Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Eternal Student

Recently, I was watching Page do laps in the backyard (at 5 AM!) when I started thinking about how most of my book projects have begun. Usually in odd, strange ways.*
Once (and this was years ago) I was in the Newark Library doing research when I spotted an open book on a table. It was there in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon and I never saw anyone actually reading it. It looked kind of lonely and since the library was (is) understaffed and underfunded, I decided to reshelf the book. So I picked it up and headed into the dusty stacks and hunted until I found the exact spot where it belonged (there was even a perfect space between two other books just waiting for this volume to return). Which was when I finally looked at the book.*
Turned out to be the Civil War memoir of a young soldier, Elisha Stockwell, Jr. When I glanced at the introduction I found out he was 15 when he enlisted. I almost immediately thought, gee, I didn't know kids that young actually fought in the war. Mind you, this was at least eight years before the Ken Burns' documentary let us see and hear Civil War soldiers old and young, so it was a revelation to me. And then that little light in my brain lit up and I thought, well, maybe young readers would like to know about this, too.*
So I took the memoir home and read it and loved it. Maybe there's a book idea here, I wondered. But to be sure, I had to do research. Lots of it. I began what turned out to be an endless quest for information: about the Civil War, about what a soldier's life was like, and about what young soldiers experienced. And here is where a confession is necessary. I was never a big fan of the Civil War. I read a little about it, but never really delved very deeply into it. History texts always seemed to be about the important players (military and political) and whenever these individuals wrote about the war their writing always seemed pompous and stilted and distant. And the battles were always described in dry, technical terms. But reading Stockwell's memoir and discovering other underage soldiers who left written accounts of their time in the war was an eye-opener. What they described was immediate and emotional and vivid and very often humorous. And it made me want to know more.*
It took about eight years, but eventually The Boys' War was published (during the same week that the Ken Burns' CW documentary first appeared. Talk about riding long coattails!). Other books had unusual beginnings as well. The Last Dinosaur was born out of my reading an article (obit, really) about a species of bird that was the last of its kind and held in captivity for years while scientists searched for a mate. Very sad. Inside the Alamo came about because a friend sent me an article that suggested that Davy Crockett had tried to escape the Alamo massacre by dressing as a woman (Not true, but it would have made for some interesting headlines). All of these titles (and others I've done) have something in common; when I began my research, I really didn't feel I knew enough about the subjects to write a book.*
So each required that I, in effect, create and give myself an intense and lengthy course on the particular subject. And I never stopped researching even when I began the actual writing, or even after I submitted the ms. Or even when the text went off to the printer. I kept trying to learn more; I needed to know more -- in part because I wanted the most up-to-date information or take on the subject, but mostly because I loved the subjects. And that love never dissapated as I dug deeper into the subject and learned more and more about it.*
I think this passion for learning about a subject gets passed along to the readers in the resulting text. Listen to this, I hope my writing is saying, it's a weird story but really cool and not too many people know about it. I want to take readers along on the voyage of discovery, of coming across an unusual character, an extraordinary detail or scene and realizing that history is coming alive in their mind. This not only keeps readers engaged and turning the pages, but it might just ignite a real interest in knowing more about the subject or about history in general. Hey, stranger things have happened.


Vicki Cobb said...

Jim, a beautiful, poignant post. I'm worried that the qualities of inquiry and study that you've mastered will not get passed on to the next generation. As bookstores and libraries close, where will that serendipitous discovery-by-browsing happen? In the age of the 2 minute or less attention span, rewards for high scores on multiple choice questions, and the myth that "covering" a subject is the same as teaching it passion, the driving force behind your work, is lost.

Barbara Kerley said...

Great post, Jim. I've always thought that the benefit to knowing next-to-nothing about a topic is that it places us in the shoes of the kids who will read our books (kids who are learning all about everything for the first time). I always figure I'm asking the same questions as I research that a kid would ask. And this is a good thing!

Peggy T said...

Loved your post. I've always considered myself a perpetual student and writing nonfiction is the perfect job for this affliction.

Chantal said...

I agree with Vicki that something is lost in the digital age--the accidental find.

Please, though, what was the name of the Elisha Stockwell memoir?

Jim Murphy said...

Thank you all for your interesting comments. Yes, I also worry that some of the excitement of discovery will be lost because kids are turning to different research tools, but I have hope that some might be pursuaded to look beyond the digital. Chantal, Stockwell's memoir was Private Elisha Stockwell, Jr. Sees the Civil War, ed. by Byron R. Abernathy and published in 1958. It was a very lucky find for me.