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…

Guest Blogger: JANE K. CLELAND

I Love Librarians
by Jane K. Cleland

All of my nieces are librarians. Isn’t that odd? Any family can have a librarian in it... heck... I bet some families have two... but all? Okay... we’re a small family... I only have three nieces... but still... all of them are librarians. Lucky me. Librarians are a remarkable breed of people. They’re curious, knowledgeable, smart, and helpful. No wonder I love librarians.

One of my nieces is a communications expert, researching ways and means of framing and disseminating her clients’ messages. Another is a cognitive expert, assisting scientists in researching issues surrounding thinking and assimilating information. My third niece is an elementary education expert, working with youngins to instill a love of reading and learning. I’m in awe of all three.

I come by my attitude of respect and appreciation honestly; my mother loved librarians, too. When I was a mere slip of a girl she taught me that if you wanted to know something you could always consult a librarian because they either know everything or they know where to find out everything.

When I was in sixth grade, I consulted a librarian as to whether Paul Revere’s horse was a mare. (I needed it as a rhyme in a poem, and being an honest girl, I couldn’t just say it was a mare if it was, in fact, a stallion. Note of interest: She found a contemporary reference stating that Paul Revere’s horse was a mare; I thought you’d want to know.) When I was in eighth grade, a librarian held me enraptured as she discussed the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. (Yes, you read that right. Twenty-one people died a gruesome death, asphyxiated by molasses.)

To this day, I love working with librarians as I work to introduce readers to my protagonist, antiques appraiser, Josie Prescott. As an author, I’m in the enviable position of getting to do just that—a lot. As many of you know, I tour extensively [Jane's tour schedule] as I work to introduce readers to Josie.

I also work with Deborah Hirsch, a principal librarian at the New York Public Library to coordinate a series of monthly programs for the Mid-Manhattan Branch in my role as chair of the Library Committee for the Mystery Writers of America/ New York Chapter. [http://www.mwa-ny.org/library.php#events]

In fact, even when I’m traveling overseas, it’s not uncommon for me find myself in a library, like this one I just visited in Grenada. I love the buildings. I love the books. I love the reverence implicit in the hushed conversations. But mostly, I love the librarians.


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