Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Love Affair (With Research)

Like many of the Pens, I'm a reformed academic. I've always been into research. REALLY into research.

I don't mean the kind of research you can do at the computer (not romantic enough). Or the kind that requires studying volumes of data (not engaging enough). Or the kind that needs rigorous analysis of original research (not tangible enough for me to wrap my head around in the humanities and social sciences).

I'm talking about hanging out under the gothic arches of the reading rooms in old libraries; venturing off the beaten path when visiting a foreign city; reading the inscriptions on weathered, ivy-covered gravestones.

Notice a pattern there? None of my favorite kinds of research were especially helpful for a real life PhD.

But my kind of research is much more fun.

Around the time I spent a semester of graduate school at the University of Bath in England (studying comparative social policy, thank you very much), I realized that although I loved research, I didn't love what I was supposed to do with it.

I gave up research for my day job, but it didn't make its way out of my life.

I wonder about all sorts of things I come across:

What if a painting scholars had always assumed represented a fictional event turned out to be a true depiction of a long-lost treasure? That's one of the threads that comes together in my first mystery.

And those famous Roman Baths in Bath? I've got a great scene set in that place--now I just need to write a book to go with it...

When I received a writers' grant to be put to use finishing my first mystery novel, I bought a plane ticket to London and got myself a readers pass to do research in the British Library reading rooms.

(Those rooms are more secure than the flight to get you to London: multiple forms of ID, no bags, no pens, no food or drink, and no cameras--thus my sketch of the reading room where the British East India Company's India Office Records are kept, at left).

Once I got in, my fictional characters had a field day with the ideas I thought up in that reading room.

After I came up with what I wanted to happen, I consulted with historians to make sure the plot was plausible. Luckily, with only a couple tweaks, it was.



Shelby said...

That describes my to a 't'.. but I haven't flown to London yet.

Unknown said...

Man, I can't wait to read your first novel, it sounds intriguing!

I went to Bath with a friend, but everyone in that region was wildly snobby to us. Not a pleasant memory, except for the cool underground Roman tile (Julie knows the fancy name for lots of little tiles, I knew that word two weeks ago...).

Anyway, it's no wonder fascist regimes round up the writers as one of the first orders of business. We're always poking our noses into things that others are content to leave alone :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

I think that's true, Mysti. I once heard Barbara Kingsolver talk, and she said she thought the reason most fiction writers were liberal was that they spend so much of their time trying to get into other people's heads, placing themselves in other time, places, and situations. It breeds great compassion -- and nosiness!
Oh, and name? Mosaics? I do love me some Roman mosaics!

Sophie Littlefield said...

I have *always* wanted to keep a notebook of sketches for research. I even tried it once...on vacation...I wanted to be like those explorers with notebooks full of leaves and birds and maps - and I ended up writing stories ideas instead! A waste of good drawing paper, but story ideas are never wasted, even if all they do is roll around in one's head...

Gigi Pandian said...

Mysti -- I'm so sorry you had a bad time in Bath! Since I was a student while there, I mostly hung out at the university and the pubs, but I still think you should give it another chance.

Sophie -- I love it when my notebooks end up with sketches, but since I'm a better photographer than illustrator, I'm generally lazy and stick to snapping photos ;)

L.G.C. Smith said...

Great post, Gigi. I can't think of a better place to go for research than the British Library.

Mysti, Bath seems a little snooty to me, too, as does the whole area thereabouts, but I don't think it's personal. You know the English. Their social skills can seem underdeveloped some days. Gigi's right, it's well worth a second chance. I love the Roman Baths. They loom large in my visions of Roman Britain. Gigi, have you written your scene set there yet? I'd love to see how you interpreted the place.

Gigi Pandian said...

The Roman Baths scene is only written in NaNoWriMo form so far (i.e. not fit for eyes other than mine until I revise a bit). It was such a fun caper that I can't wait to get back to it.

Dana Fredsti said...

Sigh... a grant and a trip to England? Gigi, you're already living an adventure! I can't wait to read your book!

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