I’ve been talking about the difference between gathering information for specific reasons or for general information, because sometimes you need to know specific things and sometimes you just want a big, general overview.
Digging into archives to dig out a specific name, a particular fact can be satisfying. Like a detective looking for clues, you know you’re looking for one, certain thing that can prove your hypothesis, or that you can hang your entire story on. It’s like solving a puzzle, and that can be very, very satisfying. But I find that there is as much pleasure in just doing general background reading. The beauty of that is—if you’re not trying to get to a specific place and are just meandering through—you’re going to see so much more, be open to new possibilities.
Okay, say you need to drive from New York to California, you’ve got two possibilities. You can plot the quickest route, climb in the car and head out to the highway and cruise at 70 m.p.h. for the next 10 hours with a couple rest stops. If you persevere, you’ll be there in a week.
Except, you will have missed the chance to see any sights on your way. The Great Lakes? Oh, was that the gleam I saw on the horizon on the way by? The Mississippi River? Well, it was dark when we crossed it. The Rocky Mountains? Oh, I remember those, the car really had to work to get up the incline.
Research is often blinkered—you get so focused on the one piece of information you need, you forget to look around.
Or, maybe you take the Tourist’s approach. You need to get to California, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime journey, so you decide to take advantage. You swing south to stop at the nation’s capital and then head down toward New Orleans, cruising along the Gulf Coast, stopping at the Grand Canyon, and generally just meandering your way across the continent, stopping when you see something interesting, and just taking in the view.
The beauty of reading for general background (as opposed to specific research) is that all the possibilities are open to you.
Just in the last week, I’ve found a few details that have made my creative juices flow.
- Like, for example, after WWI ended, Britain had 2 million more women than men, having lost so many soldiers in the war. One headmistress told her graduating class that only 1 girl in 10 of them would ever get married because there simply was no one left for them to wed; they would have to find something else to do with their lives. For a generation raised to believe that marriage and motherhood were the pinnacle of feminine abilities, that is a terribly frightening statistic.
…I immediately started to wonder, what do you do if you would like to get married but there literally is no one to marry? They’re not just hard to find or “the good ones are taken.” They are dead and gone, and your entire generation, sorry, is out of luck. But, in the meantime, you’ll excuse the rest of us if we look down on you for being a spinster and are reluctant to give you a job because the men need those, can’t you sit in a corner somewhere out of the way? All 2,000,000 of you?
- Or, I needed to know the name of the Governor of New Jersey in 1917 for my main character to shake hands with. It turns out that Walter Evans Edge—a man I’d never heard of—was governor not only during World War I but World War II as well. In between, he served in the U.S. Senate and was ambassador to France until the outbreak of WWII led him to re-enter politics.
… This caught my attention. He must have been a remarkable man. He must have done a wonderful job leading the state in World War I, if the electorate was willing to vote for him again 30 years later. So, why have I never heard of him? Is there a monument somewhere? A plaque? Something that honors a 70-ish year old man for taking up such a hard job again in a time of war? What kind of governor was he? What kind of man?
- Did you know that in 1917, King George V changed the family name from the German-sounding House of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to the House of Windsor? This goes way beyond calling Sauerkraut “Liberty Cabbage.” Your name defines you in so many ways–whether it’s the name you were born with, or one you married into (or away from). It’s not something most of us change lightly.
…At a time of war, when hundreds of thousands of young men (and some women) were being slaughtered … what made the British royal family decide to completely change their sense of identity? To cut themselves off from years of German-related pride? Kaiser Wilhelm I was the first-born grandson of Queen Victoria, after all.
But, see? This is the point.
If you’re busy focusing on the one thing you need, you’re not going to have time to take these little mental side trips. And isn’t that what creativity is all about? Visiting the lesser-seen spots, pointing out the inspiring views and interesting history along the way?