Over Many a Quaint and Curious Volume: A Fiction Writer on the Pleasures of Research

Shields Library, UC Davis, egghead
Shields Library, UC Davis

When I was working on Landfalls, my novel about the Lapérouse expedition, I used to joke that the whole endeavor was just an excuse to go to the library—but I wasn’t always sure I was joking.

One of the reasons the project took so long—besides my painfully slow writing and the demands of grad school and work and, you know, family—was the time I spent researching. There was always one more book to read, one more lead to chase down, one more link to click, one more intriguing footnote I had to follow up on.

It could be a problem. Sometimes I found myself researching to no particular purpose in order to avoid writing. Or I’d be in pursuit of a legitimate question, but doing so with a thoroughness far beyond what the project required.

At the 2006 Tin House Writer’s Workshop, Jim Shepard, one of my writing heroes, gave a great presentation on fiction steeped in research. During the Q&A, I asked, “So…how do you know when to stop researching?” He laughed and said, “Yeah—sometimes, you need to trust you’ve done enough, put on your floatie, and just jump into the deep end of the pool.”

I cannot tell you how many times over the next eight years I had to tell myself, Okay, Naomi—time to put on the damn floatie already.

But the research was also the lifeblood of my project. I really came to trust the power of research to fuel my writing. Yes—I spent many many many hours with butt in chair (or slow-walking at my treadmill desk), alternately staring at that blinking cursor and tippety-tapping on my keyboard. But if I wasn’t sure how to proceed, I’d usually go back to my notes, back to the books, back to Google, or back to the library. More often than not, I’d find some suggestive nugget that would set me going again.

My favorite example of this process happened with what became the novel’s 8th chapter. The chapter was set in Macao, where the expedition stopped for several weeks in early 1787, and I knew I wanted to focus on some of the expedition’s scientists, who’d found themselves in a bit of a contretemps with the expedition’s commander, Monsieur de Lapérouse himself.Copepodologists Cabinet cover

Other than that, I had nothing.

And then I found the most marvelous book in the world: The Copepodologist’s Cabinet.

Written by David M. Damkaer and published in 2002 by the American Philosophical Society, the book, whose full title is The Copepodologist’s Cabinet: A Biographical and Bibliographical History, is not so much about copepods, a subclass of tiny crustaceans, as it is about the many scientists who have discovered and described and drawn these creatures over the last two millennia.

cover pageI loved everything about this book. Its alliterative title. The unabashedly esoteric subject matter. The fact that a book about naturalists had been published by a “philosophical society”—so 18th century! Also that it was the first of a planned two-volume set. Volume One covers only the first 2,162 years of copepodological research, or, as the page after the title page informs me, “Aristotle to Alexander von Nordmann (330 B.C. to A.D. 1832).” I even love the unapologetic use of B.C. and A.D. over the more politically correct BCE and CE.

The full text of the book was, and may still be, available on Google Books, and I really only needed to see a few pages, the entry on Joseph Hughes de Boissieu de Lamartinière, a naturalist with the expedition who had discovered some new copepods on the voyage and was one of the scientists involved in the dust-up with Lapérouse. I didn’t expect the entry on Lamartinière to shed much light on what happened in Macao.

But my brief digital encounter with The Copepodologist’s Cabinet persuaded me that this was a book that deserved to be experienced in the flesh, and I was not disappointed when I found it at Shields Library (pictured above), the main library at UC Davis and one of my favorite spots in town.

book coverThe book’s generous trim size and wide margins, the dark blue cloth in which the library version is bound, the beautifully reproduced prints, the wonderfully apt and literary epigraphs before each chapter—all attest to an author and a publisher who love books. In fact, the Acknowledgments pages begin with a disquisition on the raptures of discovering old books, and the first people Damkaer thanks are booksellers. Booksellers!

I was in heaven.

The Acknowledgments opens—be still my heart!—with an epigraph from Pride and Prejudice:

I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.

This is, of course, what Elizabeth Bennet says at the end of the novel by way of explaining—or really, failing to explain—how it is that she has come to be in love with Mr. Darcy, the haughty one-percenter whose marriage proposal she so dismissively refused only a hundred pages earlier. A funny quote to apply to the project of putting together what’s basically a reference book, even if the reference book in question is attractive enough to grace a coffee table.

But surely that’s what it means to be a geek: someone who can romanticize and even eroticize the collection and dissemination of arcane knowledge. I mean that in the most loving way, of course. I checked the book out from the library, wrapped it carefully in my sweater, put it in my bike basket for the trip home, then spent hours poring over this wonderfully quaint and curious volume of lovingly amassed and arranged lore.

copepods pics
Lamartinière’s copepods

And as it turned out, what I learned in the book ended up playing a significant part in the chapter I was researching. The copepods were so weird and interesting. And provided some surprisingly apt metaphors about parasitic relationships. Also, I learned that Lamartinière prepared a paper on his own copepodological discoveries and sent it back to France from Macao. All of that ended up in my chapter, which I titled “A Monograph on Parasites.”

I love having work that gives me an excuse to seek out such a book. And I am very fortunate to live in a town with a world-class research library. What a luxury to take such a book home and examine it at one’s leisure!

I’ve now embarked on my second book, another work of historical fiction. It promises to be at least as hard to research and write as the first one. In fact, nearly daily I wake up and think, What the hell am I doing? But I’m even more excited about the unexpected library finds in my future.

(And if the idea of a relatively complete, lightly annotated list of the other sources I consulted for Landfalls does not appall you, click here.)

4 thoughts on “Over Many a Quaint and Curious Volume: A Fiction Writer on the Pleasures of Research

  1. I have always found it difficult to determine, for myself at least, when research crosses the line into procrastination.

    1. Me too! It often feels like procrastination unless it “yields” something concrete for the writing. And maybe we’re also inclined to call it procrastination if it’s fun?

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