Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Cluttered Computer Problem

Email is a wonderful research tool. I find a reference, look it up, and fire off an email to find out more about the topic. I add the note to my manuscript and go on, completely ignoring the source of the information. It seems automatic to document information from articles and books, but impossible to be equally as thorough with the emails. It’s because I save the emails, knowing the computer can find the item I need easily. What I hadn’t realized is how quickly my computer got cluttered, to the point that even it couldn’t find all the things I’d stashed in various folders under different names. If I don’t remember the name or key word in a message, it hides forever.

Another problem was changing ISPs when I moved. The emails stayed in the folders set up with the previous provider. I wasn’t able to access them all. So I finally hired someone to come over and get all my emails in one place. I wound up with about 5000 emails to and from all sorts of people. The only useful thing was that in most queries I had put the name of my subjects—Haders or Berta and Elmer Hader--in the subject line. Most (but not all) replies repeated what I had used. Unfortunately, sometimes I used a different subject, because the Haders were not the main focus. Such as finding information on impressionism, or miniature painting, or a particular friend.

So the last month or so has been spent tediously going through every email, deleting and/or moving every single one. Not fun!

Some were easy. Long ago I told friends that I would never pass on anything that would promise rewards, prevent disasters, or improve the world. I‘d deleted every funny that came in if it required going somewhere else like YouTube to open. However I’d saved far too many other funny cartoons and sayings sent to me by well-meaning friends. I’d gotten the first chuckle out of them—did I think there’d be more?

A few shortcuts helped get rid of another thousand or so. I first:

1) sorted the emails by the date column. Most of the ones before 2009 (when I started this project) were out of date. It was relatively easy to go through those earlier ones and toss them. Sometimes there was a date or a new address, and I noted those down on a piece of paper. (Yes, paper still makes my world go round.)

Then I
2) sorted the remaining emails by the sender column. That made it easy to go through and delete political messages, offers I’d kept to think about, notes pertaining to old newsletters I had edited and so on. I also was able to get rid of most of the “funnies” sent by friends, since most of them came from the same dozen people.

3) Sort # 3 was by subject. This worked well since the remaining emails were now ordered by subject, sender, and date. I found plenty of political messages, invitations to join newsletters from writer friends and organizations, magazine sales pitches and others I’d missed on the first go around, and more subjects I didn’t recognize. I used some of the subjects to set up mailboxes. Anything relating to the Haders went into a mailbox with that label. I labeled another one “IMPORTANT”: airline reservations, orders not yet received, items that needed immediate follow-through. Others were for family, friends, research items such as useful websites, possible publishers for other writings, and so forth. You’ll know what you need...and never want to see again.

4) For emails containing only a tidbit of something useful, I copied the tidbit to a computer sticky note or a “FOLLOW UP” blank page for things to do later. With the date on the note, I had an organized list—easy to check off or file later.

I was surprised how much info was hidden in the email clutter. I still have another thousand to go through, and more arrives every day. I’m debating about using the e-computer to automatically send things to smart mailboxes, but I’m afraid I might not never even notice them there. In many ways this paperless trail is too easy to ignore. With paper, I eventually have to face the paper piles or I can’t move!

Anyone have any more ideas for managing the computer flow?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


When I decided to write a biography of Berta Hoerner and her husband Elmer Hader, I had no idea how to go about it. I wanted to find out how these two diverse California artists could not only fall in love (that’s relatively easy) but build a life together. Having had a long marriage myself, I know that blending two lives is not quite as easy as it seems in the fairy tales. The two people grew up in different places, had quite different artistic expectations, had different temperaments—and yet managed to build a fantastic house together (and I know divorces caused by remodels!), combine their artistic backgrounds into the field of children’s book illustration, entertain an amazing group of friends that were active in different careers, entertain them and their friends every single weekend while still publishing over a hundred books during their lifetimes. Elmer’s final words were “I had a darn good life” and he did. Their friend Rose Wilder Lane said they were the only people she knew that made a success in living. Mary Margaret McBride, the Oprah of 1930s radio, said her friends though the Haders must be “figments of her imagination” because they seemed like such a wonderful couple.

In these days of constant exposure to unfaithful partners in unhappy marriages, it seemed timely to have an account of a positive one. I wanted to find out what made this work.

There were 40 boxes of material at the University of Oregon. That’s a lot of correspondence, manuscripts, and letters! My friend Joy Rich, Berta and Elmer’s niece, also had inherited much of the letters and cards as books the Haders sent to the families over the years. So unlike some biographers, I had enough materials right at hand, and probably wouldn’t need to go to the many other places that also had saved Hader artwork and manuscripts. At least there was enough to work with in the beginning.

The problem with so much material is keeping track of it. I asked my historian son, Harold, who has written some very well-received historical biographies, how to go about it. I didn’t want to have to go back to find references and names. Hal gave me good advice for organization, though reminding me that “everything gets entangled with everything else.” He suggested 1) setting up a file drawer for the project with a) "various subfolders for the information you collect and b) another set of subfolders for the various drafts of the chapters you'll be working on. I think the main things to keep track of are first and foremost the bibliographical information, to which you can attach the notes you take."

It’s those bibliographic references that I’m always having to recheck. Information comes in many forms. Secondary information, from books and articles, are easy to handle. But someone says something pertinent, and I either forget who said it or how the quote was stated.

Hal suggested making sure that notes from the primary and secondary sources are in good order, and also make notes connecting things together. “Keep track of things like 2) the persons they worked with (so, little biog. sketches, and the sources for them), 3) a timeliine of events, 4) publications they were involved with, and 5) other themes such as early children's literature or environmentalism.

I must admit I haven’t always followed through—and I am now finding I have to recheck references. But that’s my fault. I’m still looking for the magic way to organize, just like I once looked for the magic way to raise kids. There isn’t any magic. It’s just work.

The other advice I have almost always followed is to have paper and pencil by every chair in every room, especially the bathroom and by the kitchen sink. (My muse must be a water baby—she prefers to visit me when my hands are wet and busy with something else.)

And I also keep a little notebook in my bag for jotting down ideas whenever they come. “In the middle of a project all kinds of ideas come at odd times. You'll hardly use any of them in the end, of course, but you won't want to lose the good ones.”

Again, if anyone has items to add to this, please let me know. I firmly believe in networking!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Finding a Theme

You’ve chosen the person. As you start collecting data, you should start seeing themes as well. What is the importance of this person’s life?

When I first began working on the biography of Berta and Elmer Hader, I wasn’t sure how to start. I knew their writings were considered to be excellent, were well reviewed and usually acquired by libraries. When I became a school librarian I realized I'd read some of their books as a child. I don’t remember any particular impact on my life, except the Hader books along with the Thornton Burgess books gave me a lifetime appreciation for the natural landscape. I suspect this theme may have also impacted many of today’s adults.

Susan Vreeland, author of historical fiction, spoke in Port Townsend, WA, in March. According to the online version of the Peninsula Daily News, (3/27/11) she said that “Historical novels are thematically based and biographies rarely are.” The theme of the Emily Carr story, The Forest Lover, was the artist’s affection for place. “It took me years to find this theme. If I had identified it earlier, I would have finished the book much earlier.”

Some of the most interesting biographies do have a theme, besides the chronological time line of a person’s life. Biographer T. J. Stiles in his Biographer’s Blog chooses his subjects, such as Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt, because their lives do represent themes. After stumbling on the topics of cash being shipped around the U.S. and the rise of railroads, corporations and the modern financial system, he looked for a subject to represent these themes. He discovered Vanderbilt, known in his time as the Railroad King.

Bob Welch wrote American Nightingale, a biography of World War II Army nurse Frances Slanger, who landed on Utah Beach and slogged her way into Belgium with her medical unit. Her letter in Stars and Stripes celebrating the American GI was published after her death. In his book Pebble on the Water, Welch says “What proof did I have that Frances Slanger had made any difference in the world around her?...How had she touched those around her? How was the world different because of her? If I couldn’t answer those questions, I didn’t have a book.” Theme again. He also went on to comment: “Writers start their research with the presupposition that everything means something. Not that you can hope to answer every question that the evidence triggers. But you look for themes, patterns, tendencies, then connect the dots, taking into account not only what the information suggests but from whom it came.”

So, it seems that theme is just as important in biography as it is in fiction. Having a theme in mind is helpful. The downside is the tendency to ignore facts that don’t match the theme—which a true biography cannot do! Any answers to this dilemma?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

As usual, when I start any new project, I leap in without any idea of what I’m getting into. This was true when I agreed to write a biography of Berta and Elmer Hader, an amazing couple who wrote and/or illustrated nearly 100 books in the 1900s--fondly referred to these days as the “golden age of publishing.” Three of their books received Caldecott Medals: two were honor books, and The Big Snow is still one that teachers read when winter arrives.

So that’s what the Haders are known for. The challenge for me was to find out what kind of people they were, and what makes them worthwhile subjects for a biography in the 21st century. Fortunately, many resources were geographically available: the University of Oregon holds an extensive collection of manuscripts and letters, and their niece who lives in my home town has inherited much of the family papers. So the raw materials are available.

But where to go from there? I am still struggling over filing my notes where I can retrieve them when needed, working on the chronology of their lives and their published books, and researching the very famous and not so famous people of the day that were close friends.

There isn’t a lot of information out there about writing in this particular genre. Memoirs and autobiographies, yes. Biographies of historical figures: not so much. I’m hoping that perhaps others of you can chime in with your own suggestions and problems and tips. Berta and Elmer were good networkers in their day. I know from experience that sharing ideas with others makes both of us richer. Someone wrote that when each person shares an idea with each other, each has gains two ideas and they can multiply.

I’ll share my journey, and hope others will share theirs.