The Real Tragedy of the Commons

I just finished reading Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll. I saw it mentioned in some article as a rebuttal to Hillbilly Elegy, a massive bestseller that argues that Appalachian poverty is caused almost entirely by the bad decisions of its residents, and the way to cure it it is to be exceptional and have exceptional luck. A logically impossible conclusion (we can’t all be exceptional), but the American appetite for that sort of story, that elevates (or condemns) the individual, and erases the impact of history, government, and corporations, is bottomless.

Ramp Hollow is unlike any history book I’ve ever read before. It tells the story of Appalachia, as a region that was populated by Native Americans, then white “mountaineers” who lived as subsistence farmer-hunter-gatherers. It tells how foreign land-owners, and the concept of “enclosure”, which turns common land, like grazing forest, into private property, killed the ability of Appalachian residents to continue to live as they had before. It makes the strong argument, by comparing the land takeover in Appalachia to land takeovers elsewhere, that that common, undeveloped land, usually forest or marsh, is an ecological cushion, and necessity for more developed land, and when it is gone, the way of life falls apart. And also that consuming that land is one of the first ways that capitalism encroaches on a local peasant economy.

Far from the commons being always exploited by individuals who have access to it, Ramp Hollow argues that the real tragedy of the commons is how often it is taken away from those who need it. We can see that today with library funding on the chopping block.) In communities focused on a local way of life, the community itself often polices the use of the commons to keep it available for everyone. We see the traditional tragedy of the commons more in the air and ocean which are dumping grounds for corporations that do far more harm that individuals can do.

Ramp Hollow tells the story of how outside forces like government and corporations, were hostile to the peasant farming way of life, not only because they wanted the land, but because these mountaineers were not cogs in a greater capitalist machine. They used some money and did some trade, but most of their economy was local and barter-based. But when logging companies and extraction companies came in, not only did their work take away the commons, but they also purposefully tried to cut off workers from their family connections and other sources of sustenance to make them more dependent on the corporations.

I’ve never read a book of history that shows so many parallels to other similar events, that draws in art, literature, anthropology, political theory, and the evolution of all those fields as the region and the country changed over time. I’ve also never read a book of history that ends with proposed legislation to help return the idea of land held in common to the residents of Appalachia. It is a cry for a kind of democratic socialism that focuses on the local, on the needs of the people who live closest to the land, and wants to give them the ability to manage their own economy, that does not think the solution to every problem is more education and moving to cities with job. I think it’s a fascinating read for understanding how the US and the world became what it is today.

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Essential Cookbooks

Here is the second in my series of Thursday “lifestyle” posts. As we get ready to put the apartment on the market again, most of our cookbooks have to go into storage so that the bookshelves don’t look too “heavy” or “intimidating” per our realtor. This means keeping out only my essential cookbooks, so I thought I’d highlight a few.

Tender by Nigel Slater

I have and adore several of Nigel Slater’s cookbooks. Appetite is another one I highly recommend if you are a beginning cook, and also Real Food, from which I got one of my favorite fast recipes. But Tender is the one I open the most often these days. It goes through a long list of vegetables, from A to Z, and gives many recipes and serving ideas.

Like many of Slater’s books, it is as much of an idea book as a recipe book, with helpful serving suggestions as well as written-out recipes. The recipes are vegetable-centric but not all vegetarian. I love ordering a CSA box and using this book to figure out what to do with the haul.

Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi

I love Middle Eastern food, and Jerusalem is the crossroads of many cultures. Though with all of Ottolenghi’s recipes I like to use about a quarter of the hot peppers, and half the oil, that he calls for, the combinations of flavors are wonderful, and many of them are new to me.

I make several of the different lamb meatballs regularly. The barley risotto is in frequent rotation, and the desserts have been unexpected and wonderful. Like Tender above, he uses many fresh vegetables, and huge handfuls of herbs, making these dishes very fresh-tasting.

 

 The Best Recipe by America’s Test Kitchen

It’s not sexy, but you need one good reference cookbook. Once upon a time it was The Joy of Cooking, but now it’s The Best Recipe. America’s Test Kitchen exhaustively tests everything, and while I sometimes find their recipes to be a bit fussy to make and plain to eat, it is an excellent reference for the basics.

Their Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe cannot be improved upon. Their Flourless Chocolate Cake recipe is divine. The Caesar Salad recipe is perfection. If you want to eat a standard American recipe, this is the place to start. I also love their baking book, Italian book, and Soups and Stews book.

 

What are some of your essential cookbooks?

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Roasted Root Vegetable Soup

Turnip and carrot tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper
Turnip and carrot tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper

I do writing and reading blog posts every Tuesday, and now I’m gong to start doing lifestyle blog posts every Thursday, mostly about cooking and crafting.

One of my favorite things about winter is cooking warming foods, and I particularly love root vegetable soups. They taste very creamy without being loaded with heavy cream. They are a good starter, and for lunches I will dice any leftover protein I have sitting around and eat it in the soup. I don’t really use a recipe, because it always depends what I have in the refrigerator, but here’s a general idea.

Vegetables I like to use: carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery root.

 

Step 1: Roast root vegetables

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After roasting

Preheat oven to 400. Cut up root vegetables into 1″ cubes. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper. Roast for 20 min, toss, roast for another 20-25 min. They’re done when you can press a butter knife through them, but you’re going to simmer them also, so it doesn’t matter if they’re completely done.

Step 2: Onions and butter

In a big pot, saute chopped onions or shallots in a generous amount of butter (2-3 T). You can fry some celery with this as well.

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Simmer!

Step 3: Simmer

Add roasted root vegetables to the pot, cover with water or stock. If using water, add some bullion–I like Chicken Better than Bullion. Simmer for 20-30 minutes covered.

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With some leftover pork shoulder stirred in and a dollop of arugula pesto

Step 4: Blend

Let cool until it’s not dangerously hot, and blend until smooth. May need to do this in two batches.

Step 5: Adjust flavors

Return it all to the pot and heat through. This is a good time to taste it and see what it needs. I often find it needs several grindings of fresh pepper and the juice from half a lemon.

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2017: A Year of Reading

In 2017, I read 55 new books, and did probably 10-15 re-reads. (I don’t tend to keep track of re-reads, but I love re-reading books. Some books, comfort reads, I have read probably more than 50 times.) There was a time I read 80-100 books per year. There was probably a time when I read even more. I also read The Book of M by Peng Shepherd, which is not coming out until 2018–perks of being an author!

But I’m actually pleasantly surprised I read that many books this year. Because of politics, it was a hard year for me to get lost in fiction, though I always enjoyed it when I did.

Some stand-out books I read this year:

Arcadia by Iain Pears, which I wrote about here

The Round House by Louise Erdrich – the first book of hers I’ve read, but not the last. It is at once a literary coming-of-age story, a mystery, and revenge tale.

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar – the first book I read by an NYU classmate, but not the last!

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – a fascinating, and sometimes infuriating book about the history of humanity

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith – a wildly inventive novel about the end of the world brought about by giant bugs, but more importantly, a coming-of-age story about a dick obsessed bisexual teenage boy in the midwest

Greensleeves by Eloise Jarvis McGraw – another coming of age story, by the author of one of my favorite middle-grade books (Master Cornhill). I read this as a teen, but I don’t think I finished it then.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson – Pulitzer prize-winning and for good reason, this book is harrowing and impossible to put down

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemesin – the first book of The Broken Earth Trilogy. It was amazing and emotionally challenging, and I need to read the rest of the series before I write much more about it.

Alice by Christina Henry – a grim, spare, and inventive retelling of Alice in Wonderland, about magic, insanity, sex trafficking, and privilege. It’s amazing how much Henry manages to do in this short volume.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I always knew I would read this someday, and I was saving it for the right time, which turned out to be Christmas 2017. A wonderful book to get lost in.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan – makes the argument that the history of civilization is much better told centered on the Silk Road than Western Europe, and then proceeds to do just that.

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett – the conclusion to Bennett’s Divine Cities series, which I’ve written about here. Among the many wonderful things this book does is interrogate and undermine the idea of a singular hero, fueled by his pain.

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Giftedness, Failing, and Writing

This photographer failed at replacing the printer cartridge, but made some art.

There have been a lot of twitter threads going around about how schools fail gifted children, and how gifted children can grow up to be adults who don’t have a lot of the skills they need because they were not taught much in school, but always told how smart they were.

I went to the excellent public schools in Ithaca, New York, and had parents who praised me more for hard work than for being smart. My high school honors and AP track was very challenging, and I excelled, but not without a lot of hard work. When I got to college, even Cornell’s Engineering School, I did not have to work as hard as I did in high school–at least not until I also started working 30 hours a week on top of a full course load. (High school and college were not super fun for me, but I did learn to work hard.)

In school I learned to think of myself as smart, yes, but I knew I wouldn’t succeed without work.

But where school and being tracked as “gifted” failed me, especially when I became an adult, was in teaching me how to fail. I hated failing, refused to fail, felt as though my reality was falling apart if I did fail in any way. And not only that, but I became convinced–and I still struggle with this to some degree–that whatever success I achieved was the bare minimum of acceptability. Tomorrow I needed to be better, and if I wasn’t better every single day, I was failing, and therefore worthless.

This is the very worst mindset for writing. Writing is never perfect. I spent my 20s doing lots of writing that was never meant to see more than a small audience, and learning how to turn off my internal editor when rough drafting. I learned to write rough drafts fast without looking back until later. It was very hard. I still have to read my early drafts with my hands over my eyes, sighing heavily the whole time, because it feels very Not Good.

I reached a real low point with my perfectionism in my late 20s. I had a lot going right for me, but I was depressed and anxious and full of self-hatred all the time. Therapy definitely helped, but so did learning to write. I also started doing Ashtanga Yoga, which gave me something to try and fail at over and over again. Later, I started Crossfit, and I cried about my failures at least once a week and dwelled on them after every single work out.  But eventually I learned to be okay with failing, to pick and aim for little, achievable successes, to enjoy doing something I’m not very good at and will never be great at.

It was also the time I became a baseball fan, which is the perfect sport for understanding failure. So much of baseball never seems to come to anything: at bats that become strike outs, players who get on base and never complete a run. But at the end there is beauty and narrative and success. A very good batter only gets a hit 30% of the time. That’s an abject failure by any academic measure, but not in real life.

Without those early drafts that feel like failures, the finished work can never emerge. And without trying and failing at the various athletic things I’ve done, I wouldn’t get better and find the joy in them.

Most importantly, I got used to trying with the possibility that I might fail, but knowing that failure is not the end, and unless you walk away and don’t learn anything from it, it’s not even really a failure. Today I write many things I end up cutting from my novels, but in writing them, I discover where the scene does not go, the words that should not be there, and that points me to the words that should.

 

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My 2017: Publishing a Book and Becoming a Part-Time Activist

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the year when I published my first novel, and it was the year when I lost and found faith in my fellow citizens over and over again. 2016 and 2017 were bad for a lot of people. In 2016 we had the worst presidential election season of my lifetime, and the worst election. In 2017 we saw the consequences of that election play out. Not since I went through a pretty serious depressed period have I been as hopeless as I was in late 2016.

But 2016 was the year I sold my first novel and 2017 was the year it came out.

I have a superstition I can’t shake about naming and enjoying my good fortune. I often have to remind myself that after years of dreaming about publishing a novel, now I have, with a major publisher, and in 6 other countries. Not only that, I’ve been able to quit my day job, and the novel I published is the one I dreamed about writing and publishing for my entire adult life.

One of the wonderful and frustrating things about life is that when you climb that big mountain, the final step to the summit isn’t that different from all the steps that have come before, and by the time you near the summit, you can see other mountains you’d like to climb. It is wonderful because it means that life is not over when you achieve something, and it’s frustrating because there is no sublime moment of completion, a moment where you win your badge and get to be forever happy.

I think the most purely joyful part of the whole experience was the offer for the trilogy, back in January 2016, though moments like seeing the cover for the first time have also been quite wonderful.

The election produced some deep soul searching for me. I’ve been politically informed and opinionated for most of my adult life, but never very active. I felt very hopeless after the election, but I decided that even if my worst fears came true, I would have rather spent this time trying to make things better than simply watching things go wrong. I feel good about that decision, and plan to continue in 2018.

I also decided that I would try to make my political reading and speech purposeful. Whenever I post something political online, I try to make it a call-to-action or something optimistic and hopeful. That is what I would like to contribute to the conversation–let others point out how bad things are.

Some important things I did in 2017:

  • I went to more protests and marches every month than I had gone to my entire life leading up to 2017: the Women’s March, the Tax March, many, many marches and protests for The Right to Know Act in NYC, a law that would help improve community/police relations.
  • I learned how to marshal protests
  • I helped organize and run a fundraiser for Justice Committee
  • I became politically active in other ways with SURJ, SisterDistrict, and Working Families Party, to name a few
  • I donated to many political campaigns and non-profits
  • I sprained my ankle the same weekend that the Muslim Ban first came down, so I watched on twitter and through the news as my fellow citizens impressed me with their patriotism and dedication to this country’s highest ideals, sad and scared and hopeful and angry and frustrated that I couldn’t go myself
  • I tried failed to sell my apartment and move–keep your fingers crossed for me for 2018
  • I stopped doing Strongman and got back into Crossfit. I always said I’d only do Strongman as long as it was more rewarding than not, and this year it really stopped being rewarding. I competed at Strongman Nationals in 2015, which was a wonderful experience, and after that, the competitions became less rewarding. I had gone as far as I wanted to go in the sport.
  • I went on book tour and met wonderful, supportive people from across the country
  • Leading up to and on my birthday, I went to Miami to help out with Operation Carelift, getting supplies to Puerto Rico in collaboration with Spirit Airlines. It was incredibly rewarding.

In 2018, The Sea Queen will come out. I will write several drafts of The Golden Wolf, and likely start the writing project that comes after that. Hopefully I will move. I plan to start freelancing so I can remain a (mostly) full-time author.

And I plan to be even more politically active. Happily, I think a lot of the country is with me.

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How I Research Part II: Interviews and Experience

Draken Harald Harfagr figurehead

In Part I, I talked about how I approach researching a historical novel through reading. Reading does make up the bulk of my research, but I like to do other kinds of research as well.

Online Courses and Podcasts

The Great Courses have particularly good coverage of European and Near East history, though they do cover some other areas of the world. I’ve also listened to some of their courses on the literature and philosophy of eras of interest. Podcasts covering various aspects of history can also be a good resource.

Interviews

Interviews are especially helpful if you can find experts in your area of history, or people with experience of various aspects of that history. I hate bugging people, though, and their time is precious, so I try to read as much as I can first, and ask questions that I can’t find the answer to any other way.

But an interview with an expert can be a way to get started in a new area of research. For a novel I worked on while I was at NYU about various 12th century church conflicts, I talked to a medieval history professor who helped give me an idea of where to begin my research, and how to focus it a bit differently than I had planned.

Many writers talk to far more people than I do–I should do this more!

Travel

There’s no substitute for visiting in the place you’re trying to describe in a novel. In researching The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, I’ve traveled to Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and the Orkney, Shetland, and Faroe Islands. I feel very lucky to have been able to see all of those places.

In Norway I kayaked Geiranger Fjord, where some of the action in The Half-Drowned King and The Sea Queen takes place. In the Faroe Islands I tasted fulmar, which is a sea-bird and tastes like fish. In Skagen, Denmark, I saw where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea, and was almost blown away by a winter gale. Pictures can help, but it’s nothing to the feel of being there.

Museums

Seeing the actual artifacts that your characters would have carried and used in every day life is a wonderful way to connect with them.

Experience

I love fiber arts (knitting, crochet, weaving, etc.) and during the writing of The Half-Drowned King, I learned to spin with a spindle and a spinning wheel. I also learned Nalbinding, which is a kind of needle-weaving done in Viking Age Norway. I liked spinning and kept at it. I did not particularly like Nalbinding, and I haven’t continued.

I am also into strength sports (lifting heavy things), and so I got into Strongman competition, which is practiced all over the world, but some events have their roots in Iceland–the Husafjell stone is an Icelandic stone that only the strongest men could lift. Now Husafjell stones are manufactured of steel and used in Strongman competition.

I helped crew a viking-style boat at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde Denmark.

I don’t know if I would have done the first two if I didn’t already lover fiber arts and strength sports, but they certainly contributed to giving the books more verisimilitude.

On the other hand, I didn’t learn card-weaving, which is another viking craft. I didn’t learn sword-fighting. I don’t know how to make cheese, except in the abstract. I’ve sat on a horse exactly once. So it’s good to have the experiences you can, but a little experience and a lot of imagination are probably a better combination than the other way around.

These types of research are best for getting a feel for the era (rather than learning specific facts), to create it in your mind so you can better re-create it in your readers’ minds.

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How to cook dinner at make it all come out at the same time

Sunday night dinner

I was bragging on Facebook the other day that one of my superpowers is cooking dinner and making it all come out at the same time, and promised some tips about that, so here they are! It’s not magic, and it’s not a superpower, it takes some planning but it also takes some of the tips I will outline below, from easiest to more difficult.

General Principles & Tips

My goal when serving a meal is for everything to come to the table warm and properly cooked, not for everything to finish at exactly the same time. That is not necessary. The main key is knowing not only how long everything takes, but how long different steps take and when dishes can be held while other dishes catch up to them. A lot of this is trial and error, but here are some tips:

  • Have a good idea of how long each thing you’re making takes over all, and how long major steps take
  • Chopping ingredients takes longer than you think. If there are a lot to be chopped do it first.
  • Boiling water takes longer than you think, do it first or at least early
  • Preheating an oven takes longer than you think
  • Potatoes and other root vegetables retain heat very well, so you have about 10 minutes of leeway after they are done cooking before they start to get cold
  • Rice is better if it sits for 10-20 minutes. Boil rice early.
  • Any dish that starts with sauteing onions and garlic can be held after that step is done. Leave the burner on the lowest setting or turn it off.
  • Any hot dish on the stove-top that does not involve vegetables or pasta that are going to get overcooked can be held at a very low burner setting when they’re done
  • I love roasting because you stick your vegetables or whatever in the oven and set a timer. Toss once, set another time, done. Super easy.
  • Roasting temperatures can be variable, much more than for baking. If you have something that needs to be roasted at 375 and something else at 425, consider roasting them both at 400.
  • You can hold a roasted vegetable in the oven for 5-10 minutes by turning off the oven but not opening it
  • If anything takes cream as a finisher, don’t add it until the very end
  • Things that are fast or touchy should get priority at any moment
  • MOST IMPORTANT: If you’re making one fast and touchy dish, or a new dish, choose other dishes you know well that are easy and easy to hold

Difficulty Level 0: Cold dinner

Have a picnic food where everything is cold, and don’t worry about it.

Difficulty Level 1: One hot dish, the rest cold

Still very easy. Just make sure you finish the cold dishes before finishing the hot dish. For example, say your meal is a stew, salad, and (store-bought) bread. This one is nice and easy because a stew can be held on simmer forever. If it’s something more time-sensitive than a stew, and has a cooking phase that’s long enough to make your cold dishes, make them while your hot dish is cooking. Otherwise make the cold dishes first, then the hot dishes.

Difficulty Level 2: Two hot components, the rest cold

This can make up most of your meals. Let’s say you’re making a fast-paced pasta sauce, like all’amatriciana, over pantry (not fresh) pasta, with a side salad. This is where you have to understand what takes up the most amount of time. If I were making this meal I would:

  1. Start boiling the pasta water–this will take the longest
  2. Chop everything for the sauce
  3. Start sauteing bacon, onions, garlic for the sauce
  4. If the water is taking a long time, you can hold the onion mixture here
  5. Pasta probably cooks for 10 minutes. Put it in when the water is boiling
  6. Add the tomatoes to the sauce
  7. Make up the salad (I make very simple salads)
  8. Keep an eye on the sauce and when it’s done cooking, turn the burner to its lowest setting
  9. Drain the pasta
  10. Add cream to the sauce, if using

Voila, dinner is ready.

Difficulty Level 3: Three easy hot dishes, maybe some of them use the oven

Sunday night I made roast chicken with potatoes and onions, roast broccoli rabe, and heating up some frozen sourdough rolls. It’s not a hard 3-dish meal, but everything is hot and in the oven.

  • A whole roast chicken can be a challenge because the cooking time is variable, so you have to be flexible.
  • The chicken cooks for 90 minutes or so, so that’s most of the cooking time. The potatoes and onions cook in the roasting pan under the chicken, so that’s two dishes for the price of one.
  • Chicken is better if it sits a little before carving, giving me a buffer.
  • The broccoli rabe only takes 10 min in a 400-425 oven
  • The rolls warm up at 400 for 12-14 min
  • So the chicken comes out at 7pm, then then I throw the rolls in while the oven goes from 350 to 400.
  • Once it gets to 400, the broccoli rabe goes in
  • Carve the chicken in the last few minutes of cooking the rolls and broccoli rabe

Difficulty Level 4: Everything is cooked hot and fast and can’t be held

One of my favorite meals, which is easy and fast but requires good timing is: Duck breast, red wine pan sauce, store bought pumpkin ravioli, roasted broccoli rabe (I have an obssession). Here are the steps I would go through:

  1. Start boiling water for the ravioli
  2. Preheat the oven for the duck
  3. Score the duck breast, salt and pepper
  4. Heat up the pan and start stove-top cooking the duck
  5. Cut up the broccoli rabe and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper
  6. Put the broccoli rabe on its roasting pan
  7. Probably pour off some fat from the duck breast
  8. Prep the pan for the oven for the duck breast
  9. Put the broccoli rabe in the oven
  10. Take the duck breast off the stove-top and onto its roasting pan, put it on the other shelf in the oven
  11. Make the pan sauce for the duck in the same pan (I do a very easy pan sauce with red wine, honey, a little Beef Better Than Bullion, and maybe some jam or a cinnamon stick)
  12. You have maybe 2 minutes left on everything now. Boil the pumpkin ravioli.
  13. Take out the duck and tent it with foil to let it rest
  14. Take out the broccoli rabe, and add lemon juice and crumbled goat cheese
  15. Drain the ravioli
  16. Carve the duck breast
  17. Put everything on a plate and serve

The above takes about 30 minutes and I’m moving the whole time.

A Side Note

I read an article the other day that says Americans are eating fewer leftovers and throwing more food away. Leftovers are the best way to make sure everything is ready at the same time, especially on a weekday after work. And it doesn’t have to be cooking one thing and eating it all week. I made two whole roast chickens on Sunday. I made stock from the bones. I stirred some meat into soup I already had made for lunch yesterday, and made some of the meat and stock into Avgolemono Soup on Monday evening, which is a very fast soup and also used up some leftover rice I had sitting around. I will probably make some more of the chicken into Chicken Tikka Masala tomorrow. Often I’ll make side dishes that can stretch for more than one meal so I can have meals that are different combinations of leftovers.

Conclusion

Trial and error is very important. If the timing didn’t work out, figure out why not and try to do it differently next time. That’s true of all of cooking, and all of life, really. Experience, and learning from that experience, makes all of this much easier.

Let me know if you have any questions! I’ve been doing this for long enough that I have probably forgotten to mention important things that I now take for granted.

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How I Research Part I: Reading

No murdered potatoes this time! Only the beautiful flying buttress of Notre Dame Cathedral.

An Approach to Research

I love research. I research so I can write, but I also write so I have an excuse to do research, and to focus my research. I think all novels need some research, but some do need more than others, and historical fiction needs a lot.

When writing historical fiction, it’s important for me to feel very comfortable in the period I’m writing about, to be able to visit it in my mind at will. I do think my lifelong obsession with earlier historical eras is helpful here–when I was in elementary school I was obsessed with the Little House books and tried to live as much like Laura Ingalls Wilder as possible. Hopefully if you are interested in writing historical fiction you also spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to live in a different era. It’s helpful practice, and it makes the research process that much more enjoyable. One of the amazing things about visiting Notre Dame in Paris for the first time was not just seeing it, but imagining a medieval French peasant seeing it for the first time, going from a rough one room house that they probably shared with their livestock to seeing a church that is still impressive to modern eyes.

Still, imagination can only take us so far. So, while I was writing The Half-Drowned King, I was also always reading a book about Viking Age Scandinavia, or Dark Ages Archaeology, or an Icelandic Saga, or something that would let me understand more about the era. While I want to get details right, I also want to get the feel of the era right, and this research helps me get my head into the era when I’m writing about it.

The nice thing about writing historical fiction instead of a history book is that I’m interested in what is plausible, not what is provable. I want to get as much right as possible, but I do not expect an academic specialist in my time period to be fully satisfied. If they have spent their lifetime studying it, they certainly know more about it than I will even from years of research. And even if it were possible for me to know as much as they do, they have spent so long thinking about it, they probably have a very clear idea of how they picture the era and the people in it–which may be no more or less correct than mine, but is solid enough that whatever I write has a good chance of ringing false.

Where to Begin

A reader asked me on twitter about how I research. He is specifically researching early christian communities. Since that’s an era I find fascinating, although I don’t have any plans to write a novel set then, I’ll use it as an example. If it were me, starting from scratch, I would literally begin by Googling “Early Christianity”.

In the first five links, I find:

  • A Wikipedia article about Early Christianity:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christianity
  • A Wikipedia article about the History of Early Christianity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_early_Christianity (why two? I don’t know)
  • A PBS page about the diversity of Early Christianity: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/diversity.html

I would read the Wikipedia pages and follow all of the citations.

The PBS page has various professors listed–I would look for other books written by those professors. At this stage I would only be trying to get more context, to develop a familiarity with the era.

How to Broaden the Research

If you’re coming to research with a specific novel idea that opens up more ideas for research, particulars about the characters and problems you are tackling. In general, for learning about a place and an era, I would try to make sure I covered:

  • Daily life in the era
  • Life for women (hopefully but not always covered in daily life sources)
  • Are there any primary sources, i.e. sources written at the actual time and place? These are so important for understanding people’s way of thinking
  • The time’s social mores, laws, religions, politics, and conflicts
  • Local factions. Early Christianity had many splinter groups, and Judaism, paganism, and various other religions competed with it. Not only that, but almost no place is entirely homogeneous–what different ethnicities, nationalities, classes, etc. are present in my time and place?
  • What is the history of my time and place? Every era is informed by what came before it, so understanding the backgrounds of newly minted Christians would be helpful

I find these resources by reading books and following citations. It’s incredibly helpful to have access to a good library. In New York City, I have both the New York Public Library system and I pay to have access to NYU’s library. I definitely recommend looking into ways to access university collections. So many books are digitized these days you can even use a university’s collection if you’re not local.

Researching and the Writing Process

There is writing advice out there that says, “Do as little research as you can get away with”. And I agree with that, but with the emphasis on “as you can get away with”–the main point being, don’t let research get in the way of writing, and don’t use research as a procrastination tool, but don’t get big things wrong, and try not to get little things wrong either. (Ask me if I’m still bitter about the Viking novel I read that had characters consuming maple syrup and tea. Spoiler: I am.) I like to begin writing as soon as I can, and continue researching while I write. As I’m writing, if I run into something minor that I’d like to research, I leave a note to myself in the draft and come back to it later. Things that I can research later if I need something specific:

  • What flora and fauna is present in my era
  • What foods are available
  • Very specific dates
  • Place names, historical figure names

I do like to get those things right, but I don’t always need to get them right in the moment of writing my rough draft.

A Note on Notes

I record all of the books I read because I like to be able to cite them in articles and in my Author’s Note, but I don’t take very detailed notes. I read the books I want to read, and jot down things that might help with plotting, characterization, setting–anything that sparks an idea for my novel–but mostly I read to create the milieu in my mind so it is ready and there without too much conscious thought while I’m writing. I know a lot of writers don’t work that way, but that’s what works for me.

I keep notes from books in Evernote, and make lists of things I want to research in the future. I have an idea for a novel or trilogy set in medieval England, and I have long lists of individuals, social movements, religious movements, wars, and literature that I need to research for it. At the beginning of this process, every bit of research leads to more.

Next week I will talk about research through means other than reading.

Please let me know if you have questions!

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