Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guest Blogger: LAURIE R. KING

Laurie R. King is a recovering academic, who can give up research any time. Her new novel, The Language of Bees, comes out April 28th. It required a great deal of research, some of which you can read about at www.LaurieRKing.com

It takes a determined imagination to see Aladdin’s Cave in most modern libraries. The libraries of my childhood, sure—a few towns still have their old Carnegie building, dark and dim and ruled by exotic divinities with their fingers at their lips to better shush the worshipper, dusty temples stuffed to the rafters with treasures and impossible for the poor staff to move around in, but ripe with potential for the would-be explorer. If you find one of these, they may even use the old Dewey Decimal system, which was positively designed for the explorer mentality, launching out into deepest, darkest 916 (Africa) with nothing but a flashlight (683) and guide book (967.)

A modern library is another matter: brightly lit, smelling faintly of the espressos served in the foyer, the hum of computers at every corner, the Library of Congress organization stiff on the metal shelves.

However, a novelist is nothing if not determined. After the first shock of the new, after a brief dip of the hat to the lost card catalogues (as rich a ground for eccentric cataloguers as ever Africa was for eccentric Englishmen) the writer grumpily drops her book bag next to the computer, and walks away from civilization as she knows it.

However, all is not lost to a researcher truly determined to conquer new lands and explore unseen lands. Big research libraries, caught between the Scylla of limited space and the Charybdis of unquenchable demand, have carved out for themselves new frontiers, and called them Depositories.

Say I am writing a book on 1920s India (a book I am going to call The Game) and want to illustrate the life of the British officers who, despite youth and lack of training, were handed vast tracts of land and near-absolute power. Say I come across passing reference to a means of permitting these young men to work out their frustrations that doesn’t involve local girls: give them the task of exterminating large and well-armed vermin, a job that involves both enormous exertion and considerable danger. Say I fire up my terminal in the library and ask it, not expecting much, about “pig sticking.” And say it tells me that there is a book of precisely that title, published in precisely the period about which I am writing, waiting patiently for someone to require it once every forty or so years.

And that is the NRLF, the University of California’s Northern Regional Library Facility. There is also a SRLF, since California is a long state, and both call to mind huge underground caverns, temperature controlled, brilliantly lit (unnecessarily so, since it’s all done by machine and machines don’t need to see, but this is my fantasy so it glares under buzzing fluorescents) and tended by retrieval machines, which pluck each odd-sized, frayed, elderly and unloved volume from its respective place and sends it joyously off to be useful to some novelist. Who keeps the volume on her shelves for some months, patting and cooing over it, until the time expires and she returns it to its brightly lit cave, to await the next user, forty years hence.

I have a photograph of the books I borrowed last year from my local university’s McHenry library, a stack four feet high, all of which filled some niche or other in The Language of Bees. The novel is set in August, 1924, and involves a Surrealist artist who comes to my protagonists for help when his wife disappears. The books I borrowed, some from the shelves and many from the NRLF, include the following topics: Surrealist art; Aleister Crowley: London’s CafĂ© Royal; Augustus John; Scotland; prehistoric sites in the United Kingdom; Bohemian life; historical Shanghai; Kipling and others on Sussex; bees—many books on bees; and the Georgics by Virgil.

This is a partial list, and does not include what I had on the shelves already concerning the 20s, England, Sussex, bees, and art history.

Incidentally, the very first note I scribbled down for the book I’m working on now, a sequel to The Language of Bees, was:

This book should use as little research as possible.

(Which translates: I can give it up any time.)

Of course, that intent lasted about ten minutes, until I found my character’s aeroplane coming down rather briskly into some trees in the Lake District, and I was back into the Aladdin’s cave of research, plunging into the McHenry library and the University of California’s NRLF for information about the Lake District, and 1924 Amsterdam, and medical practices of the period, and the roots of MI5, and…


Kerry said...

One of the things we try to teach our graduate students is that the thesis or dissertation must come to an end at some point; this against the sure knowledge that there is always one more question, one more paper, one more analysis that could be just the one to elevate the work into the rarified realms of scientific splendour.

How on earth do you ever get yourself to stop delving into such a world of riches???

kmt1976 said...

I LOVE delving! I am searching the genealogies of my family, my husband's family, and anyone else's who even mentions an ancestor! My favorite parts are the stories that go with these people - and then I search out the stories, and the places, and.. My mother-in-law is a McIntosh and a direct link to the McIntosh Apples. I forced my husband to take a trip to Canada and see the tree, etc. Then another trip to New York, then... Is there such a thing as too much research? NEVER! :>)

Marjorie said...

Laurie, I love the photo of the stack of books! I have done a bit of research for a writer friend of mine for a television movie (tuberculosis, Appalachia, the Depression, music of the 20's) and some other projects. I loved it. In fact, I found quite a bit of information on the reference shelves at the library that you will be appearing at in Connecticut on May 2nd. I do research for my own little projects as well and it is addictive and wonderful. Thanks for sharing more of your process iwth us. I learn a great deal from you about the writer's craft.

--Marjorie from Connecticut

Anonymous said...

I love college libraries. I spent my freshman year at the Mississippi State College for Women (MSCW). They allowed you to wander through their stacks at will. I once pulled out a book of poetry only to have a laundry ticket from 1880 fall out. I assume I was the first person to open it! My husband, attending Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, needed a book out of the stacks, and discovered that the last person to check it out had been his mother when she was a student there. I loved the study carrels tucked deep between the towers of book stacks, the wood darkly stained and scratched from generations of young scholars, and felt honored to have joined their ranks.

Anonymous said...

Laurie - thanks for interlinking: I so enjoyed actually looking at the stack of books you borrowed for your research, as well as the places we will visit in this new work. I love the overlapping f the writer's mind and the fiction, the physical places as they are now and were so many decades, centuries ago. A great way to start the morning!

Anonymous said...

Some of my earliest memories are of my hometown's Carnegie library. I had a library card at 3. My father was recalled to Navy duty during the Korean War. Mother and I lived in a tiny upstairs apartment. It was there that she taught me to read. We would walk to the library and each get a stack of books for the week. As I got older and wanted to read "adult" section books, my Mother told the librarians I could check out anything I wanted and she would read it when I was done! Mother and I still both are voracious reader. Wonderful memories!

Unknown said...

Laurie's article inspired me to contemplate just how intricate and fundamental the need to share information is to us. From cave drawing to data mining Libraries say it all!

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