Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 1st, 2011

Research as a way of dreaming

with 5 comments

As I argued yesterday, researching a novel, at least at its earliest stages, isn’t primarily about factual accuracy, but about dreaming. While it’s certainly important for an author to get his or her facts straight—if only because there’s nothing like an obvious error to yank the reader out of the story—such fact-checking can usually wait until later in the process, sometimes even after the bulk of the novel is finished. The first round of research, by contrast, is less about verifying facts than about gathering material for the imagination, which runs best when kept fed and happy. Here, then, are some tips on approaching the research process when you have the germ of an idea for a novel, but not much else:

1. Cast your net wide. Later, as you dig more deeply into the meat of your story, specifics are essential, but at the earliest stages, they can be deadly. An unwritten novel can be about anything, and it’s a mistake to lock yourself into one particular conception before it’s absolutely necessary. It’s best, then, to begin your research with as general a view on the subject as possible—even to the point where the subject itself disappears. For Kamera, which is about the art world, I didn’t begin with books on art collecting, or even on the history of art, but with books on eyesight and visual perception. In particular, I began with James Elkins’s excellent Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?—a book I found at random in the library, as I’ll be discussing further below. And if it weren’t for an aside in Elkins’s book, I never would have thought of learning more about Marcel Duchamp, a decision that has shaped the past three years of my life, and counting. Careers are made from such moments.

2. Stay off the Internet. While the Internet certainly has its place in the research process—especially for checking the thousands of small, specific details in a novel that would be impossible to verify otherwise—it isn’t very good for dreaming. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and how the right side, which is where ideas come from, operates at a slower pace than the left. Doing research online is a classic left-brained activity: it’s fast, efficient, superficial. To lure out the right brain, you need to park yourself in a comfortable chair with a couple of the largest books you can find, because it’s often not until after a few hundred pages that the right brain finally kicks in. Sometimes you’ll emerge with only one good idea from a book of three hundred pages—as I recently did with The New Cold War by Edward Lucas—but it’s an idea that never would have occurred to you online. Books, in this case, are just better.

3. Read the books that nobody else reads. Books and authors go through cycles of popularity, and in my experience, it’s the books that are out of print or out of fashion that are the most fruitful for a writer’s work. Remember, we aren’t looking for factual accuracy, but to coax the right brain to life, a sensation that is almost inseparable, at least to me, from the smell of old books and bookstores. (Which, my dad says, is really the smell of mildew. “And happiness,” I reply.) If you’re doing research on a particular subject, unless it’s something like search engine optimization, look for books that were published before you were born: they’re likely to be better written, more eccentric, and more conducive to imagination than books that came out yesterday. The more recent the book, the more likely it conforms to currently fashionable habits of thought, which is the last thing a writer needs. (Example: an original edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, while useless as a reference book, is infinitely superior to more recent versions as a tool for dreaming.)

4. Let books find you. On this subject, I’ve already quoted Robert Graves, who said that the books he needed to write The White Goddess “were soon sent, unasked for, by poet friends or tumbled down into my hands from the shelves of a second-hand sea-side bookshop.” Most writers, I imagine, know how this feels. Perhaps the most useful book that I’ve found in the research for Midrash is James Billington’s great The Icon and the Axe, which I discovered in the dollar bin of the Housing Works Bookstore in New York. And I’ve already mentioned how the heart of Kamera was inspired by a chance library discovery. But such books will only find you if you’re prepared to recognize them when they appear—and if you haunt used bookstores and libraries on a regular basis. If you don’t already spend at least an hour a week browsing the stacks somewhere, you probably should.

5. Allow for randomness. Sometimes the best ideas come from sources that have nothing to do with your novel at all. It’s hard to predict when such moments will come—it can be when you’re watching television, or at the movies, or reading a novel on a plane—but it’s also possible to encourage them to appear. There are certain books in our culture that are treasure hoards of randomness, mines of ideas waiting to attach themselves to your imagination, and it’s crucial to find time for these books as well. You’ll probably have your own favorites, but my own indispensable lucky bags of ideas include Brewer’s Dictionary (the older the edition, the better), The Whole Earth Catalog (ditto), The Golden Bough, The White Goddess, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Eckermann’s Conversations of Goethe, and (a recent discovery) The Portable Dragon.

This, then, is the first stage of research, which involves endless browsing and daydreaming, and what seems like a lot of wasted time—as does much of a novelist’s life. But this stage is so essential that I recommend that you devote at least a month to it (though more than six weeks is verging on procrastination). Later, when you’re drawing on the well of ideas you’ve acquired, you’ll be very glad you did.

Quote of the Day

with 3 comments

The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.

Umberto Eco, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

February 1, 2011 at 8:03 am

%d bloggers like this: