Inspiration, Derivation, Plagiarism – The Fine Lines in the Murky Fog

Where do you get your ideas? 

This may be, aside from when will you finish your book?, the most-asked questions of writers. It’s one we all struggle with.

Some will say – and I am among them – that we can find inspiration everywhere. In old photos, in overheard conversations, from NPR broadcasts, from books we read. In fact, I think most fiction writers will tell you that. Sometimes, it seems like the ideas come so fast and thick that we’ll never get them all down. And some of them – the most ephemeral, the ones we doubt – will drift away, maybe to find another home with another writer at another time.

In Founding Brothers, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian Joseph J. Ellis gives credit for the structure of this book to author Lytton Strachey. Ellis says:

My problem, at least as I understood it at that early stage, was a matter of scope and scale. I wanted to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . . His (Strachey’s) animating idea, a combination of stealth and selectivity, was that less could be more. (p ix)

Ellis already had the idea for the book he wanted to write; however, the scale was an issue. It always is, when you deal with history. What he needed was the example, the tacit permission. Once he had that, the Pulitzer wasn’t far behind.

That may not be the example you were thinking of. But consider the TED talk I heard this week, by Steven Johnson, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” Here, Johnson makes the point that in the 18th century, no scientists or inventors kept things to themselves. They shared their ideas in salons and coffee houses and colleges and pamphlets and books. They had large circles of acquaintance and friends with whom they communicated regularly. This gave them freedom. This inspired innovation. As Johnson says, Benjamin Franklin “sent his ideas out into the world so that they would attract the attentions of the ingenious.”

Here’s the thing:  ideas cannot be conceived in a vacuum. Again, as Johnson pointed out in his TED talk, epiphanies that are truly original hardly ever happen. Instead, “more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new.”

soapboxWithout Ron Chernow, there would be no Hamilton. Without the novels of Jane Austen, or the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters, there would be no romance genre today. Without Dracula, there could be no Twilight. (Remind me to hop in my TARDIS and go stop Bram Stoker, okay?). But without the myriad legends and cultural tales of vampires, there could have been no Dracula, either. And where did those legends and stories originate? They had a cause, once. There was inspiration, and no doubt centuries of re-tellings and innovations by successive generations.

Writers – whether we write fiction, nonfiction, or both – are readers. As we read, we get ideas. I can’t tell you what some of my historical books look like – barely legible scribbles in the margins where my imagination starts to take over and push past the sentences on the page to a totally different meaning and view. Oh wait, I can! Here’s a photograph of my copy of Founding Brothers, chapter 1. Those notes sparked the desire to know more about not only the Burr/Wilkinson Conspiracy, but also a nascent Federalist plot in the early 1800s to have New England secede from the United States (also, not surprisingly, something Burr may have been part of). And I still want to know more about that – so I’m reading about it now. Before you ask, yes, most of my historical books look like this. 🙂 73019443_1593261380815453_4079028731337768960_o (1)

Historians, fiction writers, scientists . . . if you do research, if you’re a professional or even a very gifted and devout amateur, then at some point you’ll be inspired by something you’ve read or heard about. BUT. Being inspired is one thing; being derivative is another entirely. So we’re clear, I’m defining derivative as “Imitative of the work of another artist, writer, etc., and usually disapproved of for that reason” (Google).)

220px-Cassandra_Clare_City_of_Heavenly_Fire_book_coverFor an example of this, just go Google ‘Cassandra Clare criticisms’ and see what pops up. Forget the bad writing (and the incest storyline, which I still don’t get; were they, or were they not, brother and sister and who, precisely IS Jace and which freaking Shadowhunter family does he belong to, because I still don’t know!), and focus on the plagiarism charges instead. Very eye-opening. I begin to see the reason why I loved her Infernal Devices series more. But is the Mortal Instruments truly derivative? If you didn’t know she’d written a Harry Potter fanfic/ romance novel about Ron and Ginny (ewwww, right?!), would you think the Mortal Instruments series was, essentially, Harry Potter fanfic? (I’m off to take a shower now, with bleach. Ugh. Seriously. RON AND GINNY???)

Okay. I’m back.

Now, I admit, I read the Mortal Instruments series before I even knew Clare had written that fanfic. I didn’t see echoes of Harry Potter then, and I still don’t (of course, I haven’t read the fanfic, and no, I never will! EWWWW!). But sadly, with Cassandra Clare, it’s not just the Harry Potter fanfic (ewwww!) – she was also sued by fantasy novelist Sherrilyn Kenyon in 2016 for plagiarism. The charges (according to Clare’s website) were dropped at a later time, but still . . . the taint remains.

As I try to explain to my students, the lines that separate inspiration from derivation from plagiarism are fine indeed, lost somewhere in a murky gray swampland covered in fog. Sometimes, it’s clear as day – you steal three paragraphs from three different sources and turn them in as your original essay (dear students, please stop doing this, for there’s really no sport in it anymore for me). Sometimes, it’s great – you see a way to improve an existing idea or technology, and as long as you’re not violating any copyright laws and you’re creating something new and better, why not? But is that derivation – or inspiration? And does that depend on the end result?

If you’re wondering why I’ve spent the last 1100 words wandering around in this murky realm . . . frankly, so do I . . . no. Truthfully? It’s because for the past few months, I’ve been toying with the idea of returning to graduate school.

More and more, I want my doctorate in history.

It’s a scary thought, for a number of reasons – the most important being that I haven’t been in school in ten years, and the second most important being that I never did a thesis. Normally, your thesis in some way lays the groundwork for your dissertation – at least, that’s always been my assumption. But I couldn’t think of one, back then. I was pretty sure my little obsession with the Kimmel disappearance didn’t qualify as a thesis (even if I could have pulled it together in a year, which I now know I couldn’t have).

But now . . . that’s changing. I’m tired of lying in wait. And more importantly, as I dig and read and work and investigate, as more and more ideas come to me, as more and more questions beg to be answered (either by me, or by me finding that someone else already has), I realize that I really, really want to do this. And my big question is:  are these ideas, which insist on keeping me up at night (one decided to arrive at the most inopportune time of 11:45pm Tuesday night, as I was trying to sleep) worth investigating? Are they original enough? Am I being inspired by the works I read – or am I going over well-trod ground? Is there anything new there?

I suppose time – and a hell of a lot of groundwork and research – will tell.

 

 

The 2020 #ReadICT Challenge Is Here!

The #ReadICT Challenge is back!

Every year, the Wichita Eagle sponsors a reading contest. Twelve books, twelve categories, in twelve months. Last year, I finished early (this despite reading two extremely long biographies by one of my favorite authors).

If you’ve never done a reading challenge and are sitting there now wondering why anyone would want to – well, for one thing, it gets you out of your comfort zone. With this particular challenge, we have 12 different types of books to read. For many of us, at least one category will give us trouble – it’s way out of our comfort zone, maybe. Or maybe we just stare at the category with a hopeless, blank stare, with zero clue how to even find a book like that!

Reading challenges push you. Some don’t have categories; instead the challenge is to read X number of books in a year. Usually, that number is 50 or 100. The more you read, the more you keep reading. Call it Newtons’s First Law of Reading. The more you read outside your comfort zone, the more you learn what you like and don’t like. Never read a romance novel because you’re too embarrassed to read the sex scenes? Well, there are all kinds of romance levels. Some only feature a kiss; others are full-blown BDSM. You never know what you might like until you try it! 🙂  Or, do you barely remember anything from your history classes, or were you one of those poor souls with a lousy history teacher? Please, go get a really good one. Joseph Ellis, or Gordon Wood, or Ron Chernow, or David McCullough or Jon Meacham. And read.

Plus, if you’re a writer, reading is necessary. It’s how we hone the craft. Learn voice Learn how to pull off certain sly tricks of the trade. Learn description, pacing, characterization, dialogue. If you don’t see it in practice, how can you learn what to do – or what not to do? Even reading a bad book can teach you something.

It was a lot of fun to complete this challenge last year – I read a lot of great books, and pushed myself to get back into reading. To be honest, I hadn’t done much reading in the previous few years and I’d forgotten how much I loved not only reading, but specifically reading nonfiction. I actually read very little fiction last year, and I’m good with that. Plus, I just bought 30+ books this fall. Hopefully some of those will fulfill some of these categories.

So you should go forth this year and make it a resolution to find a reading challenge and participate in it. Because 2020 is upon us, and the #ReadICT challenge is here, with all new categories!

1. A book with a number in the title
2. A fix-it, how-to or self-help book
3. An epistolary novel (I will probably read The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society, unless someone has a better one to recommend)
4. A speed read (less than 100 pages) (100 pages? That’s it? That’s not a novel, it’s a short story! Happily, Neil Gaiman has some excellent short stories, and 84 Charing Cross Road has been recommended to me, too.)
5. A book about someone you admire (I have a new biography of Abigail Adams I will probably read for this one. Do you know that while John Adams was serving in the Continental Congress, and then later as ambassador to France and Britain, she ran their farm, raised their children, and earned money to keep everything afloat? That woman was amazing.)
6. A book that has been (or is being) adapted to the screen (Yes, I see that it says screen, not stage. This one, I’ll have to think about because there are so many to choose from!)
7. A selection from a celebrity book club (Who besides Oprah has a book club? Any ideas?)
8. A book by an author who is new to you (I think I have this covered with the 30+ books I’ve acquired over the past few months.)
9. A book that features a strong female lead (I don’t read any other kind! Should be easy. But if you’re looking for one, let me recommend some of my favorites:  The Alice Network, Code Name Verity, Divergent, Outlander, The Charley Davidson series . . .)
10. A book that everyone’s talking about (What I love about this one is that it’s really up for interpretation. Who is ‘everyone?’ Talking about it – in what context?)
11. A “cli-fi” (climate fiction) novel or book about a natural disaster (This may turn out to be the one I have the most trouble with.)
12. A book by an author slated to visit Kansas in 2020  (Erik Larson is coming to Wichita in March – I already have my ticket!)

Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

“Even If It Rains . . .” Dialogue and ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Dialogue.

Some writers adore writing dialogue. Characters leap off the page, verbal weapons in hand. Some writers are naturals at it – each character has a completely different voice, inflection, accent, use of words. For others . . . well, given the choice between writing dialogue and spending a night on Alcatraz, they’d be packing the sleeping bag.

But no matter what, if you’re a writer, you can’t avoid dialogue.

When you’re writing a story – be it fiction or nonfiction, a short story or a novel – there are building blocks you have to include, or else it will all fall apart. Things that not only provide your story with structure, but breathe life into it, make it come alive. Possibly the most important of these is dialogue.

Plot? Sure, we need it. But let’s face it:  unless you’re James Patterson, you’re hopefully writing fiction that’s more character driven than plot driven. And dialogue is one of the most important ways our characters leap off the page. It tells us, more than description, more than backstory, more than interaction with others, who these people are. Where are they from? Do they have an accent? Do they mispronounce certain words? If so, why? Do they use regionalisms? (Example:  a friend’s grandfather lives in Tennessee. He asks “You wanna Coca-Cola?” You say, “Sure!” He says, “What you want? We got Sprite, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper . . .”) And along with that, how’s their diction? Is their speech liberally peppered with idioms? Do they use African-American Vernacular English? Or is the prim, proper effect of boarding school evident in every sentence?

In short:  dialogue should tell us nearly everything we need to know about your character.

But. It can also provide so much more! Through dialogue, we should be able to see how they interact with each other. Do your characters have nicknames for each other? Do they reference jokes and incidents from their past that even you, the author, don’t quite get? When do we sense antagonism? And for whom do they feel it?

Dialogue can provide a sense of the characters lives prior to this point in time. It can tell us about their relationships. It can tell us how others see them.

mmmOne of my new obsessions is the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Haven’t seen it? You must. If you drool over 1950s fashion (me!), you must see it. If you love comedies (me!), you must see it. If you like to be flabbergasted by how women were treated in the 1950s (me, apparently!), you must see it. And if you don’t know how women were treated in the 1950s, this show shall be your education!

In Season 1, Midge Maisel is left by her husband, for a woman with no discernible brain cells. So Midge decides to become a comedienne. She’s very good at it. But it’s 1958. She’s 26 years old. She has two children, overprotective parents, and no income. I’m seven episodes into the first season, and bang my head against something (sometimes the table, sometimes the cats . . .) every time Midge’s parents, especially her mother, makes remarks about how she ‘has’ to get her husband back, and her father gives her a curfew. At twenty-six! (This clip here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uetOWf7jU2Q)

The dialogue, though! There is a reason this show has won so many awards.

For starters, the two halves of Midge’s life – the proper Jewish housewife who shops at Neiman-Marcus, and the abandoned woman who gets drunk and does totally improv comedy laced with profanity (and, at times, nudity) – are delineated neatly, and nowhere more so than through the dialogue. Midge’s manager, Susie, is a streetwise alley cat (think an adult, jaded, f-word-dropping, Oliver Twist who never got adopted), while Midge’s father is a maths professor and her mother seems to only leave their Riverside apartment to go to her synagogue and her psychic.

For another thing, almost every line sparkles. It’s witty, it’s fast, it’s a current that carries you through every single scene, and every single episode. It’s what dialogue is supposed to do, and it does it in a way that is both hilarious and biting.

But even among this incredible deluge of dialogue, there are lines that rise above the rest. For me, the pinnacle of these lines was in Season 1, Episode 5. Midge, tired of living with her parents and having a curfew, has gotten a job at the makeup counter at a department store. The next morning, she announces this to her parents.

(For a short clip of this scene, start watching at :54 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adG3j9n5fl8.)

For the next thirty seconds or so, her father bombards her with questions. But for me, the kicker, the one that made me both howl with laughter and scream in frustration, was this one:

“If it rains, you still have to go in.” 

This one line suddenly rises above all the hilarious one-liners her father throws at her – utterly ridiculous statements like, “And they’ll pay you? In money?” and “You’ll need a bank account” – to suddenly reveal multiple levels of what’s really going on here. 

1.) There’s obviously the overprotective dad thing going on, evidenced by Midge’s patient acceptance of the litany. But . . .

2.) Think about what this line says about Midge’s father. About how he sees Midge. What does it say about him? Does he really think she’d rather quit her job than get her Neiman-Marcus heels wet? Is this a patronizing line from a male chauvinist pig? Or is it something else?

3.) And think about what this line says about their relationship. He doesn’t even know she has a bank account. What does he know about his own daughter? And is anything he thinks he knows accurate? Can we extrapolate 26 years’ worth of relationship from this one line?

4.) And now let’s take it one step further. What does this line say about Midge? She’s 26. She married at 22, straight out of college. Never had a job. Never needed one. But even if you didn’t know any of that, what would this one line say about her, and her life up until this point? Does he ask this question because he’s insulting her – or because he truly thinks she would stay home rather than go out in the rain? And does he think this due to past experience?

5.) And when we put it in context of the entire conversation (go watch the very short clip, I beg of you, start at :54), is her dad happy she has the job? Does he think she can actually do it? Is he trying, in his own way, to be encouraging? Is he trying to undermine her confidence, or bolster it? Does this conversation potentially signal a turning point in their relationship?

Yeah. So this one line – again, out of thousands of fantastic ones in this series – was the one that made me hit the Pause button and listen to it over and over. It hit me so hard, made me think on so many levels. And that’s what dialogue should do. It should make us think. It should stay with us, haunt us, confront us days after we read or hear it. It should stay with us. 

It should say something more. 

 

“The American Story” -Part Review, Part Inspiration

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I go find myself something small – my mom and I used to hit a local antiques shop, but the shop has been shut for a few years now and frankly, let’s face it:  I saw Hamilton three times this year, along with Les Mis. What else could I possibly give myself that would top THAT?! 🙂

Well . . . as it turns out, there is something.

the-american-story-9781982120252_lgBack in November, I picked up an amazing book, The American Story:  Conversations With Master Historians. This is a collection of discussions hosted by the Library of Congress, for Congressional members, facilitated by David M. Rubenstein. If you have ever wanted to know why and how historians do what they do, this is the book you want to pick up. It’s part historiography, part inspiration, and completely unique in its approach.

This series was conceived by Rubenstein:  what if major American historians were invited to speak before members of Congress to talk about their work and the major figures they have studied? So in this amazing book, we have conversations with some of the most eminent historians of today, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Cokie Roberts, A. Scott Berg, Robert Caro, and yes, of course, my favorite, Ron Chernow. (I am such a freaking fangirl.)

As a historian, this is a fascinating look into not just the men and women these historians have studied, but also into the process of history. We get an up-close, intimate look at the men (and women!) immortalized in their works, and you may definitely learn some new things – I sure did! For instance, did you know that Thomas Jefferson burned every letter his wife ever wrote, even those she wrote to her friends? We don’t know why. He just did.

Each interview covers at least one book written by the author (sometimes, two or even three). So we have broad overviews – and yet, each author has the ability to choose small kernels of insight, those moments that make each person come alive. Those are the tiny details I strive to put before my students, and those are the tiny details that enliven almost every page of this book.

But there are also amazing insights from the authors themselves about the process of writing history. And yes, anyone who has ever done even so much as a decent research paper will tell you that there is a process to it. Even when you think you know everything about a person, as A. Scott Berg thought when he wrote Lindbegh, there are things you don’t know. The records don’t exist. No one talked about it. And Berg realized that when  he met seven of Lindbergh’s illegitimate children, after his book was published. But he knew Lindbergh so well that when one of the German children faxed him letters Lindbergh had written to her mother, Berg recognized his handwriting on sight. It was true. But no one, ever, had talked about their existence.

For me, though, the greatest takeaway from American Story isn’t the knowledge – although that is a fantastic takeaway – but the insights into the authors. If you know anything about my blog, you know I’ve been on again, off again obsessed with the George Kimmel disappearance for years. I get obsessed . . . and then I back away. And I wait six months, maybe a year, before I re-submerge myself into the research, only to back out again as soon as I feel those tentacles of mystery start to grab at me. Obsession isn’t healthy, everyone says, and so I get cold feet. Get out.

That ended as soon as I read the interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin about Team of Rivals. Rubenstein asks her why she wrote another Lincoln book, when we have hundreds already, and she said:

“I don’t think I thought that the world needed another book. I just knew that I wanted to live with him Because it takes me so long, as I was saying, to write these books, and because I get so involved with whoever it is – I haven’t written twenty books like a lot of my historian friends. I knew that I wanted to live with Lincoln.”

I paused.

Underlined this.

And then, in the margin, I scribbled, Okay. So it IS okay. 

Ask Robert Caro about obsession. He’s been writing the master work of biographies about Lyndon B. Johnson for decades. He spends almost every day at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library, at the Archives, at the presidential libraries of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Nixon. Digging. Talking to those who knew him. Not taking no for an answer. Coming back time and again, as long as it takes, to get the answers he needs. (I actually just finished Working, Caro’s book about his process in writing – extremely interesting and well-worth the read as well.)

So for me . . . this was a revelation. I don’t think we covered ‘Getting Obsessed With Your Subject 101″ in grad school. Because we cover so much, so fast, there isn’t time to get obsessed – unless you’re writing a thesis, of course, and even then you may not dig deep enough, because you don’t have the time. Robert Caro moved his wife into the middle of Texas nowhere in order to understand Johnson better. Goodwin simply wanted to spend as much time with Lincoln as she could.

And it suddenly occurred to me that Ron Chernow did not write Alexander Hamilton in five years without a slight bit of obsession. (Well, and full-time assistants, I’m sure.) Robert Caro has not spent two decades writing about Johnson without a teensy bit of obsession driving him. Bottom line:  historians become obsessed. It’s what drives us. And it’s okay to give in to it. Because if we don’t, then how will we ever finish the research? How will we find the courage to ask the hard questions? To stay at the desk a little longer, to look in one last file folder, to dig deeper?

It’s necessary. 

It’s what has driven me to the National Archives, to keep returning to those files again and again. Only this time, I’m sticking with it. And that was my birthday gift to myself this year:  permission to stick with it. Permission to remain obsessed, to follow the trails, to get lost in the research, to try whatever it takes to find the truth.

So if you, too, struggle with those kinds of issues – or if you just want further insight into some of the most important historical people in American history and their biographers – go pick up American Story. There are a handful of editing issues – mostly dates, as on page 62 when the wrong election year is given – but I adored this book. It’s a master class not only in American history, but in American history writing. 

And it was precisely the book I needed, at precisely the moment I needed it.

 

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-american-story-david-m-rubenstein/1130641281?ean=9781982120337#/– link to the book at Barnes & Noble

NaNoWriMo – The 2/3 Check-In!

How many of us are still hanging in there?! Maybe we’re hanging on by the fingernails, or even by our teeth, to the end of the proverbial rope, but the point is, are we hanging in there? 

I am – barely, but I am.

This year’s different.

If you missed my last couple of posts, this year I decided I would start a massive nonfiction project that has been in the works, off and on (mostly off) for ten years – my research into the disappearance of George Kimmel in 1898. As I mentioned last time, the problem is that I didn’t do the research in time, so working on the actual writing has been problematic.

But what NaNo has done is give me the space, time, impetus – and permission – to really dig into the research in this case. For some reason, although this case has fascinated me for more than ten years now, and I’ve gone to the National Archives and photographed all the files, and I even pay $75 every three months for a Newspapers.com account to do further research, I’ve never really felt like I had permission to do it. I can’t explain it. I mean, I’m a historian, right? This is what I’m supposed to do, right?

Now that I’m spending 1-2 hours a night with the files, though, I’m seeing it differently. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much nonfiction lately – Joseph Ellis, Gordon Wood, Jon Meacham, Ron Chernow. Through reading their works, I see more clearly how to structure such a narrative. The level of scholarship that has to go into it. Sure, I had to read constantly in grad school, too, but honestly, we were reading so much, so fast, that I never had the time to sit down and really read. Understand. Savor. Ruminate. Draw my own conclusions. Scribble in the margins and generate ideas (which has led, in the past six weeks, to acquiring another 20+ books!). In grad school, we did those things on the fly, writing papers so fast that they started to run into each other. We read more to write a paper than to truly understand the words. I think I needed the time away from that to truly start to understand how the process works.

Another reason I tend to “jump in, jump out” with this project is that I tend to get rather obsessive about it. This time around, I’m finding it easier to look at it objectively. Again, I think that’s thanks to the amazing historians I’ve been reading lately – and also because I’m totally obsessed right now with the Revolutionary War and the Early Republic. So my two obsessions are balancing each other out. 🙂

The other, daunting thing about this project is the sheer amount of material involved. None of it is easy to find. None of it, in the forms I have it (jpgs on my computer) are particularly easy to work with, either. So I decided the only way to solve that problem was to start typing. My keyboard is missing some letters now. 🙂

I won’t type all of it – but somehow, it’s easier for me to get through the material, to remember it, when I type it out. It starts to organize itself in my mind, slot itself into chapters. I notice things – like, seriously, every single person who did an affidavit as proof of Kimmel’s death used the word ‘sanguine’ to describe him. Who SAYS that?! Sure, I know it was 1898, but still! He was ‘sanguine about his prospects.’ He was ‘enthusiastic about his business prospects.’ He was ‘robust.’ He had ‘a keen mind for business.’ Two people mentioned that he said he’d rather ‘lay down his life’ than bring harm or disappointment to his uncle. They all say literally the same things about him. Why is that? Because the same lawyer was taking all these affidavits as proof of death for the insurance company, and he gave them talking points, a script to follow? Another, more sinister, reason? But see, if I wasn’t typing that, would I catch it?

So although I won’t probably complete NaNo this year, not in the conventional sense, anyway, I’m continuing on. Just as one of the reasons behind NaNo is to get writers in the habit of writing daily, it’s gotten me into the habit of doing daily work on these affidavits and testimonies.

Which, to me, is every bit as important as writing every day.

 

On Being a NaNo Rebel – NaNo and Nonfiction

Pardon me for a moment while I paraphrase one of Washington’s lines from Hamilton:  “Writing fiction is easy, young man; writing nonfiction is harder.”

This year, for NaNoWriMo, I decided to become what’s called a NaNo Rebel, and finally start writing on my long-talked about, long-thought about, long-pushed-away-because-I-know-how-bloody-hard-this-will-be book about George Kimmel.

It’s Day Five. I am about 8,000 words in.*

I am drowning. 

When I said, a few days ago, that I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t kidding. More to the point, I didn’t realize just how unprepared I really was. Pulling together term papers did not prepare me for this. Researching this case, off and on, for ten years, did not prepare me for this. I repeat – I am drowning. 

Actually starting this process has shown me one thing:  I severely underestimated how organized I needed to be. But one thing about this task that has always made me quake in my Skechers is the sheer volume of information I have. It’s thousands of pages, none of it indexed, none of it color-coded, none of it available anywhere other than my laptop – or my work computer (again, not both!).

I know this sounds like it should be common sense, but you’re talking to the person who just came home, discovered her cat on the roof of her garage, and then proceeded, IN THE DARK, to find the ladder, climb the ladder, retrieve the cat, and then climb back down. With the cat. In short, I’m not the right person to talk to about common sense. Sometimes I have it in spades, sometimes not.

Also, organization is not my gig. You know how everyone has those dirty little secrets we don’t ever want anyone else to know? Well, here’s mine:  everyone thinks I’m the most organized person in the world, and I’m not. Right now, on my desk, are three vintage handkerchiefs, receipts, old copies of manuscripts, a jewelry inventory, various papers and note pads, two calculators, and about eight books. None of it should be there. But it is. So asking me to organize information is like asking an anteater to crack the Enigma Code.

soapboxSo, if you think you want to tackle a nonfiction project of any kind, that involves any sort of research, here’s my best, sagest, most profound advice:  GET ORGANIZED. 

Now, having said that . . . Here’s the thing. I don’t think I would have realized how much the organization was necessary if I hadn’t gone ahead and started writing.

I thought I knew the material. But as I’ve found out in just the last few days, knowing it, and putting it on paper in a coherent, logical, factual manner, are two very different things. Again, I keep thinking back to all those term papers I used to write in school, and how easily that came to me. And they were easy – at least, they were far less complicated than an entire book. Knowing the material isn’t enough; I have to remember how to find it, cite it, quote it, use it.

Truthfully, what all this means is that I wasn’t ready to start on this project.

Writing fiction may be easier, because you get to play in the sandbox of your imagination. Do you want extra-fine sand? Brand-new buckets and shovels? Toy trucks and dolls? Well, you can! To an extent, you get to create the rules. You work in tandem with the characters. You know the characters, the plot, the setting, the problems. But when you work with nonfiction, particularly historical nonfiction, the sandbox is already built for you. The depth of the sand, the perimeters, the size, the number of shovels and buckets and toy trucks you get – it’s all handed to you. Try to change one thing, and the whole will dissolve. Unless you are very lucky indeed, the sandbox of history cannot be changed. And that, I think, makes it infinitely more difficult to work with.

It’s even more difficult when you don’t fully understand the people you’re writing about. They’re not characters; they’re not invented. To get it right, you have to get them. And when you’re dealing with a case where every single person had a vested interest in hiding the truth, you never truly understand them.

So now the question you’re probably asking is:  So? Are you going to quit?

Uh . . . no.

Instead, what I have re-focused on is not so much the writing of the book itself, but the organizational process. What does that process look like, you ask? Good question. When I know, I’ll let you know!

Mostly, it has meant going back through the testimonies and reacquainting myself with what was said and done. Trying to piece together what happened on that July weekend in 1898, from multiple viewpoints, told by people who were testifying ten years after the fact, is nearly impossible. The basic facts remain the same – but then again, are they facts? Or memories? Are the memories faulty? Only time, and a great deal of comparing testimonies from three cases across a decade, can tell.

I need to bring together the tiny pieces of the whole. Who were these people? Who was George Kimmel? I need to gather everything I can about everyone involved, and I need to literally stick those tidbits in a file folder, where they are available, in hard copy, when I need them. I don’t want to print over 3,000 pages of testimony – Brazil’s asshole president may be intent on destroying the rain forests, but I’ll be damned if I’ll aid and abet him in that – so I have to go through them page by page, on the computer, and type those notes instead. (It occurs to me that this is where a graduate assistant would come in hand, but as I don’t work at a university, I haven’t got one of those handy.)

And there is another aspect to this, which I have to keep reminding myself of:  this is a draft. Only a draft. Knowing how I write, knowing my process and my penchant for perfection, it will – when done – be only the first in a long line of drafts. (Of course, it isn’t going to get done if I don’t get going on it!) Still, as any good scholar knows, a good first draft can save you the misery of several bad ones later on. That is one thing I used to excel at, good first drafts of research papers. Get it right the first time, and you’re saved a lot of red ink on the other side of the thing.

But again – this is different, and this first draft will be my first foray into writing historical nonfiction that isn’t just 10 pages long and focused on a very narrow topic. Hence, of course, the reason I have put it off for so long.

Still. Nothing has ever just written itself. And in that respect, at least, this project is no different.

*(Obviously, this was written earlier than it was posted!) 

NaNoWriMo 2019 – You Ready for This?

Oh, yes! Did the date sneak up on you? Never fear, here’s your annual reminder – IT’S NANOWRIMO! 

If you are one of the five people who don’t know what NaNoWriMo is – this is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days – that’s about 1600 – 1700 words per day on average. The goal is NOT to necessarily finish a novel (though if you do that, great!). The goal is simply to get people writing. Here’s the website:  https://www.nanowrimo.org/

nanoWhen you go to the website, you can set up a profile, find other NaNo writers in your area for ‘write-ins’ (where you meet up at a library or coffee shop for a few hours to write) – or, if you don’t live near a group, you can even do virtual write-ins. You can track your progress, chat with other writers . . . for some, it’s not so much a way to get the words down on paper as a chance to be with a community of writers.

I try to participate every year, because . . . why not? It’s a challenge. I do wish it was some other month – May or June, when I’m less busy – but if I’m supposed to be writing anyway, then I may as well challenge myself to do a little more, right? Besides, it’s dark early in November. I’m not outside doing yard work or going for long walks. I’m stuck inside. I can watch TV, or write. (Or, as it turns out, I can do both at the same time!)

There is no right or wrong way to do NaNo, and I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about it – any writing counts! Sure, it’s called National Novel Writing Month, but as I’ve said before, 50,000 words isn’t a novel. If you need to do a total rewrite on an existing novel, go for it! If you need to finish a novel you put down a long time ago, go for it! There are even – gasp! – NaNo Rebels, who write short stories, blog posts, fanfic, and other things.

Usual, I spend this month working on fiction projects – the first 50,000 words of Nicky came pouring out of me during NaNo 2014, after all. Some years its an assemblage of random projects; other years, I concentrate on just one.

But this year, I decided – at the last minute – that I was going to do something different.

This year, I’m focusing on nonfiction. 

Obviously, to do this thing properly, I should have started the prep work about three months ago. Because I decided, literally yesterday, to start writing my book about George Kimmel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Or, maybe more accurately, into everyone’s world a little cray-cray must fall.

I should definitely have started the prep work earlier. I am working with half-assed notes and half-remembered quotes, and all my files are either on my laptop or in my office, but are not in both places. I should have had notes about everyone all ready to go, to start drafting their bios. I should have sketched out what the chapters would look like ahead of time, and started slotting testimonies and depositions into those. I should have gathered up my research into Ark City’s history so I could write an accurate description of it in 1898. You know, basic stuff like that.

Give me a break, though; I’ve never tackled something this big before! The papers I wrote in grad school were often written on the fly; I could rely on my writing talent and research ability to pull them off. (The most famous example of this, which I often share with my students as an example of what not to do, is the term paper I started at 11pm, finished at 5am, and submitted at 8:30am. Yes, I got an A. Let me reiterate:  DO NOT DO THIS.). This? This is not that. This is real. And frankly, that’s why I keep pushing it away – because not only do I get completely obsessed with it, to the point where I drive everyone around me batcrap crazy, but I get overwhelmed by the thousands of pages I already have – and the unknown amount of information I still need.

But. I was going to have to do that anyway.

Today I sat down at my favorite coffee shop, opened a blank document in Word, and started typing. I thought I knew how I would start George’s story:  it would start with him leaving town on the train. I even had the first line running through my head:  On July 31, 1898, George Kimmel waved goodbye to his friends ,and boarded the train for Topeka. They never saw him again. 

Instead . . . the first line from my keyboard was:  How do people disappear without a trace? 

It was an intriguing opening, and I hadn’t expected it at all. So I went with it. I talked about the number of cold cases in America right now, and the number of cases that go unsolved every year (the numbers, according to the US Justice Department, are 250,000 and 6,000, in case you’re curious). I wrote, very generally, about the uses of DNA and the difficulties in using it to solve these cold cases (NONE of which will ever make it into the final draft because it’s totally fluff and filler gleaned from years of watching Forensic Files). And then I asked another question:  if it’s this difficult today, to solve a case in which a person appears to have disappeared without a trace, how much more difficult would it have been in 1898?

In truth, what I started out writing was not so much a first chapter as a prologue, my reasons for researching Kimmel, and for ultimately writing this book. But that idea – How do people disappear without a trace? – has intrigued me.

How did Kimmel walk out of the Midland Hotel and into oblivion? How did he disappear, so completely that no trace of him was ever found?

I wrote almost 1800 words today. It’s not good – but then again, that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is simply to write. 

Which, when it comes to this project, is the thing I’ve needed to do all along.

 

Want to write nonfiction but don’t want to do it via NaNoWriMo? Check this out! https://writenonfictionnow.com/about-write-nonfiction-in-november/wnfinnanonfiwrimo/