Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Trials of Research

I decided to postpone starting a new project or editing an old one in favor of doing some research for my upcoming 2008 NaNo novel. The research I'm doing for this project is vastly different than research I've done for other projects, which makes it both interesting and tiring.

I'm also in the midst of trying to track down information about mid-5th century BC Jerusalem for a historical epic I've had in mind for quite some time now. As you might imagine, there's not much solid historical information out there. Aside from that, I've gleaned a few lessons along the way.

1. Friends or acquaintances, even if they have what seems like an appropriate knowledge base, aren't always the best resources.
When I started my research for this time period, I e-mailed an acquaintance and a friend who I thought would be able to get me started in the right direction. I never received a response from either one. I'm guessing this isn't due to rudeness on their part so much as the fact that it wasn't something a simple Google search could yield and also that there's no pressure since I'm a friend and not a professional acquaintance. Which leads me to my second lesson...

2. University professors are a wonderful resource, even if you have no personal relationship with them.

I can only guess at the reason why, but I would conjecture that (1) there is a responsibility as representatives of a university, and (2) love of knowledge and the desire to share it is a prerequisite for most university professors. After admittedly getting a little frustrated at the lack of response from my personal contacts, I was rather skeptical about e-mailing people I'd never met in my life for what had proven for me to be hard-to-find information. But I thought it was worth a shot.

I found a professor specializing in Jewish studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, gave her a brief but specific description of what exactly I was looking for, and sent off the e-mail. Six hours later, I had a response from her saying my needs were out of her realm of expertise accompanied by recommendations for several other people. I picked another UMKC professor from her recommendations and had another response in four hours with an explanation of why it's hard to find information along with seven textual resources and a method recommendation to get me started, as well as an offer to answer any follow-up questions she could. I was floored and extremely grateful. And the lesson there is...

3. Don't give up.
It's tempting to give up on an idea when a visit to the Google and Wikipedia machines don't turn up much. It's even more tempting to give up on an idea when you get no response from people you'd hoped might be able to help you. The key, I think, is to not look at the situation personally, which is hard to do as a writer. Our stories are inherently personal to us; thus, they matter a great deal. Hitting brick walls, especially when those walls are human, can lead us into a spiral of self-pitying despair: Why doesn't the world see how important My Story is? Woe is me, the misunderstood artist! But the truth is, as fun as that despair is for a moment, it certainly doesn't help anything. If you don't get a response, buck up and try elsewhere, and keep trying elsewhere until you do get what you need.

I will throw out one more caveat in quotable form: Story is king; don't get lost in the details. Historical accuracy is nice, but it's not necessarily the point. You're telling a story, not writing a text book, so you've got some dramatic license. (A caveat on a caveat: Dramatic license doesn't give you permission to take well-known historical characters and change up their stories to the point that they're nearly unrecognizable from the truth. I'm looking at you, The Other Boleyn Girl. If you're inspired by a piece of history but want to vamp on it to the point of rewriting it, change the names and call it historical fiction.)