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Monday, May 29, 2017

The other side of my brain

I really would love to start working on my fall class schedules--just to get a jump start on them, so I don't have to be frantic about them in the weeks just before school starts--but without the official calendar, I really can't. I looked at my own calendar today to see if I could figure out what's likely to happen in terms of adjustments for the Jewish holidays, and there are too many potential variables for me to make a reasonable guess. I don't envy the people on the calendar committee; they have to make sure every class meets the same number of hours (regardless of how many days a week it meets, and taking into considerations any necessary days without classes, such as Thanksgiving), and they need to do so in a way that tries to minimize the shrieking howls of protest from faculty and students. Nevertheless, it's annoying as hell not to have any idea about the fall at least--and I'm also annoyed that an e-mail I sent to a colleague who is on the committee has gone completely unanswered: no automated "out of office" reply, no "I don't have the information," nothing.

In any event, that desire being stymied--but my desire to be active today also being at a very low ebb (partly because of the weather, partly the generalized fatigue I've been complaining about ), I wanted something to do that would feel modestly productive and would require sitting at the computer.

So, after literally several years of ignoring it, I'm dipping my toes back in the creative waters: not just a short story (though I have one of those that I want to rework as well), but the stuff I've been working on that I hope may turn into a novel.

I hesitate to even say that; I certainly don't want to be as definitive as to say "I'm writing a novel." For one thing, I have a really bad track record of starting a longer fictional project and dropping it before I get very far at all. For another, I have set myself quite a challenge here, as it's a historical novel--and for that, I need to know a lot more history than I do.

So, here's the interesting overlap: in order to fill in the gaps of my knowledge (or at least to have enough of an idea that my invention won't cause disdainful rolling of the eyes by anyone who knows the history better than I do), I have to do some research. And so far, my research is turning up a whole hell of a lot of dead ends.

Here's a brief list of the things I want to know:

1. How would a young Hungarian woman of a good family, an unmarried woman of good moral stature, end up being a "mail-order" bride? Or, if that wouldn't happen, how else might she find herself marrying an American man she doesn't know, in a marriage of convenience, on the prairie of North Dakota, just about the time North Dakota achieved statehood?

2. If that young woman's immediate family is dead (no siblings, both parents deceased), how would she get to the U.S. in the first place? Would she be likely to answer an ad for a bride in some kind of publication in Europe, or would she get to the U.S. first, then somehow end up with the husband?

3. How would she learn English--enough to communicate with her American husband?

4. If she didn't go straight from Hungary to North Dakota, what did she do in America before getting to North Dakota?

Here's what I know: the time period I'm looking at was a time when a fair number of Hungarian immigrants arrived in the U.S., but this was a second wave of immigration; the first was made up of people fleeing for political reasons; the wave in which this young woman would arrive would have been immigrating for economic reasons. Hungarian men in the second wave largely came to work in the mines and mills, heavy industry. A lot of them settled in Pittsburgh, which makes sense, given that Pittsburgh was the heart of the steel industry at the time. This is also handy for me, as I know a little about Pittsburgh, having lived near there when I was a kid and having spent my first year as an undergrad there--but I don't know a lot about Pittsburgh in the late 1880s, except that it was filthy, absolutely black with the pollution from burning coal to make steel.

I know that North Dakota became a state in 1889. I know rail lines were multiplying in the state by the 1870s, though the Great Northern Railway (which connected a lot of the lines) wasn't complete until 1889. I know that at the time I'm interested in, and in the part of North Dakota I'm interested in, the main crop would have been "winter" wheat.

I know more stuff--bits and orts from various things I've read--but trying to get from generalized historical knowledge to the kind of veracity of mundane details is highly challenging. I wish I personally knew a historian who would be interested in helping me with that angle of the thing I'm writing (whatever it is). I don't mind if some of the details are merely possible, even if not entirely likely, but--as I said--I don't want to commit any eye-roll worthy blunders of historical reality.

I also realize, in reviewing the bits I've already written, that writing something with huge gaps between stints is a recipe for inconsistencies. I mentioned a pivotal character and event in one chapter whom I had entirely forgotten when I got to the chapter that would pivot on that character and her circumstances. She's not a main character--I don't forget those, though it did take me a while to consistently remember some of their names--but I invented her in order to come up with a plausible solution to the first three questions I asked above. Having forgotten all about her, I invented an entirely different way to resolve the problems in those questions. Neither works, by the way; that's why I'm still looking for information. My imagination is failing to come up with anything that makes sense, so I'm hoping reality will provide a reasonable solution.

The other thing I realize about reviewing bits I've already written is that I am a very harsh critic of my own writing--as a scholar, yes, but more as a creative writer. When I reread my scholarly stuff long after having written, I often have the reaction, "Huh. I didn't realize I could sound so smart." By way of contrast, when I reread some of my creative stuff, I often have the reaction, "Oh, gawd, is that ever soupy and melodramatic. Yuck." But I have enough experience writing (though not publishing) short stories that I know I am capable of writing stuff that is unsoupy and genuinely laden with affect, not sentimentalized crap.

So, I don't know what I'll do in terms of writing anything today. It may be enough for me to make a record of the things I'm thinking about, haven't worked out yet but need to bat around for a while--and to record the sources for some of the information I've found, so I can find it again if need be.

And I will continue to check for that calendar to be ready. Enrollment is scary low at the moment: one student dropped SF, so I'm down to 8 in that--and it's been holding steady at 8 for a good while now--and there is one student in one of my 101s, two students are in the other. I haven't looked to see if the numbers for other classes are higher (probably), but it's also not even June yet, so I don't need to feel nervous about anything. I do wonder, though--I'm sure we all wonder--how the "free tuition" for NY students thing is going to impact our enrollment college-wide.

But for today, I'll noodle around a little more with the writing, then probably collapse on the sofa--again--with a good popcorn read. Can't seem to get quite enough of that sofa time...

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