Work in Progress #11: Umbrella Research

CNW Bagel ShopThere’s another aspect to research that I never realize the importance of until I stop doing it.  I call it “Umbrella Research” because it covers everything I write from Esther Morris taking a stagecoach out to Wyoming in 1869 to Edith Wharton living in her two elegant homes in France just after World War I.  I can’t write history unless I know what’s going on in the present.  I don’t know quite why that is…why I can’t just leave the present and immerse myself in the particular period I’m writing about.  All I know is that, for me, if I lose touch with today, I find myself floundering around in the past.

I have a stack of journals I like to read weekly (or monthly, or bi-monthly) and I find that if I fall behind on this umbrella reading my writing gets “thin” in the same way it does if I haven’t done enough period research.

Here’s my current list of journals:

Weekly:  Businessweek and The Economist.  How people make money, think about money, and spend money is key to understanding history and I love contrasting how people view business and economic issues today with how they viewed these same issues in the past.  Also, The Economist does a great survey of world events, region by region, each week.  Even though my focus is U.S. history we are (and really always have been) global.  I can’t write intelligently about the history of my own country unless I have a world context.

Bi-weekly:  The New York Review of Books (note: not the New York Times Book Review)  I lean conservative and this journal keeps me up on what my liberal friends are thinking and talking about.  The reviews themselves are so thorough I feel as if I’ve read a dozen books (on everything from astronomy to philosophy) by the time I finish it.  This one I try to read cover to cover because it always seems to be the articles I would have skipped (Am I really interested in sea mollusks????) that turn out to be the most intriguing.

Monthly:  The Atlantic.  This journal keeps me totally off balance.  Its writers never take a “normal” view of anything!

Bi-monthly:  Foreign Affairs and The Horn Book Magazine.  Foreign Affairs is my continuing education source for history, politics, geography, and current events.  I love its editorial policy:  it takes no side on an issue even to the point of printing an article on why we should have invaded Iraq immediately following one on why we should not have invaded Iraq (both with equally thoughtful and compelling).  It keeps me from trying to serve up a fully prepared plate of history to my readers.  It reminds me that there are many sides to every issue.  Horn Book keeps me up on what’s going on in the field of literature for children and young adults.

It’s a lot of reading to keep up on.  Spending lots of time on planes helps.  Once in a great while, I “retire” a journal and substitute a different one.  But since each journal is like being in conversation with an old friend over many years, I don’t do that too often.

If you’re serious about writing nonfiction, it might be worth taking the time to think about what subjects you write about and what umbrella research might help you.  Whatever lands on your reading list, resist the urge to skip through and read a few paragraphs here and there.  All the best bits are hiding in the nooks and crannies.  If you take the time to find them and savor them, your writing will grow deeper over time.