Friday, September 12, 2008
The Joys of Research
Let's face it--the dirty secret of many a nonfiction writer, and even some fiction writers I know, is that the best part of working on a book is the research. We get to learn all sorts of interesting facts, snoop into the private letters of long-dead people, and stare into the faces of folks from other cultures, wondering what their lives were really like. We get to feel important--only a pencil and loose paper allowed in the archives--we're dealing with valuable materials, no ink marks or pilfering tolerated. And how about those silly white gloves that never fit that you have to wear if your handling something really important?
I'm in Cody, Wyoming, as I write this, doing research as a Resident Fellow at the Cody Institute for Western American Studies--doesn't that sound impressive? I'm writing a book about the relationship through time between Indians and horses and thoroughly enjoying being a total nerd for a couple of weeks. Not only do I get to enjoy ferreting out obscure facts, I get to appreciate the beauty of exquisite objects like this beaded horse blanket in the Plains Indian Museum.
The Harold McCracken Research Library here has an abundance of books and archives relating to all aspects of the history of the Old West as it's part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. If you ever need information about Plains Indians, Buffalo Bill, Yellowstone ecology, or western art, this institution should be on your list. In addition to the above, the The Cody Firearms Museum contains the most complete collection of American firearms as well as European examples from as long ago as the sixteenth century. Who would know that a little town tucked into a Wyoming valley would contain such research resources? And where else will you be told, "Turn left at the Gatling gun," when you ask how to find a curator's office?
I was lucky enough to become a Fellow here because a friend alerted me to the opportunity. I wonder how many other institutions around the country offer such residencies to people like us. It's a good idea to check on grants and residencies when you are planning your research.
Book authors aren't the only sticklers for facts. Hugh Fordin includes this story in his book, "Getting to Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II." Hammerstein researched every detail for his lyrics, such as the ingredients in a genuine New England clambake for his song in the musical, "Carousel." For "Oklahoma," he wrote this lyric:
June is bustin' out all over
The sheep aren't sleepin' any more!
All the rams that chase the ewe sheep
Are determined there'll be new sheep
And the ewe sheep aren't even keepin' score!
Alas, a colleague told him, sheep mate in the winter, not in June. But Hammerstein couldn't let go of this clever lyric, so when anyone asked about it, he replied, "What you say about sheep may all be very true in most years, sir, but not in 1873. 1873 is my year and that year, curiously enough, the sheep mated in the spring."
We, however, can't be so loose with the truth in our pursuit of our craft, so research away--after all, that's where so much of the fun resides!