Saturday, May 28, 2011

Research: When It's Time to Dig In

We've all seen them. Those legal thrillers or crime shows where the hero just can't find the one single detail that ties everything all together. And then they go to the library, sit down at a public computer, open up a search engine and, after a few quick keystrokes, find the answer that leads them to the villain, the secret lair, the unknown weakness and the pot-o-gold at the end of the rainbow. But research is rarely that easy.

I just finished the first draft for personal essay/memoir kind of thing. Although it's mostly based on things that happened to me, there are a couple of fine details I want to research and nail down before I even think about sending this thing out. One of them being the date of a concert I went to in the mid 1990's. I know the year. And it was snowing that night, so I know it was sometime between November and March. But beyond that I really don't remember.

So I spent a couple of hours digging through the electronic databases at work, accessing The Washington Post as well as some more local papers, looking for any mention of the specific concert tour. It wasn't a major stadium tour, but at the 9:30 Club in D.C. Not the current super-warehouse space, but the old, dingy bar near the Metro Center metro stop (oh how I miss that dirty place). I couldn’t find anything, so it became apparent that it wasn't a show Mark Jenkins or one of the other critics reviewed. But I thought I'd still find it listed in an events guide in old weekend sections or something. But the databases don't seem to capture any of that stuff----just the actual articles. In the end, I think I'll have to trek out to the one library in my library system that still has old issues of The Washington Post on microfiche, and go through the weekend sections week-by-week until I find what I need.

I was at writing conference once and heard Karey Joy Fowler talk about her process and how one of the greatest tools for her in writing historical fiction is going through the advertisements and personal ads to get a sense of the language, what people bought, ate and did for fun. Details like that are still getting left out with most of our digital tools. It just points out to me some of the limitations of using digital sources for research. They can be a wonderful time saver if they have what you want, but for those pieces that are a little more esoteric----and those are often the pieces that are the most fun-----you still have to get your hands dirty flipping through physical newspapers, magazines and microfiche.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

I took me a little longer than it should have, but I finally finished reading Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Most of the reviews I've seen have focused on the humor and Yu's similarities to Douglas Adams. And while Adams is certainly in this book, I think a stronger influence might be Italo Calvino. A Calvino raised on a steady diet of Star Trek, Star Wars, Heinlein and X-Men comic books, but Calvino nonetheless. The following paragraphs from the book really sum up my thoughts on it:

Time travel was supposed to be fun, it was supposed to be about going to places and having a bunch of adventures. Not hovering over scenes from your own life as a detached observer. Not just lurching from moment to random moment, and never even learning about those moments. (401)

Get back in the box. Set it for home, present day. Go see your mom. Bring your dad. Have dinner, the three of you. Go find The Woman You Never Married and see if she might want to be The Woman You Are Going to Marry Someday. Step out of this box. Pop open the hatch. The forces within the chronohydraulic air lock will equalize. Step out into the world of time and risk and loss again. Move forward, into the empty plane. Find the book you wrote, and read it until the end, but don't turn the last page yet, keep stalling, see how long you can keep expanding the infinitely expandable moment. Enjoy the elastic present, which can accommodate as little or as much as you want to put in there. Stretch it out, live inside it. (459)

I read this as an Ebook through my Ipod touch. The book is filled with footnotes, diagrams and pictures that go along with the narrative. Now these aren't directly in the text, but presented to the reader as an optional hyperlink you can open by pressing with your finger. I've seen the footnote thing with non-fiction titles, but this is the first fiction title I've seen use the Ebook format in this way. Yu even takes an extra step by giving a link to a Youtube video demonstrating a brain experiment on how the human brain acts when it makes specific choices.

A small lightbulb went off in my little brain on how most of this isn't possible in your standard Ereader; it requires a tablet, cell phone or other web-ready device that can handle something more than B&W text and simple pictures. The whole experience reminded me a little of the web-based Hyperfiction texts you'd find at places like Alt-X in the mid to late 90's. It's kind of exciting and I'm really curious to see what a writer with a real formalist/expermentalist bent like Danielewski could do with a tool like an Ereader.