who lived into adulthood was not as smart as his sibs. Then I wondered about the girls—many talented brothers and scarcely a mention of the sisters. Of the four daughters who survived into adulthood, one married, one was a talented singer, the other two barely mentioned, except that one of them died “in poverty.” As did Bach’s widow.
Now I’m fussed. Four sons were successful composers and their mother died a poor widow? Their sister died in poverty? How dare they? What does this say about their life of privilege? What does it say about their father that he could not inject them with a dose of generosity along with their musical instruction? And how about the brother who died at 24 “of mysterious circumstances”? Would he have lived longer if his family had cared for him? Maybe my initial thought is correct, ill will plagued that family, along with death and grief and poverty.
My search this morning warns me not to believe all of what I hear. In his glorious music I do not hear the pain. I hear success and glory, but oh, not those dead children. I finished my morning pages in a different mood than when I began. I’ve put a library hold on a Bach biography and will read it instead of chasing mere facts that leave me fuming and distracted. This is why I still need books and libraries.