I resisted a lot of things back in the 90s and one of them was the Internet. The other was cell phones. I didn’t want to complicate my life with stuff that I didn’t need. It made sense at the time. My life was complicated enough trying to provide for me and my dogs the stuff we needed. But it was a case of I didn’t get it…

I agreed to baby-sit Bonny, an Akita/Golden mix, for some friends who were going to Korea to teach. They wanted me to get the internet at home so we could email. I didn’t want to email. I didn’t have the internet at home. SO… I didn’t hear for them for the whole year. They didn’t send money for food, either, which was part of the deal. I ended up (it was no punishment; Bonny Honey was a wonderful dog) thinking they’d abandoned Bonny Honey. When they got back, I didn’t want to give back their dog. BUT a long tear-filled heart-to-heart revealed the hell that year had been for them.

I write historical fiction which means I do a lot of research. All four of my historical novels is almost a PhD dissertation in terms of research (but no citations needed 🙂 ). I did all the research for Martin of Gfenn the old-school way, in the library. Thank goodness I was at San Diego State at the time and had access to everything there as well as online sources I could access from the writing lab where I was working at the time. Even my tiny cell phone could give me access to the Catholic Encyclopedia. I could see it was a Brave New World.

Using (comparatively very fast) computers in the libraries of the schools in which I taught, and in my various offices, I’d learned everything necessary to teach my students all they needed to know about online research. It was fascinating to use search engines such as Alta Vista to do research. I did use them, and since I didn’t have the Internet at home, I printed out pages and pages of answers to questions I had about medieval life in Switzerland.

Still it was a while before I got the Internet at home. And when I did, it was dial-up.

A few years later, having made the transition to a more online life, I went online and found a Swiss Medievalist Historian who had written about the very place in which Martin of Gfenn is set. I emailed him. In 2005 we met up in Zürich and that led to one of the absolute best days of my whole life.

Connections made online can be as “real” as face-to-face connections. I have online friends I’ve known for more than a decade. It’s a different kind of communication in its way, as anyone reading this blog knows. However, I feel as a writer that something is lost in the manner of doing research this way.

Online research yields fast answers as well as access to data bases and sources all over the world. Writing three more novels after Martin of Gfenn, all also written about Switzerland, I have been able to use Switzerland’s amazing Swiss Lexicon to research for the novels I wrote after Martin of Gfenn. That was an immense boon. It’s published in all the Swiss languages so one way or another I have been able to find information I needed. Everything is there — even old maps! It’s magical and wonder-filled, but finding information is not the same as the ambulatory scavenger hunt of true old-school library research.

“I’m a Writer, Not a Reader”

The phrase didn’t originate with me. It’s Umberto Eco in a book I haven’t read (and won’t). Reviewed in The Guardian.

“When people ask whether I’ve read this or that book, I’ve found that a safe answer is, ‘You know, I don’t read, I write.’ That shuts them up.” 

I am in a place where I have to read in order to write. I have to read a lot and some of it is good, interesting, wonderful. I like the subject matter. Reading all this will open a door to a shadow world I’ve long wondered about. 

Once I was a reader. I read voraciously (as do a lot of people with blogs here on WordPress). I think that changed because of two things. One, reading became research. A historical novel is a long research paper, hopefully more interesting, but without the research a story is just a bunch of modern people in costumes. That’s not what I want to write.

For example, I wrote the first draft of Martin of Gfenn without knowing that there was no paper in Northern Europe during his lifetime (13th century). Martin is a fresco painter, and I had him drawing cartoons on sheets of paper. That would have been like the wristwatch on the galley slave in Ben Hur or whatever. 

But research is a directed search for answers; it’s not sitting in a comfy chair enjoying a story unfolding. It’s a scavenger hunt through a labyrinth.

The other factor is reading hundreds, nay, thousands, nay, tens of thousands of student papers and having to grade them. That can sure take the bloom off the rose, so to speak. I ultimately devised rubrics for every single project so that I was not obliged to mark the same thing over and over and over again. Students like these rubrics because they made the whole thing of writing an essay less like lacing a boot inside a black bag in a dark room. 

Over the past decade there have been a few writers whose brilliance has been able to lure me from my “I hate reading” cave. The most notable is Jane Gardam. Her stories are good and her writing is brilliant, clean, clear humorous and fun to read, demonstrating knowledge of and sympathy for people. 

I have also enjoyed several Icelandic Sagas and have one on my table for the very cold winter days that will come. They, too, are fun to read, clean writing, lots of action, some challenging moral questions, great descriptions of scenery and believable characters. My favorite remains Njal’s Saga. It was a huge thrill to me to be in Iceland and see the very place where Njal’s problems started, the remains of the Althing at Thingvellir, all this with an understanding of how law had failed Njal. It was great, even though I was in a lot of pain. Njal’s story was the great pull that took me to Iceland. 

I think that’s what good stories do — transport you to a different world. OK, late spring in Iceland was a saga of its own, but I was able to reach a profound understanding of why there were so many sagas written.