Category Archives: Browsing

One of my favorite Seattle used bookstores is closing

Abraxus Books, one of my favorite used bookstores in Seattle, is closing and everything is 50% off. Their shop is in a building that’s going to be torn down and they have to vacate by February 12th.

Abraxus Books has a very large and deep inventory of high-quality used books in many fields. It’s a great place for browsing, as I always find interesting and unusual books that I haven’t seen in other bookstores. Yesterday I spent two hours browsing and never made it out of their excellent and extensive history sections– I left when I reached the limit of what I could carry on the bus. I’ll be back, and I recommend that you visit before they close.

Their address is 524 1st Ave. N. (in lower Queen Anne near Seattle Center), and their new hours are:

  • Tuesday through Friday, 12 noon to 8pm
  • Saturday, 11am to 8pm
  • Sunday, 12 noon to 6pm
  • Monday, closed

Here’s the link to their Facebook page and here’s the link to their location on Google Maps.

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Interview about my “Creative Research for Writers” class

Kate Lebo’s interview with me about my May 16th “Creative Research for Writers” class has been posted on the Richard Hugo House blog. Here’s a preview:

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example….

You can read the entire interview here.

You can still register for the class, which will be held on Sunday, May 16th from 10am to 5pm. See my previous post for details, or follow the link within the interview to register.

Update, 2/19/2014: Hugo House has redesigned their website, so the original page I linked to is gone. I’ve replaced the link with an archived version of the page from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I’ve also copied the full text of the interview below.

May 12, 2010 Hugo House interview with Lisa Gold

Kate Lebo: When I think “research,” I think “Google” or (anachronistically) “card catalog.” Is that what you mean by creative research for writers? Or will your class teach students how to go beyond the card catalog?

Lisa Gold: What I call “creative research” is figuring out what you need to know, why you need to know it, where to find it and how to use it in your writing. It’s also about seeking out a variety of sources to gain knowledge and understand context instead of just searching for discrete facts. The number of soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg is a fact, but understanding what it was like to be a Confederate soldier fighting in that battle is knowledge. That is what you need to write about it in a believable way, bring the events and characters to life and transport your reader to that time and place.

If you only use Google and Wikipedia for your research, you’ll not only have to dig through mountains of junk, you’ll never find all the really great stuff that’s hidden beneath the surface or may not be on the Web at all. I’ll be talking in detail about a wide range of sources and where to find them, as well as how to evaluate sources so you can figure out what’s credible, accurate and useful and take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Though my focus will be on different types of digital and print sources, we’ll also explore other valuable but underused sources—like people, for example. I’ve also put together an annotated list of selected references and resources to help students with their own research.

KL: How does research lead to better writing?

LG: Creative research can help writers with inspiration, world-building, storytelling and character development. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing about real people or fictional characters, or about living in the past, present, future or an imaginary world—the more you know (or decide) about their day-to-day lives, their worldview and their world, the more real and understandable they will be to you and your readers. John Crowley wrote that these “small details of common life… give actuality, aliveness and thickness” to a story. The point of doing research is to help you tell a great story and breathe life into your characters, not to show off all the cool stuff you’ve found. Kelley Eskridge told me that she tries to “learn enough in research to create a culture in the story that feels real to people who know it, and is accessible to people who don’t… Every ‘research detail’ that makes it into the final story needs to serve a dual purpose—to establish/ground the world of the story and to either serve as an emotional backdrop or reveal an aspect of character.”

KL: What’s the most common hurdle people encounter when doing research for their writing? What’s the best/easiest way to overcome it?

LG: I think the most common mistakes people make are using research as an excuse not to write and not knowing when to stop. You shouldn’t wait until you finish your research to begin writing, and you don’t need to know everything about a subject in order to write about it. Writing and research are interconnected, and each should fuel the other. Don’t let anything stop the writing—if you are missing details, mark the spot with a quick note of what you need, keep writing and fill in the blanks later. Knowing when to stop researching is harder, but you should think carefully and make conscious decisions about what you actually need to know and what you can just make up.

KL: What’s the most creative method you’ve used to find information?

LG: I’m a strong believer in browsing and serendipity, which can lead to amazing discoveries. I spend a lot of time browsing bookstores and the Web, and I like to feed my curiosity and see where it leads. Whenever I’m looking for something in a bookstore or library, I always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found books much better than the one I was looking for or spotted something that I didn’t need at the time but later proved indispensable. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you stumble across it. Talking to people is another great way to uncover information—chances are you know someone or have a family member with unusual interests or expertise or who has done extraordinary things or lived through important historical events or periods.

KL: What kind of research do you do?

LG: I do whatever kind of research my clients need. Because I work with writers of fiction and nonfiction, I’ve researched a really wide range of subjects—life in Victorian London, the rich and their servants in 1930s New York City, cultural and historical trends throughout 20th-century America, American Revolutionary pamphlets and broadsides, as well as an odd miscellany of subjects for my husband (Matt Ruff), to name a few. I like working on unusual creative projects, such as when I encrypted messages into John Wilkins’ 17th-century “Real Character” symbolic language for the promotional campaign for Neal Stephenson’s historical novel “Quicksilver.” My own research is also eclectic, as I have a lot of interests and like to learn stuff, and some of it ends up in my blog.

Oxford University Press is having a sale

Those of you who share my love of reference books should know that Oxford University Press’ annual Spring Sale has begun. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is unfortunately not on sale, but many other great books are 30%, 50%, or 65% off. (The site is a bit difficult to browse– you have to browse by subject and also by discount– and the sale prices aren’t visible until you place the item in your cart, but your patience will be rewarded.)

While browsing, I spotted these two items which may be of interest to readers of my blog:

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation
01.05.05.10                                    endeavour
01.05.05.10.02                             searching/seeking
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10               accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

In praise of browsing

For me, an important element of creative research is serendipity, which the OED defines as “making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Browsing is a great way to open yourself to serendipity, but it is unfortunately becoming a lost art in this digital age.

Browsing and searching are different– browsing is about the journey, searching is about the destination. Searching is focused on finding specific information quickly and often leads to tunnel-vision, which can prevent you from recognizing useful sources that don’t match your preconceived ideas and assumptions. Browsing is about slowing down, opening your eyes, feeding your curiosity, and allowing yourself the opportunity to make discoveries.

I believe it’s important to set aside time to browse on a regular basis– not just on the web, but in the physical world as well. Spend time exploring different bookstores (both new and used), visit libraries and museums, and search out unusual places you’ve never visited. Take a different route, walk around neighborhoods you don’t live in, look for hidden treasures.

Whenever you are looking for something in a bookstore or library, always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times that I found books much better than the one I was looking for by doing this. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you find it.

Remind yourself to occasionally browse unfamiliar sections or subjects in bookstores and libraries, rather than only the ones you think will be of interest to you. Bookstores (especially those selling used books) each have their own idiosyncratic system of categorizing, so what you want may be in a section you never visit, and if you change your routine you might stumble across amazing things you aren’t looking for.

Use sources to lead you to other sources. Whenever you are looking at a book or article, browse the bibliographies or lists of references cited, as this will often reveal useful sources you might not have found on your own. When you discover an interesting blog or website, check out the list of links and bookmark those that may be useful to you. Talk to people and ask them for recommendations.

If something arouses your curiosity or inspires you, embrace the creative impulse and and see where it leads. Write stuff down. Let your mind wander.

I hope you’ll all spend some time browsing this holiday weekend. You never know what you might discover….