On research and writing: From dusty tomes to instant information

During the process of writing Mother Tongue, I was reminded that things happen in small steps.

Sometimes, it is remembering this that gets me moving again on my writing when I feel stuck. One doesn't need endless hours to start writing. A few minutes here and there will do.

However, a few minutes in, I would often find that once again, I was wonderfully distracted by history, as writing a historical novel in the age of the Internet is definitely an experience shaped by its time.

Many years ago, I decided to explore the question of my mother's nearly mythical heritage. She kept telling us that 500 years ago her family came from Montenegro to Istria. As far as I knew, that information was not written down anywhere, although in my book there must be a mysterious old Bible. 

Exploring the question meant exploring the New York City Public Library. At the time, the main library on Fifth Avenue was an astonishing source of knowledge. The staff who peopled the Slavic department rivaled my professors at the University of California, Berkeley. They had already confirmed the veracity of the stories about why my family and I had fled Yugoslavia. I would talk to them at length about my questions, and they would refer me to old New York Times microfiche reels, or head off to the stacks to come back with mysterious dusty books. 

One of those dusty tomes told of the plagues that wiped out the population of Istria during the Middle Ages. They told of the Venetian empire strengthening, and taking over the area. Of Venice sending ships to Montenegro, where the Ottomans were invading. Of the ships picking up the fleeing 'barbarians' and depositing them along the Istrian coast. 

Thrilled with my discoveries, I neglected to make copies of the pages, or to write down the name of the book. On a recent return trip to that library, I learned that the department had been desiccated by budget cuts.  Moreover, those people that helped me were probably long retired, if even alive.

At home in San Francisco one day, I decided that I needed to do a little more research about more ancient history. Instead of flying to New York, I picked up my iPad. Instead of talking to some gentle elderly man, I talked to Siri. Instead of dusty old tomes, I got Wikipedia and Google transcripts. 

That Istria was the ancient Illyria discussed in the Iliad was another story I have shared with people for years. One more time I decided to confirm the veracity of my statements. One more time I learned I have not been incorrect. 

Illyria, it seems, covered much of what was once Yugoslavia. In fact, it was right near the dividing point of Montenegro that the Roman and Byzantine empires abutted. The rationale for the Bible being written in Cyrillic rather than Latin was discovered from my desk, as the sun rose over San Francisco.