The romance of the library: A writer’s refuge

The rare book library at the University of Toronto is open to the public.
The rare book library at the University of Toronto is open to the public.

This past weekend I found myself roaming the spaces inside the rare book library at the University of Toronto and thinking about novelist Rita Mae Brown when she wrote: “When I got my library card, that’s when my life began.”  I suspect I could have said the same thing.  I have always loved a library, and this visit brought back a flood of memories, and reminded me about what a real, book-filled library can mean to writers.

When I was 16 years old I started my first part-time job.  I was paid 80 cents an hour to work ten hours a week in the local children’s library. A writer and book lover even then, I was elated not only at the extra $8.00 I had to spend (or save if I was feeling virtuous), but most especially because I could spend those hours among the stacks, re-shelving books and helping kids find that perfect read. The next year I started university and got another library job; this one was completely devoted to stacking books among the very many, multi-tiered spaces that constituted the main library at my university.  I was still delighted to breathe in that unmistakable smell of books. I loved it until I could no longer afford the time away from my studies and that was that.

Years later I found myself toiling as a university professor; again the library became an important refuge for both work and for research.  But the end was drawing nigh.  Online resources became so much more convenient, saving me both time and effort thus permitting me to accomplish so much more.  The digital book became a god-send, although I thought that I’d probably not go that way for my own leisure reading.  I was wrong.

Today I cannot imagine not carrying my library around with me on a mini-tablet.  I cannot imagine not being able to highlight with a click of a finger-tip, or to make a note that will immediately be filed in order.  I cannot imagine a student today wanting to lug around heavy books.  But none of this means that I like a real, book-filled library with a real, living, breathing librarian any less, nor does it mean that the library is any less important to culture in general and to writers in particular.

So what does this real library offer today’s digitally-savvy writer?  Here’s what it means to this writer.

How could you not be inspired by such books as an original Chaucer?? You have to go to a library to find these gems.
How could you not be inspired by such books as an original Chaucer?? You have to go to a library to find these gems.
  1. “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunken treasure.”  So said Virginia Woolf, and so do I.  Libraries are treasure troves of writing ideas.  You can go into a library without a single notion of what to write, and come out with a journal full of ideas.  Although free roaming can be inspiring, if you have a general area of interest you can go to that section of the library and begin scanning book titles.  Or, what’s even more fun, you can randomly select a few books from the stacks, find a comfortable place to curl up with them (libraries are full of these areas) and begin to explore between the covers.
  2. “A library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life. “  I like to think that Norman Cousins was echoing my own notion that when you have an idea for a piece of writing, but are not entirely sure how to get it from the beginning germ of an idea to a fully finished piece, you go to the library and allow that idea to gestate and elaborate.  I begin by searching for a specific book about the topic area.  For example when I started writing about Edgar Allan Poe in In the Shadow of the Raven and I had an idea about the female heroine, I went into the university library and searched for a book about 19th century women.  I found a wonderful and very old book that was just the inspiration I needed to get into the character.  Then all you have to do is scan the shelves near to your first book to see related but increasingly divergent topics.  Just get to know the cataloguing system in the library of your choice.  Often public libraries use the Dewey Decimal System, while university libraries use the Library of Congress System. And yes, you can go into a university library to peruse the books even if you can’t take them home.
  3. “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”  Neil Gaiman hit the nail on the head with this one.  Librarians are amazing professionals.  I have never met a single one who wasn’t delighted to help me find that exact resources for me.  That’s because finding materials is what they do and they do it very well.  Start with Google of course, but get that one crucial piece of information from a real person.  The American Library Association put it this way:  “When you absolutely positively have to know, ask a librarian.”

Libraries can be magical places for writers.  You can have your coffee shop writing sessions or your marathon computer stints, but I’d recommend trying a library appointment with yourself.

I’ll let Frank Zappa have the last word:  “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”

When inspiration strikes

Finding inspiration from a sunset somewhere over the North Atlantic, way out at sea

I’m just back from a summer vacation that has engendered seething jealousy from friends and colleagues alike.  The jealousy stems in part from what several have called its “inspiration” value.  And based on the story I told you last time, I should have my next book completely outlined with loads of snippets of narrative and dialogue in my little purple Moleskine notebook.

Inspiration it was – but I’m not quite ready to write yet – historical fiction requires more than an inspirational story line – it takes significant and detailed research.  We’ll get to that research process, but today I am fixated on the notion of inspiration.

In medical terms, inspiration means breathing in ad breathing out.  In a way, artistic inspiration is the same.  The writer (or choreographer, or painter or even corporate  strategist for that matter) has a sudden burst of creativity – the genesis of that moment might not even be discernable at the time.  We don’t always know the source of our inspiration in the moment.  We know only that something has triggered action.  So in a way, it’s like breathing in and breathing out – the creative fodder is breathed in, and the creative output is breathed out. Over the years, however, various creative individuals have had differing takes on just what it means to be inspired.

Leonard Bernstein said this: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time…The wait is simply too long.”  Lesson 1: Don’t just sit back and wait for the muse to strike. Find ways to seek inspiration in the meantime.  I found this writer’s blog entry that has a laundry list of things to do to fill that gap between sudden bursts of creativity.

Picasso’s approach to the creative process is echoed by many other artists: “Inspiration exists,” he once said, “but it has to find us working.”  Lesson 2: Just get down to work.  Write about anything around you and eventually, the creative muse will strike and you’ll be inspired either to trash everything or to use it in new and innovative ways.

A glass of champagne aboard the Queen Mary 2 is an inspiration in itself!

American businessman Nolan Bushnell has been quoted as saying that “the ultimate inspiration is the deadline.”  Lesson 3: Set deadlines and stick to them.  Better yet, have someone else set them for you.  Try this:  tell your significant other or someone whose feedback on your writing you actually appreciate, and tell him or her that you’ll have a few chapters to be read in two weeks.  Even that kind of a deadline is inspirational.  Then, when you have a deadline from a publisher, you’ll know how to seek inspiration from knowing it has to get done.

So, here’s what I’m up to: I’m looking at my vacation photos and seeing what stories they hold for me.  I’m writing about a number of things in several different genres. I’m doing research on two new ideas.  I’ve told my husband that he’ll have a few more chapters for him to read in two weeks.

In the beginning…was the idea

titanic deck chair
Laurie Mireau's Titanic Deck Chair painting

When precisely does a book’s backstory begin? Does is start when the author says to herself, I should write a book about this? Does it begin when someone else says to a would-be author, You should write a book about that?  (This often happens with non-fiction, by the way.) Or is it earlier?

Is it when you come across an interesting idea? A small article in a newspaper – the one you almost didn’t read?  Is it at the moment when that little piece of paper you clipped starts to invade your thoughts – unbidden?  Is it when the would-be author finally says – not I should write a book – but I want to write this book and I’m going to write it?

This issue of the germination of an idea was in the forefront of my mind earlier this week when I pulled my car up in front of the studio/home of a local watercolor artist here in Halifax.  A month ago I’d never heard of Laurie Mireau.  But since the day that my husband, who had met her about a month ago, came home with a brochure about her artwork, I had been haunted by one of the pieces featured.  The piece was a stark watercolor painting of a deck chair from the doomed ocean liner – Titanic.  Titanic has a strong connection to Halifax.  Although the ocean liner went down  closer to Newfoundland than to Nova Scotia, a number of the bodies of those who perished here brought to Halifax and are buried in a cemetery in the city.  Add onto that the fact that there is a truly fascinating exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and you have a storied port city that is part of the tragedy.

But there has always been something iconic about that single deck chair – the real  one that is on exhibit at the museum, as well as the replica that is for you to sit in and let your imagination run.  You lean back, your head just below the star symbolizing the White Star Line.  You close your eyes – and suddenly you’re there, on her deck.  You can smell the ocean.  You can hear the clicking of heels on the deck – no deck shoes in those days.  At least that’s how it is for me.  In any case, when I saw that thumbnail of Laurie’s painting, I had to have it.

First, I had to find out if she still had the original.  I didn’t want a print – only the original would do.  So, I contacted her and she managed to find it.  When she asked me about why I was interested, I spewed out an entire story about the deck chair, a painting that I’d seen and photographed on the wall of a bar on a cruise ship a couple of years ago and how I had an idea for a book set in about the 1920’s or ‘30’s – on a transatlantic voyage.  (No doubt she thought it was too much information!)  To tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of an idea, but it occurred to me that  the idea was germinating.  I had the distinct feeling that this might just be the beginning of a backstory for a new book that I’d write in the coming years.

gloria
My ocean-going character

It doesn’t take much to get my mind rolling.  The new book whose cover you looked at in last week’s post all started when I stumbled upon an academic article in an early music journal calling into question the  widely-held belief that St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Catholic mystic, writer, healer, composer actually knew enough about music to compose the 77 songs attributed to her.  I started thinking: if she didn’t, then who might have?

See, that’s all it takes for a backstory to start. I suppose the fact that next Wednesday I’ll be stepping onto the deck of the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton in the UK to take that transatlantic voyage to New York might have contributed to the story. I’ll let you know. (Two weeks holiday now!  See you in 14 sleeps as my hair stylist says.)