The Last Word
Real research: threads and digressions and the truth
I'm the first to admit that I'm a lousy researcher. Whenever I've needed facts to support a plot line or character flaw, I've approached research in a fairly minimalist fashion. Check out a couple of articles in medical journals, speak to a professional just to substantiate my conjectures; most recently, delve into the Internet's broad and seemingly boundless bounty of information on any topic of my choosing - just enough to lend verisimilitude to my story.
Not exactly research, more like dabbling; and, there are times when I've gotten it wrong. Tack and jibe. Whoops.
When I'm considering a topic for use in a novel, e.g. sailing or acromegaly, I want my facts to be correct; but, I've never wanted to be one of those writers who exhibits everything she learned about a particular subject in the pages of a novel like some sort of research paper with characters. All that I might use of what I've learned is a generalization of symptoms, a smattering of fact to allow for the story to be believable, but to move ahead. Much of the time, and this isn't to my credit, I write what I need to be the facts, then go look for corroboration from some willing medical professional or magazine writer. One of my earliest triumphs was getting a phone call from an endocrinologist from California calling to say he loved Beauty and that I had handled the facts and state of mind of my character who suffered from acromegaly. Which helped me feel better about the piece of hate mail I'd gotten from someone with the disease, who took exception to the very same things.
That's all changed. I'm a convert. The difference between Internet research and burrowing deep into primary sources is akin to a handshake versus a committed relationship. I've discovered reading history and there's no stopping me. Now, for those of you who know that I have a museum's archives at my disposal, you're probably thinking, well, duh. The truth is, I had no idea that research - reading what other people have written, interpreting tiny slices of information that in turn beg more questions than those answered - could be more satisfying than actually writing (almost). The problem is that research begets more research.
Recently I have been compiling research on a topic for an article for the quarterly journal, the Dukes County Intelligencer. My subject is the Triad Club, a defunct women's "literary" club that originated in 1908. The physical presence of almost 80 years of minute books, thank-you notes, and treasurers' reports for the Triad Club has been a converting experience for me. They reside temporarily on a bench in my dining room, protected from the sun by newspaper. I've sorted them by decade, seven separate piles of crumbling minute books holding 73 years of Oak Bluffs history hand-written into the record. On top of the minute books are the rectangular annual "calendar" books with the Club's cloverleaf logo embossed on the covers, symbolizing their motto of Information, Improvement and Sociability. I tease out one thread and it leads me to another. A note in the minutes about Mrs. Lucy Smith presenting, in 1908, her "Adventures Afloat" causes me to dig deeper. Mrs. Smith, who lived to be 94, was a whaling captain's wife. A Vincent. An author. A simple name written in the rolls of the club springs to life and I want to know more. Except that as I look for more about Mrs. Smith, I find something interesting about Miss Emily Worth. My threads become tangled and I begin to follow the one that leads to Miss Worth and her multiple careers and her sudden resignation from the club after 28 years of membership. This is research in all its temptations.
Alas, I am not disciplined enough to stop picking at threads. I open the minute book from 1933, only to track away and head for 1938. Wasn't there a hurricane that year? How did that affect the ladies of the club? What about the First World War, Women's Suffrage, the Great Depression? Very little of the outside world penetrates the record, appearing only as titles in the Calendar book for those years, "Women and the Ballot;" the singing of America to start the meetings and the Pledge of Allegiance; a vote to contribute 50 cents or a dollar to the Red Cross.
What is fascinating to me is that this is our history, Oak Bluffs history; a glimpse into a way of life no longer viable. These women lived, met "fortnightly" at each other's homes, presented well-researched papers to one another, made donations to charitable causes, but resolutely refused to consider the club a fund-raising organization. In this day and age we couldn't get away with this didactical raison d'être. Our lives are too scattered, too over-obligated; our organizations are single-focus fund-raising cause-centric machines.
But, I digress. Which is exactly why this Triad article is one of the hardest things I've ever done. Although the records of the Club offer little by way of biography of its members, references to each of these women can be found in other sources, e.g. obituaries, the Gazette files, the archives of the MVM. Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of time to collect it all. Nonetheless, each woman deserves her own short biography, from Mrs. Susan Jernegan Chase, farmer's wife, to the last club members, some of whom I actually know or have known. Each name will remain forever in the crumbling minute books of the Triad Club.
As I try not to get mired in the minutia, I have a deeper sense of responsibility - to get the story right. As a fiction writer, I make stuff up. Here I must extrapolate from thin clues what these women were doing, who they were, and how they've had an impact on us today. As much as I would like to, I cannot write: Mrs. Chase discretely dabbed her forehead with the folded up square of her lawn handkerchief, relieved to have gotten through her paper on Norway without stumbling over names. I can't write that because there is no mention of Mrs. Chase's lawn handkerchief in the record, nor her nerves. Neither does her paper survive. I can't interject my imagination into the story. I have to stick to the known facts. So, on top of finding out that doing research is all-encompassing, I am finding that writing history is very tricky. It isn't just making up a story to go with the facts, or vice versa, it's getting at the truth, interpreting without assuming, and telling the story in an interesting manner. I hope I'm up to it.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.