I was very fortunate to be able to sit down with Vicky Smith of Kirkus for an interview about The Water Castle. It was a really lovely conversation that had me thinking about my own book in new ways. The interview is now online. In the story she mentions that I am not a big fan of research. I remember that moment in the interview. I was talking about how I had never really wanted to write historical fiction because it took to much research. I started to laugh because here I was, a librarian, sitting in my library, confessing that I don’t like to what many consider to be the essential function of a library.

Well, it’s true. In the strictest sense, I do not like to research. I like the reading and the learning, but not the searching. (WARNING: This post is about to get all librarian-lingo-y.) In the parlance of the Big6™, I like steps 4 and 5 — Use of Information and Synthesis, but I’m not such a big fan of #1 Task Definition, #2 Information Seeking Strategies or even #6 Evaluation. I split #3: I really dislike 3.1 Locate Sources, but love 3.2 Find Information Within Sources.

My ambivalence about research is something I share with my students as a means of empowering them, and I hope confessing it publicly will help teachers, librarians, and students, especially, realize that even professional researchers don’t always like to do it. For me, going through the research process for my writing serves as a reminder to be more sympathetic to my own student researchers.

As I think back on my emotions as I went through the research of The Water Castle, I am reminded of Carol Kuhlthau’s Model of the Information Search Process. I always liked this model because it reminded librarians to consider their patrons emotions.

  1. “Initiation, when a person first becomes aware of a lack of knowledge or understanding and feelings of uncertainty and apprehension are common.”
    • I remember quite clearly the day I decided to include a historical element, and the subsequent dread at the amount of research I would need to do. I imagine the look on my face was similar to the one I see on some students when I say, “Welcome to the library. Today we are starting your big research project.”
  2. “Selection, when a general area, topic, or problem is identified and initial uncertainty often gives way to a brief sense of optimism and a readiness to begin the search.”
    • I took a deep breath and reminded myself of all the tools I had at my disposal. I had books. I had the web. I had databases and I knew how to use them. I identified some key resources: ABC-Clio History Databases, The Historical New York Times, and the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College. I was on my way. This seems manageable, I thought. I got a binder and divided into sections (organization always makes me feel better) based on different areas of my research: science of the times, Arctic Exploration, how people lived.
  3. “Exploration, when inconsistent, incompatible information is encountered and uncertainty, confusion, and doubt frequently increase and people find themselves “in the dip” of confidence.”
    • Here is where I started to get overwhelmed. I had so much information, how could I possibly decide what to include? I was at risk of being de-railed. It also became clear how much I didn’t know, particularly about day to day life in the early 1900s. This was never, ever, ever going to come together.
  4. Formulation, when a focused perspective is formed and uncertainty diminishes as confidence begins to increase.
    • I visited a friend who happens to be a middle school history teacher at the Clinton School for Writers and Artists. She helped me by giving me some books from her collection. She also accompanied me on a trip to The Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey. You see, I was starting to develop a focus, to see what information I had, and what information I still needed. I went to see Edison’s chemistry lab to see an example of what a chemistry lab might look like during the time period (more on this in a later post). Once you have a better focus, it’s easier to cull away the extra and just concentrate on what is useful.
  5. Collection, when information pertinent to the focused perspective is gathered and uncertainty subsides as interest and involvement deepens.
    • I spent a whole day with the New York Times Historical database from ProQuest. Literally. My son was with his grandparents, and I had the day to research. My brother brought me coffee (you’re right, Matt, I should have put you in the acknowledgements!) and I read every article published on the Peary expedition, including a dispatch written by Peary himself. Nora and Harry read many of the same article in The Water Castle. Iced coffee and laptop screen aside, reading these articles made me feel like I had stepped back into history and was experiencing the events first-hand. I also learned about pemmican. Part of me thinks this sounds disgusting, and a (bigger) part of me thinks it would be absolutely delicious, especially when out on the ice.
  6. Presentation, when the search is completed with a new understanding enabling the person to explain his or her learning to others or in someway put the learning to use.
    • The most fun part, for me anyway: writing the book. Still, there were challenges, namely about what to include and what to leave out. Over all, though, dropping in details from my research was wholly satisfying.

You would think having a background in library science would make research a breeze, but that wasn’t the case. I went through the exact same stages of a student researcher. Moreover, just like my students, I missed some things. Shortly after my book was sent to the press, I read a wonderful article by Jaed Coffin in Maine Magazine: “The Norumbega Effect” about what makes a real Mainer (this is something those of us who live here struggle with. Even though I grew up about half an hour from where I now live, I started my life in NH, and so I will always be “from away.”) Coffin writes:

Back in the 1500s, volleys of European explorers came back from Maine with tales of a land not only rife with fish and beaver pelts, but also overflowing with milk and honey, full of silver-adorned men and women, where the streams bubbled over gold nuggets and mystical elephant-horse creatures. Norumbega they called it.

How had I missed this? Here I was setting a story about a mythical, mystical town in Maine, and I didn’t realize there was already a myth to build upon. It seems no matter how thorough our research, there’s always more to discover.

So, yes, it’s true, I dread research. But somewhere along the middle I start to like it, then maybe even love it. And when I’m done, I’m grateful for the process.

A Writer-Librarian Looks at Research
Tagged on:                                     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *