In a thread on Darcy Cosper’s facebook page, I learn that the New York Times forbids writing in the present tense, as it is technically a fiction, even when used in the presentation of nonfiction.
My old friend Gerard Koskovich, the historian and archivist, was shopping the yard sale of a young woman who’s mother had just died. The mother had a life-long interest in photography, and the value of it—and of her possessions—was lost on the daughter, who sold her pictures for nothing, including 6 hand-colored photographs of the interiors of the Tuileries Palace, destroyed by angry rioters during the Commune.
When you walk out into the Tuileries gardens from the Louvre palace, if you look left and write as you pass the wings to either side, you are walking through the footprint of the old palace. Which is where a good deal of my 2nd novel, The Queen of the Night, is set.
One of the challenges in writing this book has been that much of what I would want to see doesn’t exist anymore. Gerard’s photos come into my hands after I’ve already spent years trying to imagine what it was like, through reading memoirs and novels from the period, looking at any existing photos, tracking down architectural plans. So when I find them, they are more like the confirmation of a hunch than a revelation, beautiful as they are.
So that is what that lamp looks like, I think, as I sit in Gerard’s red velvet visitor chair and turn it in my hands. We speak of some other things, related to one of the novel’s minor but still important characters, and then I thank him and leave.
I’m reading Robert McKee’s Story as I think about writing a screenplay. In it, he says something perfect about research and cliché. If you don’t do your research, he says, you lose your ability to be original–you won’t have any ideas, and so your brain will pick up things it remembers from other things you’ve seen—your lack of research will make you a kind of thief. As I read it, I realize it wasn’t what I thought about my research at all, but I can see, immediately, the truth of it. My first novel was drawn autobiographically, the second, not at all, but both required a great deal of research.
You may think you know your home town, Annie Dillard used to say in class. But chances are you don’t. What is the main industry? When was it founded? The population? What are the plants, throughout the seasons? She was speaking of the importance of researching even memoir.
Happy New Year to my readers here. 2009 was a great year for this blog and for me. Here’s to 2010. To celebrate, I’m taking blog post requests in the comments.