Posted in creativity generators

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.”

Posted in Ideas generation, Journals

Travel as writing inspiration

Who wouldn't be inspired by a beach in Tahiti?  I was.
Who wouldn’t be inspired by a beach in Tahiti? I was.

As I finish draft three of the new book and begin deliberations with a new publisher (more about that in an upcoming post), I’m also thinking about my packing list – that list is the one for an upcoming trip to London, Rome, the Greek Islands, Athens and ultimately five days in Istanbul. Travel is the other love of my life – after my husband, son and my writing.  I’m taking a few notebooks, a great pen, a mini-iPad and a flash drive.  Other than clothes, that should about cover my needs!

The truth is that I think we can be inspired by so many things. Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, we need to be always aware of our surroundings, what we see, what we hear, how we feel about what’s going on around us.  There we can find the genesis of an idea.

As I’ve said before, “The most accurate way to describe my mind is to use the Buddhist term: monkey mind. That’s me.  My mind is always moving; the thoughts are chattering away, unbidden.  Ideas fill my head from morning until night.”  Obviously, this can sometime make real life challenging, but I’ve learned to cope as all writers do.  The truth is that travel – whether to the other side of the world or simply to the other side of your town, province, state or country – opens up my mind t new things if I only pay attention and let my mind fill with the ideas without grasping for them.  Then that’s what the notebooks are for.  I take along several Moleskines™ of different sizes, my favorite kind, a great pen, and an iPad for making electronic notes that I then either store in Dropbox or send to myself as an email.  The flash drive is in case I have access to a computer in an airport lounge or, as is the case on this upcoming trip, in our suite on board the ship that will take us from Rome to Istanbul.

My new character.  What could she be thinking?
My new character. What could she be thinking?

I’ve been inspired with ideas for historical fiction in particular several times in the past. Two great ideas are still gestating in my mind as we speak, since I’ve been embroiled in several non-fiction projects with deadlines and haven’t had time to get back to my real love.  But that time is fast approaching.

One time several years ago, my husband and I were on a ship in the Mediterranean. Believe it or not the ship interior was the inspiration.  Among the various pieces of fabulous artwork on board was a large painting that covered one wall of the piano bar.  I was drawn into the face of the main subject as she sat aboard a ship on what in my mind at least was a transatlantic voyage.  She was a character out of an era that has always fascinated me: the 1920’s.  I photographed her and thought about her, wondering what she was thinking.  I didn’t figure it out until a year later when we visited the Caribbean island of

Bequia and I saw the ruin of a village that was evidently built in the 1960’s but in my mind (and that’s all that really matters to a writer, isn’t it?) it was built much earlier and finally I had a transatlantic connection.  I’ve already started the book.  Maybe I’ll post the first chapter here some time.

Moon Hole, Bequia.  My character is headed here.
Moon Hole, Bequia. My character is headed here.

The places that we’re visiting over the next month and a half are steeped in ancient history. I’ve been doing as much background reading as time permits and I think I’m ready.

I’m going to listen, look, smell, taste and feel some new experiences. I’m going to write those impressions down in my trusty notebooks and then I’m going to come home and write a new book.

Other thoughts about inspiration, keeping journals, and travel:

The Genesis of an Idea

Keeping journals

Maybe Bora Bora will inspire you! (from our travel blog)