On Research

I’m writing a new novel. Is that redundant, “new novel?”  It’s a big thing that requires a lot of effort and attention.

The entire story is mapped out, set in the mid-19th century American South and in Germany (a little).  Now, in the “write what you know” theory, the South and Germany are things that I don’t know.  Does Bonanza count?


That was the West, not the South.  This, as I like to say, calls for research.  Wikipedia, my old friend!

Of course, Wikipedia is not recognized as an acceptable reference in academics, but it’s a good jumping off point, and since I donated money to help keep the Wiki effort up, it works for me.  But sometimes you must go deeper.

Mark Twain, one of my heroes, is a supporting character in the book.  As somewhat of a Twain scholar myself, there is some sensitivity about what the fans and experts might think of my portrayal of the great author.  On the other hand, one point of a book is to furnish entertainment.  At least my book.  Still, if Sam Clemens has to talk, shouldn’t he sound like Sam Clemens?

Unfortunately, there are no recordings of Mark Twain speaking.  There are many descriptions, however, and most say he spoke almost tortuously slowly, with a drawl that had a kind of grating tone to it at times.  Still, he was highly sought after as a speaker in his day.

Somebody needs to make lemonade.

There is a recording that for years was thought to be Twain, but turned out to be an actor named William H. Gillette who knew Twain personally for decades and did what many said was a good imitation, which is fun to listen to. Actually, it’s a bit disturbing but that’s the thing about old recordings of dead people.

Gillette’s Twain Immitation

Twain had recorded some of his thoughts on cylinders for Thomas Edison and others, but none remain.   Apparently, he was being encouraged to use recordings as dictation machine for writing, but after trying the process, he is known to have said, “You can’t write literature with it.”

Why is he my hero (besides his writing)?  He was a Southerner in Civil War times, and yet was neither racist nor anti-Semitic, by many accounts.  That’s why.

News update: diversity has returned to the black and white cookies of Calabasas.

It is said that his slow delivery and drawl perfectly suited the mood and the humor of his words, and so that’s what he should be like in my book. And let me tell you, it ain’t easy trying to write for Mark Twain.  Is he funny enough? Would someone of his education and background even say that?  It’s enough to understand why writers are often nuts.

As for the grating tone of voice, that might have been a performance style of the time.  I recently heard a recording of DeWolf Hopper, American actor and comedian, reciting Ernest Thayer’s famous poem “Casey at the Bat,” (which Hopper recited over 10,000 times!) and was surprised at the slightly creepy tone of his reciting voice.  It was on purpose, and perhaps a style of voicing for the stage.  Or, Twain and Hopper both talk weird.  Or… another recording of a dead person.

DeWolf Hopper: Casey at the Bat

The other good research is all this info on, for example, Greek Revival architecture, which was big in the mid-1800s South, and not just for plantations.  Many smaller family homes were in this style as well. And steamboats! There is so much information on freakin’ steamboats.  We think of them as these quaint symbols of the south and river travel, but at one time the entire nation ran on steamboats.  Travel, cargo, moving animals, lumber, you name it.

The point of this is that sometimes writing is reading and researching and boy is that fun!  The only problem is, I start researching sawmills in the south and end up reading papers on the long-leaf yellow pine population of Mississippi.  Or about towns along the river that had been washed away when the Mississippi jumped its banks and re-routed itself, something that happened with some regularity in the old days.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01
1860 street map of Napoleon, Arkansas. The town would be wiped off the map by the Mississippi River years later.

My father had his own company called Valley Research Systems.  The “valley” was from Valley Stream, where we lived. There was no research as far as I could tell.  The name sounded like there was a lab and a staff of scientists researching ways to make good consumer and chemical and paint products.

It was actually dad in his office in the guest room downstairs, often in his underwear, answering the phones and making believe he  was more than one person so the company sounded bigger.  Mom was his business partner, and not once did she file a complaint that her boss dressed inappropriately.  Of course, there was no Human Resources.  There was no lab either, although right below my bedroom, in the garage, were cans of paints and chemicals and if I come down with something rare and deadly, that’s probably why.

Finally, in the “cool stuff we see sometimes” department, there is this suspicious rock I saw in the fake stream behind the ol’ condo.  Every morning I open the door upstairs outside the bedroom and look down at this water.  Sometimes there is a duck or two in there.  Or an egret.  But this time, there was a pointy rock.

A suspiciously pointy rock in the water.

I’ve written about ducks here, especially ducklings, some of which disappear each season.

Ducklings. Cute to us. Delicious to hawks.

Approaching the pointy rock, it soon became apparent that this was no rock, and is likely the reason for the disappearing ducklings.

Wow. How did they fold all of that into that pointy rock?

My thought was, how could all of that get into a small pointy rock?  At least on this day, this red-tail hawk just wanted to take a little bath.

Smoking in Bed takes place in New York City, where I am from, during a period of time I experienced directly.  Still, even this required some research.  Any time your character makes a factual statement, make sure it’s correct, or someone will find it and maybe make fun of you.  So do your research!  And read my book, please, before I start bugging you to read my next book!

Smoking in Bed on Amazon

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