This morning I find myself in my native southeastern Illinois on a day that promises to be summery: temperatures in the mid-80s and plenty of sunshine. In fact, I’m writing this from the public library that I used during high school back in the day when there was still something called a card catalog and a Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature in thick bound volumes with green covers. This library is where I first began to learn how to do research.
I love the quiet here. I like to tuck myself away in the genealogy room. Sometimes, just out of curiosity, I look at census records, plat maps, Civil War records, whatever catches my fancy. I love to start somewhere and then to find out, hours later, that I’ve traveled somewhere else. From the history of the Gilead Church, maybe, to facts about mussels and their pearls and buttons made at factories along the Wabash River.
The delight of research is discovering what you didn’t know you were after. During a good research day, I get a feeling similar to the one that I get when the writing of fiction is going well. Time speeds by as I immerse myself in learning this and that. It’s not so different from following my characters as I write a short story or a novel, learning more about them as I go. Sometimes, what at first seems to be a digression turns out to be something of value—something that contributes to my material in a way I couldn’t have predicted.
I have to be open to discovery in order for research to be truly creative. Just as when I create characters I have to resist over-determining who they are, so they can be free, via their actions and words, to show me what I don’t know about them when I first put them on the page.
I remember a time in my life when my hair was down past my shoulders, and my favorite attire was jeans and flannel shirts. One morning, when I was an undergraduate, my creative writing teacher saw me in the hallway with a friend of mine, another creative writing student. Our teacher wanted to get some breakfast, and he invited us to accompany him, which we did. At some point during our conversation at a local restaurant, the focus turned toward marijuana. “I bet you smoke a lot of pot,” my teacher said to me. I told him I never had, which was the truth, and still is. He wouldn’t believe me. “C’mon,” he said. “You?” No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince him. He’d made up his mind about me and I could do nothing to change it.
That’s not the way writing works, nor research either for that matter. There’s always something that’s going to surprise us about people and about facts. Stick with either long enough with an open mind, and alert eyes and ears, and you’re going to find something that stands out because it doesn’t quite fit with everything else you’ve been gathering. That’s how you know you’re onto something of value. The anomaly will resonate and lead you down roads that will take you deeper into your material. Good writers and good researchers operate from a boundless curiosity, and are thrilled when things take turns they never could have imagined when they first put characters on the page, or when they began to gather facts. Not knowing everything when you begin can lead you to knowing something valuable—something precious as a pearl—by the time you reach the end.