Right now I’m trying to get Little Birds off the ground, and it has been a struggle. It’s always a struggle, but these characters are not at all clear yet, and until I get a better sense of them everything is stalled.
Today I had a kind of breakthrough, which doesn’t happen often. I’m writing about it here so I will remember exactly what happened, and also to entertain readers who happen to wander by.
Two of the primary characters in Little Birds are pretty well established in my head (they are Lily’s children, but you don’t know them), but a crucial third character — somebody entirely new — is missing. This has been causing me some distress. Of course I did what all writers of fiction do in this all-too-common fix: I found a way to procrastinate and went out to run errands.
Driving home from errands, I decided to turn off the audiobook that was playing (dry, but interesting) and turn on my current music playlist, which is set to shuffle. The song that started took me by surprise because I forgot it was on the list: Save the Last Dance for Me — the Drifters original recording.
And suddenly I had that third missing character. I don’t even know his name yet, but I can see him leaning against a wall, arms crossed, watching people dance. Or maybe, just maybe, somebody has offered him a fiddle and he’s playing and watching the dance floor.
Where did this come from, you might be wondering. I had to think about it to sort out the associations, but it ties into my own experiences while I was living in Vorarlberg in my early twenties. I did a lot of dancing. There were dances, all the time. Simple weekend dances. Big fancy dances for Mardi Gras or annual celebrations of one guild or another. Big or small they all featured local musicians and dancing. And lots of beer. And schnapps. You’re thinking ump-pa-pa, but no. That’s not what it’s like at all and I’m not sure I can make it clear how un-umpa this experience is, but I’m going to try.
Imagine a lot of people crowded onto the dance floor, some proportion of them much the worse for beer, still cheerful as they bumbled along. Some small portion — maybe fifteen percent — were there because they really liked dancing and were good at it. I was in that fifteen percent.
This is a video from Helsinki, a polka dancing competition. The music is scaled way way down, but I’m posting this here so you can see the dancing. You can hear the excitement in the audience, and hear them yodeling in appreciation. This captures part of what it’s like.
In your imagination you have to speed this up some, and also imagine it is happening in a hazy smoky dance hall (ca 1980), and now imagine the dancers are just regular (and somewhat younger) in their nice-casual clothes. But they can dance. Speed it up again. If you’re good at this there’s a lot of improvising, double and triple steps, stamping, things I can’t really describe but I could do, and do well. If I had stayed there I’d probably weigh 120 and be able to carry a calf around, no problem. It’s exercise and cardio exercise all rolled into a single package that you WANT. And that’s the trick, of course.
One of the chapters in Homestead was meant to capture what this kind of dance was like. Now, today, while I was listening to Save the Last Dance I had a flashback to the dance I described in that chapter. This is what happened in real life: Someone I didn’t know asked me to dance toward the end of the evening, when the musicians had had a couple shots of schnapps and they were just on a tear. I had noticed this guy dancing and hoped he might come ask me, because watching him I knew that I would dance well with him.
Here’s the thing, in this kind of dancing. If a guy who is strong and lithe and confident puts a hand on your waist and takes your other hand in his, and then he just takes off — and you can follow him — it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. If you can follow him, and then assert yourself a little, and he responds to this … I’m going to say this but you won’t believe me. Better than the best sex. To this day I remember the feel of the stranger’s arm muscles through his shirt. I remember the way he smiled down at me, and winked. I remember he didn’t ask and I didn’t hesitate when the set ended, we just kept dancing.
I never saw him again, never learned anything about him, but we were absolutely in sync with each other in a way that is distinctly more than dancing. There were a lot of unplanned pregnancies in Vorarlberg at this time (and maybe still are, but apparently this kind of dancing is out of favor, to which I say NO NO NO), and I am convinced that some large percentage of them happened after two people click like this on the dance floor.
Now I have to go figure out who this character is. While I interrogate him you can watch this Bruce Springsteen cover of Save the Last Dance. It gives me chills, because: well, nobody can do a song like this better. After you watch this go look for his Tougher than the Rest.
I couldn’t write the novels I write from where I live if not for the internet. I would have to have access to an academic library, or to the libraries and historical societies in New York, New Orleans, DC, Chicago and more recently, St. Louis and Santa Fe.
When I first began writing Into the WIlderness I was on the faculty of the University of Michigan, which has an outstanding library. And still I had to buy a lot of material for research purposes. I spent as much as $5,000 a year on books, old newspapers, journals and maps.
Now it’s rare that I buy an actual book. Last year I think I bought a total of eight books that I couldn’t access in any other way, and about as many old journals that research libraries don’t carry. But I have the internet. There are what may seem like infinite places to find historical resources — The Library of Congress, for example — which are free for anybody who cares to go rummaging through their attics in the clouds. That is not to say that I don’t spend money. I pay for a wide variety things. This is a partial list.
Annual Cost (approx)
reference management database, unlimited storage*
research notes organization and storage
academic publication access
includes Newspapers.com and Fold3.com
*I have to be able to find the articles I use in research once I have them, thus the need for reference management. I have to be able to find my notes about those resources I’ve found, too.
Ancestry is the resource I depend on most often, because it includes full access to newspapers.com. I use the census and other databases accessible through Ancestry every day, but I depend most often on the millions of pages of newspapers that were printed on the exact day in the exact place I’m writing about.
If I need to know what a dozen eggs cost in Boston on January 1, 1872, I can find that. Usually exactly, but sometimes within a day or two.
There are very good maps on Manhattan in the 1880s, but sometimes information on the map itself isn’t enough. I needed to know about a bookstore on Union Square, and I found that info in a newspaper ad.
When historical, real life people wander into something I’m writing, it gets serious.
For example, I have done a lot of research on two people who practiced medicine in Manhattan in the 1880s. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Dr. Abraham Jacobi, a married couple, both well known to historians of medicine. They both appear now and then in The Gilded Hour, and a little more often in Where the Light Enters, and I have done family trees for them both. Mary interests me because she was the first female physician to challenge the idea that a woman must be maternal first, even in her role as a doctor. The newspaper editorial you see here helped me flesh out her character.
You’re wondering why I would need to do genealogical research on the Jacobis, right?
I know from biographies that they had a son who died as a child. The idea that I would have either of them popping into my storyline to participate in a light-hearted meal with friends on or near the day their son died? Nope. Can’t take that chance. Thus the need to research their lives. I blame my training in the social sciences. I just can’t leave that kind of thing to chance.
I often run across incredibly interesting bits and pieces in the newspapers that make a storyline come to life, and sometimes I post them here, or more likely on Facebook. Here’s one I may put to use at some point:
AIMED AT COURT HARPIES.
Lawyers ask for an Italian speaking-officer In the Tombs Police Court.
Lawyers who practice in the Court of Special Sessions and the Tombs POlice Court are anxious to have a policeman attached to the Court squad who can speak Italian.
This, they say, has become necessary from the fact that a great many worthess Italians hang around the courts and make a living preying upon their unsophisticated countrymen, making all sorts of promises to influence their cases for a consideration.
John J Delaney recently appointed to the Tombs, has done a good deal towards the abolition of the system but enough of it remains to call for the intervention of the Board. With this object in view a step will be taken within a day or two to lay the matter before the Police Commissioners.
The Evening World, 26 Jun 1890, Thu, Second Edition, Page 1