Posts Tagged ‘Lucknow’

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Ed Ralph via Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps ironic that after writing a novel set in the desert of northern India, I now liken the research process to learning to swim. But here it is: moving through the ocean of information with mastery is like being a scuba diver, aware of your depth and your air supply and the location of the shore, accepting the power of the water and the currents, but having the confidence to immerse yourself in observation, to follow an intriguing trail of bubbles to an unexpected coral head. There, in that fine balance of mastery and deference, of the planned and the unexpected, lies the pure joy of researching your setting. But from standing safely on the shore contemplating the allure of the water to reaching this almost magical moment of gliding with control involves many stages, some of them very difficult, all of them necessary.

After taking the plunge, you realize the power of the water, the immensity of the ocean, and your own insignificance. You flail, assailed with doubts. Even once you manage to tread water and keep your head clear you realize you are expending a lot of energy and going nowhere. This is the crucial moment. You can give up, holler for someone to haul you out, or you can give it your all. Once you manage an inelegant doggy paddle, propelling yourself with purpose, hope and self-confidence emerge and you can look forward to refining your stroke and, eventually, diving for details with the knowledge that you can and will resurface, perhaps not exactly where or when you expected, but always enriched by the experience.

Here are the stages, and recognizing them each can be helpful.

Contemplating the allure of the water from the safety of land: Little bits of a story idea, of a different world, have landed on you, like droplets of water, on a summer day, leaving you wanting more. The water shimmers, entices. It is hot out, prickly hot, and the surface calls to you. The clouds are reflected in it, undulating slightly; it doesn’t look that deep. How refreshing it would be to take a dip, to immerse yourself in this other world. You’ve heard there is a whole universe under there: coral and colorful fish and strange anemones with scarlet tentacles. A pelican dives in, head first, and emerges with a fish. Other people make it look so easy, gliding through, cutting the surface with their arms. And fun! Splashing around, laughing. Standing on their heads, their feet waving, and then toppling. Some of them wear snorkel masks, and you wonder what they see. You want to see it, too.

Realizing the power of the water: You take the plunge. You launch yourself into, say, nineteenth century India. Immediately, you are overwhelmed. There is such a vast immensity of information available. Gasping, coughing, you gulp some of it down. You reach out and try to grab at anything you can hold onto. You read everything, or try to. You jot down a lot of facts, many of which you know you’ll never use, but you don’t yet know which ones those are, and you suspect the ones you don’t bother to record are the ones that will be critical to your story. History, politics, journals and diaries, newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, books on daily life, architecture, food and customs, sweeping summaries and minute details alike. They all swirl around you. You enter search terms willy-nilly into Google and Google Books, Amazon, Wikipedia, local library catalogs. You feel hopeless, yet determined. You flail. The more you read, the less you feel you are qualified, authorized, to write this story. But you have to fight the pull of the current. This is a test. Will you give up, be knocked about by the waves, and emerge bruised and dejected, or will you find a foothold and prevail, strengthened by the understanding that you are not in full control?

Treading water: After a while, you get the hang of keeping your head above water. You maintain the shoreline in sight, remember what this is all about. You manage to control your arm and leg movements. Vague story elements start to form. Not just India, but the city of Lucknow. The courtesan and merchant quarters. Not just the nineteenth century, but the years just before and just after the Great Rebellion. You manage to look down into the water and catch sight of identifiable shapes: a clump of rock, a tuft of sea grass. Some of your characters start to come into focus, and this helps dictate the specific settings for your story. You don’t yet see the details, but you begin to imagine them. You go from “he’s an artist” to “he’s a musician” to “he’s a sarangi player.” You are able to eliminate some of the sources for being irrelevant, and to replace them with others, which you now know will be highly relevant. You organize the resources and the research and you make lists. Many lists.

Doggy paddle: Now you are actually making forward progress. The plot starts to form. Getting from Point A to Point B. This is the exciting part, where you realize you are not only staying afloat, but you are swimming! It may be a basic form of locomotion, low on the totem pole of swim strokes, with a silly name, but it is a bona fide style. And now the development of the story feeds the research, and vice versa. You have direction. Instead of researching all festivals and religious celebrations of the time and place, you zero in on the specific one that will feature in your story, the one during which the betrayal, or the discovery, or the moment of forgiveness will happen. Instead of researching all forms of architecture and buildings, you picture and describe the specific ones your characters inhabit. You study maps, learn the layout of the setting. Now you know that it would take a good thirty minutes to walk from your main character’s home to La Martinière, the boys’ school across the river. Now you know that the shore is not that far away, and that you can keep up this doggy paddle thing for quite a while.

Front crawl: You hit your stride. You control when you come up for air. You cut through the water with purpose. You outline your scenes, and start writing some. Now you get into serious specifics. Someone is growing flowers on the roof. You look up exactly the types of flowers likely to be growing there, and the birds that will peck at the seeds. You imagine a specific meal, the food on the dishes, how it smells. You picture what your characters are wearing, feel the fabric, choose the colors. You go from “some European shopkeepers in Lucknow took orders for frivolous objects for their customers” to “Monsieur Carnonge insisted that a cucumber slicer be acquired for him from the latest shipment of European goods that had arrived that morning from Cawnpore by hackery.”

Scuba diving: This is it. You have your tank of air strapped onto your back, and you immerse yourself in this new world. You are no longer overwhelmed by its vast immensity, by the multitudes of lives teeming below you. You know how to navigate it. Now you can take your time, float a while, seek out nuggets of fact or possibility that others unfamiliar with the terrain would miss. There, in that clump of rocks, there is a crevice that you now know is likely to hide an octopus. (What? An octopus in Lucknow?!) You dive down and hover, peering in, slowing your fins, controlling your bubbles, watching, and you are rewarded by a pulpy display of tentative tentacles. Hello, you say in your head, and you smile—insofar as you can do so with your lips stretched around the regulator—delighted with your discovery. Momentary euphoria.

Until you have your first draft critiqued.

Yours truly diving off Harbour Island, Bahamas

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Brookline_Booksmith

Brookline Booksmith. Photo by Eric Wilbur

I had one hour and forty-five minutes. It was a rare oasis of time for a Sunday. Time for myself, away from home, away from the temptations of planning out the week’s meals or running a load of laundry so as to start the week in an organized manner. Big One had a birthday party just far enough from home for it not to make sense to drop her off, go home, then pick her up again. But she’s just about 9 now, and it was made clear that parents were not to taint the party with the uncoolness of their presence. (Besides, I confess to doing a little jig for joy when she was invited, four years ago, to her first “drop off” birthday party. I think there may have been some liability waiver to sign, a padded room and gymnastics equipment, but it all seemed wonderful to me at the time.) So I left her in a moon bounce with about eight other girls (and many more, disgorged from vehicles sidling up to the sidewalk while parents watched them cross, streaming over to the yard, present in hand, shoes already half kicked off) in the eighty degree relative coolness that has followed a week of temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Feeling light, I decided to take a stroll around Coolidge Corner a few blocks away.

I was well aware of the danger: the Brookline Booksmith, fabulous independent book shop, sits squarely in the center of Coolidge Corner, wedged between two coffee shops. I intended simply to mosey around and take in the new stores and restaurants, let my thoughts float. I considered crossing the street before getting to the book shop, just to reduce the likelihood of my getting ensnared. I thought: I do not need more books. I do not need more books. Not now. My shelves are already overflowing, and on my bedside table alone are three books I’ve been toting about for weeks: Erin Morgenstern‘s The Night Circus, to investigate what all the hullabaloo is about; Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’ Engaging Scoundrels, part of my research on Lucknow; and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction, my current craft Bible. I tried to convince myself I had no immediate need for more unread books. I can always go purchase one later, correct? In my study, piles of unread books hide the spines of others.

I approached the book shop door, confident of my fortitude, steeling myself against its power. Just then, a woman pushing a stroller with another young child on a scooter trailing behind her paused in front of the door, clearly trying to devise her strategy for pulling it open and maneuvering her charges in. Instinctively, I opened it for her, and instinctively, I followed her in. Just for ten minutes. Not intending to buy anything. Just curious as to what books were displayed up front. Research into marketing and promotion for a book I hope to send out into the world soon.

Stop snickering, please. I can hear you.

I abide by schedules, even–perhaps especially–my own. I was, in fact, in there for just ten minutes. But in those ten minutes, an entire sea of thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes and ideas. Even dreams. In those ten minutes, I took in, in the most superficial of ways–my eyes sliding over displays, barely taking the time to focus–the “Recently Arrived” and “New in Paperback” tables and the second half of the fiction section, going backwards from Z to K, not even bothering to turn my head to read the spines. But even in that quick time, in my refusal to succumb fully, the book shop worked its magic.

There were many of the books I hear about repeatedly, and I must have reached the magical hear-about-it-seven-times-in-order-to-buy it moment in the case of three of them, because within two minutes they were tucked under my arm. There was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, which has received, well, wild acclaim. In what I’ve read of her and by her, Ms. Strayed seems like quite a likable person, and her story is compelling. There was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (actually, Bringing up the Bodies, but once I decided I’d buy one, it made sense to start at the beginning) which I justified as another piece of research, to see how an author brings to life such a distant time period with such success. There was B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger, which keeps popping up ever since I took a seminar with the author at last year’s Muse & the Marketplace conference, and which I can also chalk up to research (neat how I do that, no?) because it is fiction that involves the art world, the way mine does.

There were the books of people I’ve come to know via social media and for whom I’ve been cheering, whose familiar names staring out at me from book covers made me smile for their success at bringing a book to market: Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali, whom I met in person at the conference last year, and whose journey to publication seems not dissimilar to mine (barring the minor fact that she actually has a book in stores now); and Eden Lake by Jane Roper, a woman of extraordinary grit and humor who is managing to have a writing career in the midst of a massive family challenge.

There were books I have read, and whose images, atmospheres and characters remain strong in my mind. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, magical for its storytelling power, and vividly rendered on the screen by Ang Lee. There was Jesmyn Ward‘s Salvage the Bones, which left me with searing images of a bone white dog, ragged but tough children, earth and blood and roiling water. I give it as a gift to an elderly Jewish grandmother and to a teacher/mentor of mine before reading it myself, then wondered, after I had read it, what they’d think of it, of me. There was Abraham Verghese‘s Cutting for Stone, memorable for its cast of characters, its unusual setting (beginning in Ethiopia of the 1950s) which I recommend widely. There was writer and polemicist (isn’t that such a wonderful word?) Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things, and images of a small boy’s confusion in the sticky darkness of a cinema (the “talkies”) in south India, and an alluring dark body dancing by the river.

There were the many, many books I wanted to purchase that I didn’t. Not this time around. I was drawn to the cover of Polpo, a beautiful octopus splayed out on a cookbook from a Venetian restaurant by the same name. I thought of how much my children both love octopuses–one of them sleeps with a stuffed octopus, one of them is always keen to eat marinated octopus. There was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I admire greatly not only for her writing but for her success as a versatile writer, adept at many genres, and able to avoid being pigeon-holed. There was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht whose name and background, and achievement at a young age, are intriguing (enviable?).

But my time was up. Ten minutes. I worked my way through the pleasing crowd to the cash register, paid my $49, and left.

I stepped out into the world, a dramatic sky overhead, part thundercloud and part dazzling blue, and it seemed everyone around me harbored an obsession. A wrought woman, all skin and bone, walked in the opposite direction, one hand clutching her phone to her ear, one arm wrapped around herself, as though to hold herself together. A group of seemingly homeless folk were gathered around a bench, one of them perhaps three hundred and fifty pounds, wedged into a electric wheelchair, the arm rests digging into the folds of flesh at his sides. The others were weathered, coarse, cigarettes dangling from their dry lips. A short man covered in tattoos held a beribboned little girl in his arms, her shoes, skirt, t-shirt, sunglasses and hair ribbons all varying shades of pink. In the coffee shop, an elderly woman so thin as to look two dimensional was hunched over a tall cup of coffee and drinking the entire thing with a tea spoon, occasionally looking up and around with wild and distrusting eyes. Stories everywhere.

When are my next ten minutes?

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A fellow writer recently emailed me, asking about my “process” for researching and writing my book. (It’s always flattering to be asked such things when I haven’t yet been published. Really, I want to ask, you care about how I produced my manuscript, little me without a publishing contract yet? It reminds me of a recent experience I had, while meeting with my terrific writing group at our usual haunt, the bar side of a local restaurant. We were discussing one of our manuscripts, and our server, who was not our usual server, having perhaps overheard some salacious or bizarre snippets of conversation relating to the material we were reading, shyly asked us what we were doing. We are critiquing eachother’s manuscripts, we replied. Really, she asked, her eyes wide in amazement. You’re authors?! Two of us, in our usual self-deprecating way, hastened to say well, no, we are writers. The third one of us clarified: we are not yet published. Our server scrumpled up her eyebrows, held out her hands to the sides, palms up, and said: Huh? I don’t see the difference. I mean, you’re still bad-ass!)

Anyway. My process for the first book was a haphazard mish-mash of cobbled-together fumblings, in which I guiltily allowed myself to indulge in spurts, amid freelance work and baby and co-founding a non-profit organization. I was blundering in the dark, unaware, at first, that I was even researching a book at all. Now that I am fully invested in the research for the second one, I see that there are several stages, and they are akin to the stages of learning to swim. Like so:

Contemplating the allure of the water from the safety of land: Little bits of a story idea, of a different world, have landed on you, like droplets of water, on a summer day, leaving you wanting more. The water shimmers, entices. It is hot out, prickly hot, and the surface calls to you. The clouds are reflected in it, undulating slightly; it doesn’t look that deep. How refreshing it would be to take a dip, have a change in setting, explore this other world. You’ve heard there is a whole universe under there. Coral and colorful fish and strange anemones with scarlet tentacles. A pelican dives in, head first, and emerges with a fish. Other people make it look so easy, gliding through, cutting the surface with their arms. And fun! Splashing around, laughing. Standing on their heads, their feet waving, then toppling. Some of them wear snorkel masks, and you wonder what they see. You want to see it, too.

Pelican on Soliman Bay, Mexico

 

Near drowning: You jump in. Take the plunge. You launch yourself into, say, nineteenth century India. Immediately, you are overwhelmed. There is such a vast immensity of information available. Gasping, coughing, you gulp some of it down. You reach out and try to grab at anything you can hold onto. You read everything, or try to. You jot down a lot of facts, many of which you know you’ll never use, but you don’t yet know which ones those are, and you suspect the ones you don’t bother to record are the ones that will be critical to your story. History, politics, journals and diaries, newspaper articles, novels, academic papers, books on daily life, architecture, food and customs, sweeping summaries and minute details alike. They all swirl around you. You enter search terms willy-nilly into Google and Google Books, Amazon, Wikipedia, local library catalogs. You feel hopeless, yet determined. You keep flailing, hoping not to swallow too much water. It stings your nose and your eyes.

Treading water: After a while, you get the hang of keeping your head above water. You maintain the shoreline in sight, remember what this is all about. You manage to control your arm and leg movements. Vague story elements start to form. Not just India, but the city of Lucknow. The courtesan and merchant quarters. Not just the nineteenth century, but the years just before and just after the Great Rebellion. You manage to look down into the water and catch sight of identifiable shapes: a clump of rock, a tuft of sea grass. Some of your characters start to come into focus, and this helps dictate the specific settings for your story. You don’t yet see the details, but you begin to imagine them. You go from “he’s an artist” to “he’s a musician” to “he’s a sarangi player.” You are able to eliminate some of the sources for being irrelevant, and to replace them with others which you now know will be highly relevant. You organize the resources and the research—perhaps you use Scrivener—and you make lists. Many lists.

Doggie paddle: Now you are actually making forward progress. The plot starts to form. Getting from Point A to Point B. This is the exciting part, where you realize you are not only staying afloat, but you are swimming! It may be a basic form of locomotion, low on the totem pole of swim strokes, with a silly name, but it is a bona fide style. And now the development of the story feeds the research, and vice versa. You have direction. Instead of researching all festivals and religious celebrations of the time and place, you zero in on the specific one that will feature in your story, the one during which the betrayal, or the discovery, or the moment of forgiveness will happen. Instead of researching all forms of architecture and buildings, you picture and describe the specific ones your characters inhabit. You study maps, learn the layout of the setting. Now you know that it would take a good thirty minutes to walk from your main character’s home to La Martinière, the boys’ school across the river. Now you know that the shore is not that far away, and that you can keep up this doggy paddle thing for quite a while.

Front crawl: You hit your stride. You control when you come up for air. You cut through the water with purpose. You outline your scenes, and start writing some. Now you get into serious specifics. Someone is growing flowers on the roof. You look up exactly the types of flowers likely to be growing there, and the birds that will peck at the seeds. You imagine a specific meal, the food on the dishes, how it smells. You picture what your characters are wearing, feel the fabric, choose the colors. You go from “some European shopkeepers in Lucknow took orders for frivolous objects for their customers” to “Monsieur Carnonge insisted that a cucumber slicer be acquired for him from the latest shipment of European goods that had arrived that morning from Cawnpore by hackery.”

Scuba diving: This is it. You have your tank of air strapped onto your back, and you immerse yourself in this new world. You are no longer overwhelmed by its vast immensity, by the multitudes of lives teeming below you. You know how to navigate it. Now you can take your time, float a while, seek out nuggets of fact or possibility that others unfamiliar with the terrain would miss. There, in that clump of rocks, there is a crevice that you now know is likely to hide an octopus. (What? An octopus in Lucknow?!) You dive down and hover, peering in, slowing your fins, controlling your bubbles, watching, and you are rewarded by a pulpy display of tentative tentacles. Hello, you say in your head, and you smile—insofar as you can do so with your lips stretched around the regulator—delighted with your discovery. Momentary euphoria.

Until you have your first draft critiqued. But that’s a whole other story.

Yours truly diving off Harbour Island, Bahamas, many moons ago.

 

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