I’ve been spending a lot of time in Toronto’s green spaces: the ravines, the parklands, the rivers. Partly, it’s novel research. But also, it’s keeping me grounded. Rooted, if you will. (Terrible pun. Sorry, not sorry.)
Over the past few months, I’ve realized something. When I move through the urban streetscape, it’s a very visually oriented experience. Yes, traffic rumbles and horns honk and the stoplights all have auditory signals, but I’m mostly relying on my eyes. And it goes without saying that this is my experience: someone differently sighted will have an entirely different way of interacting with the city.
But in the ravines and along the ponds, I rely on my ears much more. Rustling leaves and sudden splashes, birdsong and squirrel yells—that’s how I put together the thousand tiny dramas unfolding all around me. Sight comes later: you hear a plaintive warbling, then spy the baby bird in a hollow tree. Catch the whisper of a cattail blowing the wrong way, then notice the frog chilling in its shadow.
Really, though, it’s all the senses working together. Except taste. As lovely as the ravines are, it’s probably not a good idea to lick anything you find in them. Digression aside, the trees become a sort of tapestry around you, with eye, ear, nose, and touch all working together to create a living, holistic picture of what’s happening.
It humbles you. To become part of that scene, you need to become part of the scenery, too. And so, you must become quiet. You must become still. You must get outside your own head and worries and actually notice the chipmunk and squirrel staring each other down in the branches above.
I’m not articulating this well, but—it’s like moving from first-person to third-person. We aren’t the centre of the universe, in the woods. We’re one more drama, one more set of noises. And when you start to let go of all the preoccupations—when you actually listen—the details start emerging more and more quickly, like stars coming out in the evening. First one, then another, and another.
Lurking frog. Dragonfly landing on water lily. Fish cruising in its shadow.
And it occurs to me that writing can be the same way. Writing isn’t about us, the authors. It’s about the stories. But I think, like people blustering through the woods, scattering birds and breaking branches, we sometimes get so caught up in ourselves that we can’t hear what the story is doing. We can’t become part of it because we are so focused on ourselves: the Writer.
So we need to become quiet, still, and get outside our own heads. Actually listen to the story: that sure little voice inside, persistent as birdsong.
For me, if I can get into the headspace I find in the ravines—calm and open, joyful and humbled—I think the writing should start to pick up. I hope so, anyway.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Jauchzet dem Herren,” by Heinrich Schütz. We’re doing it in choir soon, but it’s been in my regular listening rotation for a few years. I like double-choir pieces, where one choir answers another or follows the first like a round. Seeing how they fit together is immensely satisfying, and you get this super exciting building effect from the echoes.
Between interning for The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, dayjobbing, and writing my own pseudo-Victorian fantasy, I’ve been pulling out my research fu.
I smiled when Pip and Tee asked me to post Victoriana to the Ministry Facebook page. See, after working at Black Creek, writing the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and cramming my last few terms with nineteenth century history, I know where to find Victorian things.
The Internet Archive
Ah, www.archive.org, you are one of my best friends. Sometimes, I think I may even love you. The Internet Archive is a free-access digital library. Because it’s free, it mostly has materials which are long out of copyright.
That means it’s absolutely fantastic for primary sources.
Seriously, you can read whole books online. For free! Admittedly, it can be a bit persnickety with search terms: it’s best to either a) have a hugely wide net, or b) know exactly which title you want. And don’t even bother with the basic search if you’re doing historical research: advanced search is where it’s at.
The McCord Museum/Musée McCord
I’ve used the McCord Museum for the dayjob, the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and for the Ministry. It’s a very well-maintained site—there are all sorts of virtual tours and exhibitions to explore online.
They’ve got an extensive collection of Victoriana, much of which is easily accessed online. Really, it’s one of my main go-to’s for visual references—especially Victorian clothing. (I owe what little fashion vocabulary I have to the McCord Museum)
The Victorian Web
This venerable website (and yes, it does look it—just bear with it) is one of the oldest scholarly/academic sites out there. It has articles on a wide range of Victorian topics, including some really niche ones (stained glass and gaslight, anyone). Plus, it’s a bit like Wikipedia in that you can follow a trail of hyperlinks, drifting from topic to topic…only it’s not a site that anyone can edit, which helps me sleep at night.
But come on, I was a university student in the 2010s. Of course I like Wikipedia.
Although I’ve heard the horror stories of profs purposely inserting false information to show how unreliable Wikipedia is, I maintain that it has its uses. First, it’s a good way to get a general overview of a new subject before diving into more detailed information, avoiding that grasping-at-straws feeling.
Second…Wikipedia is a good place to start your bibliography.
Let’s search…oh, let’s search Victorian Gothic.
Ignore the article itself and scroll down to “Further Reading” and “External Links.”
Aha! A ready-made list of scholarly websites and books! Gothic Revival; The Gothic Revival & American Church Architecture; An Episode in Taste, 1840–1856; Of knights and spires: Gothic revival in France and Germany; the Victoria and Albert Museum Style Guide…
It isn’t a full bibliography, but it’s a good place to start.
Public Library Databases
All history students know that articles take less time to read than books and usually have more specialized information. And thank goodness—you don’t need to be in university to access them!
Most public library websites have a section that says “Research” or “Articles” or something similar. If you’ve got a library card, you can click through until you get to the databases themselves: something like EBSCO or Gale Cengage or Academic OneFile.
Many will also have digital archives. I didn’t even sign into the Toronto Public Library site and found this 1912 picture of the dayjob’s Half Way House:
I credit my high school history teacher for a) getting me interested in history and b) teaching me how to get good at finding stuff. Yes, it’s great for writing—but also, it’s the thrill of the chase.
Which is why I sometimes get sucked down the black hole of Cool Victorian Stuff…but that’s a post for another day. 🙂