Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Laura: Looking to the Past

If you're reading this, you're probably a writer. Or know a writer. So maybe you can tell me: is there a writer out there who thrills to the sight of a blank page? Whose creative juices are goosed by a blinking cursor?

If so, I don’t want to know about it.

Like most writers (I hope), I need something to set my mind wandering down a path of “maybes” and “what ifs”. Often it’s people I know, places I go, conversations I overhear.

Take UNDER THE EGG, my first novel that comes out March 18. Theo's sidekick, Bodhi? My college roommate. Theo's grandfather? My favorite professor. Theo's crumbling townhouse? My eighty-five-year-old neighbor's house (which he recently sold for over a million. Oh, Brooklyn.).

But my favorite place to mine for ideas is history. Recent or prehistoric—I don’t care. Give me a well-researched biography, a juicy obituary, an old diary or letter. I can squeeze ideas out of my brain until they dribble out my ears, but a true story will always be richer, more inspiring, more impossible to believe.

Life is truly stranger than fiction.
UNDER THE EGG began in the pages of just such an incredible-but-true book: The Forger's Spell, the story of a man who forged Vermeers and sold them to the Nazis. On page 35, Edward Dolnick wrote: 

The easiest test of an old master—and the one test almost certain to be carried out—is to dab the surface with rubbing alcohol. In a genuinely old painting, the surface will be hard, and the alcohol will have no effect. If the painting is new, the alcohol will dissolve a bit of paint, and the tester’s cotton swab will come up smudged with color.

I had an idea.

That initial idea set me off on a Google spiral, where I stumbled upon more incredible stories: a painting by Titian, painted over by another artist and lost for over 400 years. A group of art scholars in World War II tasked with finding and protecting Europe’s greatest treasures. A portrait of Raphael’s mistress, where an x-ray uncovered a painted-out wedding ring.

But finding the true story behind the headlines requires more than just a Google search. And that's where the Theo and Bodhi sides of my brain came together. 

Theo is living a Great Depression lifestyle in modern-day Greenwich Village, a life where her computer access is limited to the library (where she’d rather check books out than log on). Her friend Bodhi is tech-savvy, happy to exploit high-end gadgets to track down the latest news and technology.

Like Bodhi, I rely heavily on the Internet. Google is my best friend and most-consulted expert (and sometimes annoying co-worker with too many “must-see” dog GIFs). But in the world of art history, the Internet has limited advantages. The real scholarship is found in painstakingly-researched books and articles, not in the media. While the instant access of the internet is great for the pajama-fond writer, it was important to also consult sources that had the weight of well-documented scholarship behind them.

The Internet can also create a real problem in mysteries. How do you build suspense when you can find any answer in 0.43 seconds? And who says the first answer is always the right answer? That’s where Theo’s tech aversion pays off. She shows us that sometimes you have to put down the gadgets and just quietly, seriously, really look. That goes for looking at art and also looking at your own writing, where you have to figure out how to turn, say, a cool idea sparked by an Internet search into a full-fledged plot with characters.

But that comes later. First you need an idea. So try starting in the past. Pick up old pictures at yard sales. Read out-of-print books. Take a walk through a cemetery and read the headstones. Ask yourself who these people were and what they want to tell us.

The stories are out there waiting for anyone -- and that includes any kid -- to find them and bring them back to life.