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Researching is a Massive Public Work

A lot going on – and big news/updates to come – but I wanted to talk a little bit about research. I’m busy getting ready to write my second novel (but I guess my third book?). And this time I’m trying to do everything about this process “right.” The Collective, you remember, was a National Novel Writing Month book. I jumped in with eyes squeezed shut, outlining as I went, discovering the plot as it flowed from my fingers. That process was a lot of fun, but it meant the editing process, once I started to try to make sense of what I’d written, was a 12-month chore.

With this next book I want to cut that time down – and I aim to do it by smartly outlining and researching ahead of time. (Like a real book!) That’s the part I’m in right now – and it’s been a lot of fun, actually. I’ve got books and movies in a big long list. I’ve got a Scrivener document with ideas for scenes and characters. And I read for hours at a time and feel like I’ve accomplished much. Of course the danger is to get sucked in and research for forever. But I’ve set myself a due date – I’ll start writing in earnest on July 2. (Happy Birthday America, I got you 10,000 words!)

What’s the research been? Massive earth-changing projects. I read Dam! about the Hetch-Hetchy and right now I’m reading Path Between the Seas about the Panama Canal. (PBTS, BTW is an incredible book. The founding of the Republic of Panama reads like a Joseph Conrad page-turning spy thriller.) Next up in my queue: a book on Baron Haussmann remaking Paris and Ferdinand de Lesseps digging the Suez Canal.

Anything else you think I should read?

Also – I guess I should come up with a Sloanian codename for this next project, huh? That’s to come (though let me know if you have any suggestions).

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  1. June 24, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Andrew, I think you already got the Powerbroker recommendation that Timand I made on twitter. I’m guessing you already know about Cadillac Desert (Mark Reisner) & The Control of Nature (John McPhee)? Salvadori’s Why Buildings Stand Up & Why Buildings Fall Down form an interesting duet, but more engineering focused than you probably wanted. Three books I can’t recommend but have heard things about:
    The Gate by John Van Der Zee, about our famous bridge, The Great Wall by John Man, and A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time about the Taj (which was not quite a public work . . .). I can’t recall the names, but I’ve heard of good histories of New York’s Catskill aquaduct system and the London Thames Sewage system. I’m guessing either city’s subways must have compelling histories as well. There are several dueling histories of the Transcontinental Railroad too.

    Far and away one of my favorite novels of the last ten years of my reading life is about public works and the people working on them: In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, which is truly lovely.

    Looking forward to reading the fruits of your search and synthesis.

  2. June 29, 2010 at 1:55 am

    Great suggestions! Yeah, Power Broker is in my queue for sure and The Control of Nature is one of my all-time favorites – but the rest of these are all new. Thanks so much!

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