Friday, June 12, 2009

The Joy of Research

and a bit of shameless copying ....

from Jacqueline

I’ve been writing so hard over the past two weeks, that my eyes hurt and I’ve a constant splitting headache. The deadline for my new book approaches with the speed of an express train, so I rather feel as if the walls are closing in on me, the ceiling is coming down on my head and, oh dear, here comes the floor! But the words are at least flowing – I don’t know what shape they’re in, but they’re flowing. In fact, I have the most accommodating of editors in that she knows the manuscript that arrives in her inbox following the point at which my wavering finger finally hits the SEND button, is the first, the very first draft of a new novel. She also knows that while she is reading and editing that first draft, I am also taking on the task of my first revision, so by the time she sees the manuscript a second time, incorporating both our edits, the bricks will have mortar and there will be a roof on the house. Landscaping takes place when I work on the second draft, by which time the copyeditor is ready with that red pen, and the race is on. That’s the race I’ve been running since I began my research for the new novel, a story which begins in California, in 1914.

The thing with the research component is that it’s ongoing. Almost as soon as the kernel of a story begins to germinate in my mind, I am on the lookout. I troll Barts Books, that most wonderful of used bookshops, which just happens to be in Ojai, where I live (though we are on our way north again soon). I noodle around the antiquarian and used books on the web, mainly because much of the information I need for my stories is to be found in old books. The advantage of such research is that as well as being steeped in the events of the time, I am also immersed in the rhythm of language, which is as much a part of time and place as the clothing, architecture and modes of travel. And all that brings me to a shameless act of copying, which is actually OK, because the book in question is out of copyright.

In the past eight or nine months or so, I’ve read a few books written by wandering scribes of the early 1900’s, and I’ve been increasingly impressed with the language, the use of words, phrases and descriptions of places I have known and loved – albeit from the perspective of an early 20th century traveler. However it was a book purchased at Barts for the grand sum of twenty bucks that lifted me into another world. I even read passages out loud to my husband, who is usually not eager to have his attention drawn away from the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. “That’ll be something for your blog,” he said, having listened for quite some time. So, dear reader, here you are, the opening paragraphs of Under The Sky In California by Charles Francis Saunders, published 1913.

“While the following pages touch upon some matters with which the tourist who travels along conventional lines in California is familiar, the main concern of the author has been to draw attention to an immensity of almost unexplored mountain, desert, canon* and flowery plain, which the average tourist sees – if at all – from the car window. This is the real California; and but for man’s unceasing battle with Nature, the artificial wonderland of palms and roses and orange groves which his boundless energy and patient cultivation have evoked, would relapse almost in a night into this wild, majestic solitude. Like all genuine things, it has the compelling charm of the primitive and to the lover of the unartificial it appeals with freshness and power.

Hunters, anglers, forest rangers and prospectors know this region; the cowboy and the miner know it; above all, the Indian knows it, and when he is taken from it, he dies. To the thousands of travelers, however, who yearly visit the Golden State, this California of Nature’s doing is an unknown country; and however much some of them might wish to become better acquainted with it, their mortal frames accustomed to trains de luxe and dining cars, would be absolutely helpless if subjected to the rough conditions which are accepted as a matter of course by the cow-puncher and iron-framed camper.

Yet with some foreknowledge of how to go about seeing this lesser-known California, the task is not difficult of accomplishment even for men and women of delicate frame to whom some daintiness of living is inseparable from enjoyment. This book, written out of the personal experience of man and wife of very limited physical strength, is designed to combine with some hint of the beauties and interests which lie outside the regulation sights, certain practical directions for travelers who may desire with comfort and safety to taste something of California’s wilder side.”

(* pertains to the Spanish spelling of canyon used throughout the book, but I can’t find the squiggly thing that goes over the ‘n’ - oh, and the "car" is not an automobile, but train car.)

Needless to say, the whole book has entranced me. And what have I done all this research for? One scene at the opening of the novel. It’s been worth it.

And just to sign off – here’s the kind of transport in use by Mr. Saunders for his pilgrimage off the beaten track in California:

And I've got two of 'em to keep gassed-up!

Have a great weekend, wherever you may wander.


  1. It's amazing how writing styles have changed,especially in popular fiction. BTW, I love Barts Books. At the moment, I am wandering at sea near Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island.

  2. For a bit more information from the Indian viewpoint, I suggest Peter Nabokov's WHERE THE LIGHTNING STRIKES: THE LIVES OF AMERICAN INDIAN SACRED PLACES -- specifically, chapters 14, 15, 16 on Southern California, Central California, and Northern California, respectively.

  3. Ah, to have a time machine.

    (Which, of course, is what your books do).

    I've often wanted to motor along Mulholland Drive just after World War II to look out at the Los Angeles Basin. I guess I'll have to let Raymond Chandler do it for me.

    And in the tilde department, here it is: cañon.

  4. from Jacqueline

    Patty, oh, to be out sailing right now, or on a horse, or somewhere ... maybe it's time for a hike! Yes, Barts is great, one of the best places to hang out. Enjoy your maritime wanderings, my dear.

    Sandy - I'll look up that book. Thanks!

    And Paul - of course, it's a tilde! I can't find one on my computer, but it must be there somewhere! Thank you for filing the gap in my vocabulary - I'm a writer and I cannot believe I had to say "squiggly thing" because my words failed me and I didn't have all day to find them.

  5. The tilde should be next to the "1" on your keyboard. Also there's also the old cut and paste route using character map if you're a Windows user. I'm looking forward to reading what you'll do with 1914 California.

  6. from Jacqueline

    Oh you're right, Anonymous - it's next to the 1! I tell you, my eyes are hurting like hell (I really should get a full-size screen instead of just looking at my laptop screen all day) so it was easy to miss. Thank you!!!