As I type the sun is shining on dusty cobwebs across my window and the sky is blue. It is the twenty-ninth of December and the frost is melting. The house is cluttered with Christmas debris and I’m thinking of ways to write about what I don’t know.
I got back to digging into the family history just before Christmas. This time on the maternal side. If I were just interested in dates, you could say that my research is going well. I’ve found a line of births and marriages that takes me back to 1808 and have hopes that another visit to the archives should provide me with the generation before that one too. So from the family tree point-of-view, I’m building up quite a branch structure.
I like this task. It’s a treasure hunt. That’s the kind of party game I have always loved best. Each new discovery carries clues to a further clue. Mostly the information is given up easily, and I fill in a whole new branch of the tree using two census returns, or I do a name search on the archive data base and turn up a court case. Britain, it seems has been keen to document it’s population for a few centuries now, and here’s one plus on the reasons-for-it side of the argument, many of us are fascinated to find out where we’ve come from and glad to discover our ancestors on some kind of register.
I never set out to get this far. I’d hopes that some of the family would turn up some old photos and I’d reconstruct the stories for each one, like I did for Dad’s family. But the earliest pictures we have of Mum’s relatives are all from living memory. So this album, I decided, would have to be more about the research, and that’s meant a new approach to the subject.
Without a selection of sepia portraits to give me structure, I’ve pushed back beyond the generation I’d planned to start with and the research bug has got me. I’ll get stuck soon, I tell myself, as the record details become thinner. Then I’ll have to let this go and get on with the writing.
Which brings me to thinking about what my purpose is with this project: who my readers are and what they might want. This time, being family, I’ve a pretty good idea of how my audience approaches their reading, and it’s not helping. There are so many differences amongst them.
I’ve been caught in the creative doldrums here, riddled with DOUBT. What’s my best approach? I could and shall hand over my notes, my lists of births, marriages, deaths and census records, as bare facts. The sticklers for accuracy can make their own interpretations then, if they want to.
I’m drawn to create beyond that though, to impose my writer-self between the record-gaps and describe a scenario that seems logical to me. Making stories is something that’s too ingrained to change now. Take two facts and give me the gap between them, I’ll shape it.
Like this fragment of glass I picked up while walking the dogs. It’s just another piece of someone’s rubbish, but I keep it by my desk and every so often I’m drawn to pick it up, turn it over and try to imagine what it was like when it was new.
I’ve been to the museum and looked at undamaged bottles of similar glass, matching their shapes to this base until I found one I believed in. I’ve seen seen my bottle in old paintings of tavern scenes and got a clue to it’s context.
The story of my bottle builds. It’s not authentic, but it’s mine, and has it’s own truth. I might never write a history for it, but the bottle has appeared in my stories. Once, it even became a key part of a final draft. The great thing about only owning this fragment of a base, of course, is that it has become infinitely flexible. I can build or break it and set it anywhere without feeling anchored to space or time.
For me research is about achieving a balance that works. The trick I’ve needed to remind myself of since the archives closed for Christmas, is that there is not going to be a recognisable starting point. It’s all too easy to keep accumulating ideas: to worry that I don’t know enough. Those are just other ways of avoiding the writing. I read as much to find out what I don’t know as to recognise what I do, so surely writing should carry something of the same principle.