Where the White Whale Leads Us

I had the pleasure of hearing New York Times best-selling author and 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick

speak today as part of Rowan University’s Presidential Lecture series. It was his newest book, “The Last Stand, that prompted me to brave the currently miserable South Jersey weather. I hoped that listening to Mr. Philbrick speak would help me in developing and refining parts of my own historically based paranormal fiction series, Six-Guns & Shadows. It was “The Last Stand that I was specifically interested in, as it tackles General Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. My own series of paranormal westerns open up in the Dakota territories and although they open up some 14 years later, I figured that I could learn a bit about approaching historical accuracy. As I write this, I am filling in time, waiting until 3:15 p.m., where I am fortunate enough to have a reserved spot in the Master’s class he is offering today while on campus. He’s off to Berlin, Germany next.

General Custer

Sitting Bull

What I did not expect to walk away from the afternoon lecture with, was the greater gift that Mr. Philbrick imparted on me, as a writer. It is a sentiment that nestles at the heart of this semester’s class, Core2: Research Methods for Writers. It is a sentiment mentioned to me in a recent interview with Eric Foemmel, researcher, turned author/publicist. And it is a sentiment that has begun to make itself known to me as I approach different writing projects that I might have once thought sat outside my grounds of “normal operation”. And here it was again, given that final spark of life by a wildly successful and dynamic writer, a man whose passion and excitement was evident in his delivery: The research is the exciting part. The research is fun. It is a wildly colorful adventure that often leads us in directions that we, as writers, never expected or considered. All we have to do is open ourselves up to the possibilities. Explore even the most seemingly mundane or dead-end nugget of fact/information and we may find ourselves in the midst of some of the most exciting parts of our writing. The world is filled with stories and facts that present themselves as unconnected and blase’, but in truth have backgrounds that are, more often than not, stranger than fiction. Even those that not as wild as I suggest can offer the interested researcher glimpses into idea spawning perspectives we had previously not imagined.

For instance, Mr. Philbrick was asked (in reference to his comment that he connected to all of his characters in his writing) whether he also connected with the huge Sperm Whale in his book, “In the Heart of the Sea.” (Incidentally, this book is about an actual historical event, the sinking of the whale ship Essex, a story which prompted Melville’s Moby Dick) The question may appear to be slightly tongue in cheek, but I believe that what the questioner intended to discern, was actually how did the natural elements of history itself attract itself to him? Philbrick had already mentioned his interest in dynamic characters in history and of the role of leadership qualities throughout all of his books, but as he began to answer the question, I realized that it was the research itself. It was the excitement of discovery and learning. He began to talk about his research on Sperm Whales and the aggressive territorial habits of the bulls (the males). He discussed the communication between whales and how he learned about their “speech patterns” and that the crew member who was hammering some boards on deck might possibly have been producing a sound that, when reverberating through the water under the ship, sounded very similar to the speech of the Sperm Whale. Though there is no irrefutable evidence to support this (and Philbrick does not claim to assign this reason, or any for that matter, as to the reason for the whale’s attack) it was a path of research that presented itself to him. As Mr. Philbrick talked about all of these things, it was obvious to me that this was the part he loved. This was the enjoyable part of his craft. The message is clear, that research is as much of the writing craft as is the storytelling itself. That the research will take you places you never intended or expected to go. This is the heart of the Research Methods for Writers course.

Mr. Philbrick spoke about his home town of Nantucket and the whale oil industry of the 19th century. This led to his research and writing of “In the Heart of the Sea”. During the writing of that book, he had to research starvation (leading to eventual cannibalism). This led him to the discovery of a study on starvation conducted by the U.S. during World War II, using voluntary test subjects. That book led him to writing about the pilgrims and the Mayflower in Mayflower: A Story of Courage”. It was a series of enlightenment and discovery presented to him because he was willing to enjoy and engage the research process.

I have watched, listened and observed this semester as my peers have pursued their own research with an enthusiasm replacing the trepidation they carried in the beginning. We’ve had classmates traveling out to wrestle information on abandoned mills from cantankerous sources, trips to factories in Trenton, and battlefield tours. We’ve had students taking bricks from the ground zero site of the Jersey Devil legend. We’ve had students conduct interviews in houses where paranormal activity has occurred and register to join ghost hunting societies. We’ve had students email with strangely remote sources that may or may not be evil clowns claiming to have information about abandoned amusement parks. We’ve had students dance on stage, in their underwear, completely spur of the moment, and make $190. We’re achieving the intent of the course right now. It’s not the end result that defines this course, and ultimately the pieces we will compose long after we’ve gone off to do our own things. It’s the process that defines “it”, whatever that “it” may be to each individual creator. Without the process, there is nothing to show in the end and if that process is approached without passion, without excitement, it will reflect in the work you put forth for an audience that has neither the time or patience for a product without “soul.”

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