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People sometimes ask me

December 2, 2009

how long it takes me to research a book. I don’t know how to answer that. I research as I go. It is not a tidy process and I am never sure it is “done.” For this book, I have little scraps of paper scattered around to remind me when Pitt becomes Prime Minister and when King George goes mad and how many babies died each year in London and when Mary Wollstonecraft published her books. I have lots of notecards sticking out of books (which are all overdue — I am sorry, Betty), but I don’t remember why they are there. So, the word research seems rather inflated and certainly too tidy, too organized for whatever immersion process it is I undergo. It’s a messy business and I feel forgetful, anxious, and worried about getting it wrong. I find a great quote, type it into my manuscript and then leave myself a note — Johnson, in the middle of gray book, at bottom of page. Six months from now I will have to retrace my steps so I know how to cite this perfect quote. I try to pause and jot down page numbers, but I don’t want to lose the trail of the story, so I keep rushing on. I imagine other writers methodically filling out notecards, like I was taught to do in ninth grade. My distinguished literary cousin told me that first he takes notes, then he copies all the notes in long hand. Then he types them out. Only then does he start writing. As for me, I am bustling along telling the story when Mary Wollstonecraft walks past St. Paul’s Cathedral and suddenly all wheels grind to a halt. How new was St. Paul’s? When was it finished? What did Mary think of it? Had it turned gray from coal smoke. Maybe it inspired Mary. How will I find this out? I have stopped writing now. I am nervous about what I don’t know. I feel guilty, too. A responsible writer would know all these sorts of details before he/she sat down to write. Whereas I didn’t even realize I didn’t know the history of St. Paul’s. Nor did I know that it would be useful to have information about St. Paul’s to write this book. Until Mary walked by its huge front entrance, St. Paul’s did not even occur to me. And so the books come out. The writing stops. And after three hours or so, I find what I want, a date, an adjective and it is time to move on. Three hours for one word? Is it worth it?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2009 7:31 am

    I am afraid of research. I like to make things up, which is a problem when you’re not a fiction writer.

  2. December 4, 2009 1:45 am

    Wasn’t it Flaubert who wrote about spending the entire first half of a day deciding to insert a comma in a particular sentence, and the entire second half of the day deciding to take it out?

  3. December 4, 2009 10:35 am

    Oh! I am so disorganized. I’m so glad to see books really do come out of it, like the messy ingredients I add to the bowl, stir and plop in the oven hoping for something tasty in the end. I am going to read your book and relish each distinguished flavor.

  4. December 8, 2009 7:11 am

    This cheers me up, Andy. Thank you.

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