Blog blog blog blog blog.
That’s the thought in my head every Wednesday. Gotta make the donuts, er blog.
The best thing about writing, besides re-writing, is research. And it’s great to love re-writing as many writers don’t. In fact, I like to get the writing out of the way so I can start correcting myself. Or improving myself. It’s fun! The only problem is when you like re-writing too much, because than you never can finish anything. But back to research.
Non-fiction writers spend a hell of a lot of time researching their subject. In fact, that’s probably the most important talent to have as a non-fiction writer, to find stuff out that no one else has, or interpret things in a new way, but you need to know the subject inside and out or you’re a fraud, basically.
When I wrote my novel, I didn’t expect to do research. The characters were made up. Some of the buildings are made up. But then things started coming up, like how long it would take a character to go from one place to another. Or what a doctor might say in an emergency room. Or what kind of cell phones did they use in 2006?
Well, now I’m writing a novel that is based on a chapter or two from a Mark Twain book. I’m not writing it as Twain would, or anything, but it does take place in the south during the Civil War, and in Germany in the 1870’s. And Twain is a character. As a major Twain fan and student, almost everything I know about 19th century life was from Twain’s books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Tom Sawyer books, and Life on the Mississippi. But as I’m writing this thing, all this stuff that I am ignorant of keeps creeping up.
Like, for example, if you were sitting on the banks of the Mississippi and a steamboat came by with a band playing a popular tune, what song would it be? Well, it turns out ‘de Camptown Races, with its racist overtones and “doo-dah, doo-dah” refrain would be a pretty good bet. And a lot of other songs that you would be surprised you’ve heard of. My Old Kentucky Home anyone? Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair? And who could forget the catchy “Root, Hog, or Die” of 1856? Me, that’s who. Was that the first punk song?
And who knew that steamboat travel was dirty and dangerous? Criminals and con-men were bad enough. Boiler explosions were commonplace. Basically, the engine boiler would overheat and blow up, sending pieces of boat, animals and people scattered all over the place. Eww. This is even better than the shit they come up with in Hollywood disaster movies.
And what would someone call, for example, a stupid person? Lunkhead or meathead would be perfectly acceptable terms in 1860, as they are today. Blowhard, butterfingers and chowderhead were all very popular expressions of the time. Most are still in use today, and others should be, like oyster, meaning a “swell guy,” as in “he’s a real oyster, that Bill.” Oh… that’s why I thought of those oysters I ate on Mercer Island.
Also, there is history. Part of the story takes place in a real town in Arkansas. I wasn’t sure what it would be like there but want my story to feel authentic. I envisioned a place with taverns, brothels, and all sorts of low-life activity, where a large contingent of Confederate soldiers were camping before a campaign to try to take back Vicksburg from General Grant.
So I researched about this town, which led me to a fantastic article by professors from the University of Arkansas published in 2006 which relates a tale about a professor at Miami University (Ohio) in the mid-19th century who is quoted as telling a story that started with:
“’I’ve been within three hundred yards of hell!’ Then he went on to describe a town which he had visited during his travels. It was a town called, Napoleon, Arkansas, with half a dozen businesshouses [brothels] and twenty three saloons and a murder committed every night.”
So this was a bit of an exaggeration probably, but after reading it, I knew I had my town. What amazed me is the amount of material one can find about this place in southwest Arkansas that doesn’t even exist anymore. There is so much incredible information on anything, if you take a look. It’s not even that hard to do. Sure, I was a lawyer for a long time, so my research skills are pretty sharp, but don’t be daunted by the amount of content. There’s great stuff out there, and on the way, you get to see, for example, The 50 Greatest Caves in the World. This is what I call tangential research. Sure, you never use that stuff, but you’ll learn something.
I even learned that some of the mercenaries who fought in the Civil War (for both sides) didn’t wear the Union or Confederate uniforms, but rather the military uniforms from their own home countries. There were men out there dressed like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie. Some of these guys brought their families with them to war. You know, they’d go home after a day of battle, “honey, I’m home.” “Oh hi sweetheart, how goes the war today?” “It’s hell out there, but you know, another day, another dollar.” And so on. Yes, they got paid to fight, and so they’d bring their family along in a wagon behind the lines to save on rent. Fun stuff.
What does this all mean? Not much. But if you’re a writer, don’t fear the research. Or the rewriting. Seriously, that’s the best part.
AND NOW… GARDENING
Finally, my garden brag. Last week I put up pictures of our tomato plant, which is a rare thing indeed, as it lived through the winter and started producing fruit again in April. This doesn’t happen often, and certainly not in moderate climates. We just kept the thing alive and it did the rest. Also, here is the special system created for the plant. The mesh keeps out squirrels (so far) and it also allows the fine to grow vertically. There are currently 35 tomatoes growing on this thing.
Not only that, but here’s the pepper plant. It’s like a white pepper. Same thing. Kept it alive through the winter. It wasn’t doing very well. Re-planted and pruned really low. Now, the little fella is growing some peppers. Isn’t agriculture amazing?
In Smoking in Bed: dreams of love, sex and terrorism, there is no gardening. They all live in apartments in Manhattan. You’re lucky if you can have a snake plant or bonsai in Manhattan, so no gardening. There’s a little research. And some minor stalking. But funny stalking. It’s hard to explain. Read the book. You never know what you might learn.