Meanwhile, I’m beginning on Legends 3, The Swan Princess. It’s a huge, soggy mess at the moment, little more than a bunch of disconnected ideas, half of them tossed up by my subconscious for reasons that remain unclear. So when not pushing myself to complete the exercises in John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, my go-to book for the beginning of any novel, I’m doing research. This is not the kind of in-depth, years-long research I use in writing history—although my mix includes books written by scholars, and even books written in Russian by scholars. Instead, it’s research to spark the imagination, to woo balky characters and tame a plot that threatens to have more branches than a holly bush, some of them every bit as prickly.
And my preferred site for that kind of research, or indeed any kind of research that is at a quick and dirty beginner level? Wikipedia.
Among scholars, such an admission is, shall we say, frowned-upon. And it’s true: Wikipedia articles can only skim the surface of their subjects and sometimes contain errors, despite higher standards imposed in recent years and enforced by the input of dedicated page editors. Even the Russian version, Vikipediia, which tends to have longer and fuller entries on the kinds of obscure topics that interest me—Islam-Girei Sultan of Crimea, the Venerable Trifon of Pechenga, the fortress of Ivangorod (Sebezh), and so on—can go only so deep.
But as a place to start, Wikipedia is marvelous. Most entries have pictures, public domain or Creative Commons, and maps and links to other, more informative sources. The entry for the Pechenga Monastery (where, readers of The Golden Lynx will remember, a certain character has been exiled to ponder his sins) led me to a small book in English, hosted on the digital Internet Archive, not only describing what remained of the monastery in the late nineteenth century and what was still known about its history but also recording legends associated with the monks themselves, including its founder, Trifon. It would be going too far to say that Trifon’s legend is historically accurate, but it is historically attested. And since I’m writing a novel, not a history, historically attested is more than good enough for me.
In other cases, a brief survey of current information addresses my needs. This tends to be particularly true of medical, geographical, and biological information. A list of symptoms, a map showing the range of a particular type of plant or animal, a description of topographical or species characteristics, even dates and the spelling of a name in Russian or Tatar can be invaluable. I go online, read the entry, print it if necessary, and I’m back in my scene. Even for work, if I’m checking the spelling of a name or the date when some event happened, Wikipedia is most likely to have the information I need readily accessible, front and center.
Last but not least, those pictures are precious. I’d love to visit Pechenga, but the chances of that are small. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I have at least an idea of what my antagonist may see as he gets ready to wipe the ice of the monastery from his fictional feet. I have downloaded views of the Sura River, Tatar dogs, flags and banners, ancient fortresses, flowers and animals, shamans and their instruments, and much, much more. All these enrich my understanding of the world my characters inhabit, even if they do not appear on my blog or on the covers of my books.
So let’s hear it for Wikipedia. It’s an example of the Internet at its most creative. And even if you don’t choose, as I do, to support the site during its annual fund-raising campaigns, it’s a project worth celebrating.
Speaking of images, Photos.com, which I mentioned in a long-ago post, “Images, Images Everywhere,” is closing down as of March 10, 2014. The site owners will move existing accounts, including any unpurchased downloads, over to ThinkStock, owned by Getty Images as is Photos.com. Unfortunately—and perhaps not coincidentally—ThinkStock prices its images appreciably higher, at the same level as Shutterstock. So Photos.com is no longer a mid-level solution.
Maybe something else will come along to replace it. We can hope, right?
|Konstantin Korovin, St. Trifon’s Brook, Pechenga (1894)|
From Wikimedia Commons
This picture is in the public domain because of its age.