Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Hidden Magic: Research

“In endeavoring to estimate a remarkable writer who aimed at more than temporary influence, we have to first consider what his individual contribution to the spiritual wealth of mankind. Had he a new conception? Did he animate long-known but neglected truths with new vigor, and cast fresh light on their relation to other admitted truths?” —George Eliot

The last thing I ever expected to write about was Middlemarch. I’ve long had a difficult relationship with this book, but round three with it taught me new appreciation for it, particularly when I got to the end. And I don’t mean because I think I’ve read it for the final time, but because I finally read the back matter of the Norton Critical Edition, where the notes and essays on literary criticism are. It was there I discovered something rarely seen: an author’s own notes on a novel. The thought process, the crafting behind the magic, was revealed. 

Titled “Quarry for Middlemarch,” these intricate notes offer a behind-the-scenes view into how George Eliot researched the novel. Eliot details political decisions that influenced nineteenth-century English society; the university exam periods at Oxford and Cambridge; and a tremendous amount of scientific research about cholera, the history and treatment of delirium tremens, and numerous excerpts from The Lancet, which was a relatively new publication in Eliot’s time. 

I was riveted. Reading “Quarry for Middlemarch,” I felt like I was viewing a magician’s secrets. How often does one get to see this kind of thing? Which other expanded and annotated versions of other novels reveal the research behind the novel? I have an annotated Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and I actually took courses on Tolkien’s medieval resources and the languages he developed, but I want more. Something about having access to the research informs me as a writer. What stays in the notebook and what takes off in the story and gives it life—the magical essence that makes readers hold onto it? Medieval alchemists rarely, if ever, shared their secrets. One theory of the history behind the word “gibberish” makes the claim it was based on eighth-century alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, whose name in Latin became “Geber.” He was so paranoid about others stealing his secrets he created his own writing system and Geber eventually transformed into gibberish. As I read “Quarry,” I felt like I could finally dissect Middlemarch, and my appreciation for it was far higher than ever before. George Eliot wanted to examine marriage, science, and massive change, primarily in the form of the burgeoning Industrial Age, new scientific research, and politics impacting the very structure of society. 

I’m addicted to research. Notes from dozens of history books are compiled into binders, one for each novel I plan to write. For stories where worldbuilding is necessary, I’ve created my own languages, maps, and world histories. The good news is that most of my research is done for the next few novels. The bad(?) news is that I always find more excellent history books to read and add to my notes. But after having spied into the creative mind of George Eliot, it made me wonder: who, if anyone, is going to go through my research after I’m long gone? If my stories make an impact and last, will “Quarry for Dark Lady of Doona” appear in the back matter of some annotated version of the book? Will some grad student, teacher, or writer find something of value there? Well, here’s a note to future researchers, if they care to know: seek out the original opening to Dark Lady of Doona. It had a certain rhythm to it that set the narrative tone, even though it “told” more than it “showed.” 

(post originally published February 24, 2013)