Susanna Forrest’s Insight on Research, Resources and Rabbit Holes

Focus is hard to come by these days. I remember reading that the best way to fix procrastination was not to berate yourself or think about will power but to find bigger incentives to do the work. Right now, writing promises one very valuable incentive: escape from the sinister headlines and constant hand-washing. In other words, don’t bury your head in the sand when you could instead be getting lost in rabbit holes like Alice in Wonderland. There are many worlds out there – in the past, in the future, in other dimensions or countries – where the virus doesn’t exist, and it’s up to you to explore them.
I know (very well!), however, that in this climate it’s hard to rely on your own imagination to generate those rabbit holes. That’s why I’m turning to research again. I’ve always done far too much research out of sheer pleasure but lately I lost my impetus a little and found this LitHub tip list from Lydia Davis really inspiring. She doesn’t have much time for generic writing tips. Instead she suggests really concrete practices for observation and deep dives into material – the kind of research that immerses you at a granular level in that other world. Then she asks you to look hard and find precise ways to describe what you find.
This point rang home in particular:
“I suggest working equally hard, throughout your life, at learning new things on your own, from whatever sources seem most useful to you. I have found that pursuing my own interests in various directions and to various sources of information can take me on fantastic adventures: I have stayed up till the early hours of the morning poring over old phone books; or following genealogical lines back hundreds of years; or reading a book about what lies under a certain French city; or comparing early maps of Manhattan as I search for a particular farmhouse. These adventures become as gripping as a good novel.”
This has been my experience too.
So here are a few of my favourite online tools for mapping all those warren-like worlds. Please add your own in the comments:
Chronicling America is a database of old US newspapers that you can search by key word. Want to know how small towns reacted to women bobbing their hair in the 1920s? Or crackpot theories on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination? The price of catalogue crinolines in Kansas? It’s all here in all its Americana glory.
If you read French you can voyage for months in the French National Library’s digital resources. From books to newspapers, photographs, posters and other ephemera, it’s all keyword searchable. A stunning cultural gift to the world.
Yes, it’s as simple as that. Maybe you can’t currently visit the place you’re writing about. No matter. Google Image Search and Google Maps are your friends. Need a snippet from a book from any era? Check Google Books. Academic leads? Google Scholar.
This academic article database is open to all for the duration of the crisis. You may be surprised to find how accessible or handily skimmable journal articles are, and they will lead you to other books and articles and images, and that’s how a rabbit hole works.
Don’t nick the images – this library needs an income to survive – but do browse respectfully for all your historic visual needs. You will find treats that lie beyond the range of Google Image searches.
Getty don’t just have contemporary news images on their website. They also have material reaching back a couple of centuries under every key word you can conjure up.
Open Culture is devoted to cataloguing all the sites on the web where you can eat your culture for free – including online courses from a variety of institutions. I found the documentaries page particularly galvanizing. They have links to a few episodes of the iconic British documentary series, Arena, and I watched footage of an elderly Louise Brooks musing on her life. Have I written about her yet? No, but I enjoyed the trip down the warren of 1920s Berlin.
Give yourself permission to get lost. We’ll meet up on the other side to share what we’ve found.
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