Saturday, January 22, 2011
I Found it on the Internet
That statement often signals careless research and even gullibility. A case in point is the textbook “Our Virginia, Past and Present” recently pulled from many school systems because of historical errors that included the statement that thousands of African American soldiers fought for the South during the Civil War. According to the Washington Post of December 29, “The claim is one often made by Confederate heritage groups but rejected by most mainstream historians. The book's author, Joy Masoff, said at the time that she found references to it during research on the Internet.”
Well, of course, we exclaim. Who does serious research on the Internet?
Well, me, for one.
That’s because the Internet, as I see it, is one giant library in the cloud. In the days when only brick-and-mortar libraries existed, a dubious report of information found in a book would be met with the question, “Do you believe everything you read?”
Hopefully you didn’t. Hopefully you brought some background information to your reading, as well as a bit of judgment and skepticism. That’s even more important on the Internet, where anyone can post whatever he or she pleases -- unlike library books which are chosen by professional librarians.
Research has been on my mind lately not just because of the error-ridden textbooks, but because the rights to my first two books, both historical novels, recently reverted to me, and I decided to give them a going over before having them formatted for the Kindle and other eBook platforms. Last winter, while snowbound for several weeks, I curled up with a warm computer. Besides some minor copy-editing, I spent most of that time online, double-checking my research.
The novels, As Far as Blood Goes (the story of a fugitive slave who becomes a doctor) and A Different Sin (a combined Civil War novel and gay men=s romance), were published in 1988 and 1993 respectively. I’m neither a historian nor Civil War buff, so I had to do a lot of research – nearly all of which took place in the Alexandria, Virginia public libraries.
I was fortunate that the Alexandria Gazette, one of the country’s oldest newspapers, was available on microfilm in the library’s Special Collections, and I spent hours squinting over microfilmed copies from the early 1800’s. (Let me tell you, an ice cream headache has nothing on a microfilm headache.) But hours were also spent wandering aimlessly through library stacks looking for relevant books on black and Civil War history.
Except for newspapers from the times, and a few reprinted memoirs, I relied on history books, not on original documents from those times. But hey, I was writing fiction, not trying to add to the body of historical knowledge. For As Far as Blood Goes I needed first to find out whether it was possible for a black man to have become a doctor in ante-Bellum America -- and yes, there were indeed a handful of African-American physicians at the time -- and then learn enough to know how the events of that time would shape and affect my characters.