Wednesday, October 13, 2010
M L Malcolm on Why I Love Doing Research in the Library
I write historical fiction. My books are both historically accurate and historically driven; my characters are swept up in the historical events that surround them, and the events help drive the plot.
This takes a lot of research. A lot. A ton. But luckily I’m a history geek, so that’s the fun part—or at least the beginning of the fun.
The process works something like this: I will stumble upon a place, or a historical figure, or a little-known historical fact, and I will (like Curious George) become curious. So I will try to find out more about it. For my first novel, Heart of Lies, the catalyst was a trip my husband and I made to Shanghai. I was fascinated by the fact the for over a hundred years Shanghai was the only place in the civilized world where you could just show up, without a passport or a visa, and start over. For the lords of the opium trade, the White Russians fleeing the Red Army, international industrialists and common criminals, Shanghai provided a world of new beginnings, and the golden age of Shanghai was the 1920s and 30s.
Now as an undergraduate I’d spent a lot of time doing research for my courses and for the debate team, so coming back to a university library felt like coming home. In the library you can find a subject area and browse at your leisure. Shanghai? All in one section, dozens of books, many out of print. Newspapers? Only the really major ones are properly archived on the internet; to read the 1930s editions of North China Daily News I had to use a microfiche machine—sort of like a combination of a film projector and an old-fashioned sewing machine. I was able read items from special collections that included travel diaries from the era. The golden age of Shanghai came alive for me, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I reserved a cubby, gathered sources, and stored them there like a dragon piling treasure into its lair.
But most of all, there’s something about being surrounded by books and documents and original sources that makes me happy, in a way that staring at a computer never will. Maybe I’m subconsciously energized by the voices of all those writers whispering their stories to me from the stacks. Perhaps it’s the shared sense of discovery, the feeling that I am following in the footsteps of other scholars, trying to track down information and pull it together in a new and intriguing way. Or perhaps it’s as simple as this: the library is where my muse lives. She waits for me there.
I do use the internet, especially to find out who the major players were in a particular era at a particular time, or to check dates, or to point me in a new direction. But when it’s time to do the real research, you will always find me in the library
You can find out more about ML Malcolm and her books Heart of Lies, and the upcoming release Heart of Deception at her website MLMalcolm.com