My mother read all six volumes of Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while breastfeeding my younger brother. As a compulsive reader (yes, it runs in the family) she explained that Gibbons was just boring enough to put down when the baby finished eating. It was rare to see my mother sitting down without a book in her hand and she passed her love of reading on to her children. By the time my brother and I were in elementary school, the three of us – my mother, my brother, and I – often found ourselves working our way through the same book. It made for interesting dinner table conversations.
Even though we were no longer sharing a dining room table, Mom and I were still reading in tandem when Jean Aul’s Clan of the Cave Bear came out. We wanted to love that book! Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, romance, flint knapping! What’s not to like?
Aul lost us at the flint knapping. Pages and pages of flint knapping unleavened by anything resembling plot or even pre-historic sex. As my mother said, “she let her index cards show.”
The book was written during the 1970’s – researching meant going to the library, finding (which was not always easy) the necessary books, and sitting down with a stack of index cards. The procedure went as follows: 1) write name of book on top of index card 2) jot important notes and useful phrases on rest of index card 3) wrap stacks of index cards in rubber bands. While writing: 1) copy relevant information into hand-written first draft 2) develop some kind of method to keep track of citations (this is where the color coding helped) and 3) smoosh it all into a paper or a scene in a book or whatever.
I’ve done research like this and it’s really kind of fun. There’s something satisfying about a desk piled high with books and orderly little stacks of hard-won information.
Research is how I, as a storyteller, build the world in which my story lives. When the time comes to actually craft my story, I have to remind myself of my mother’s wisdom – don’t let your index cards show. The temptation is definitely there. How can I resist adding a detailed description of a Viking era turf house to my story? That’s what the people who told my material so long ago would have seen, right?
That’s index cards. As a storyteller, I have to remember to trust my audience, and my audience’s imagination.
How do you keep your index cards under control?