You might have heard: Nicholas Carr is worried that Google is making us stupid. I’m sure there are reasons to worry about my brain, but Google isn’t one of them. I don’t write historical fiction, per se, but if a story has historical elements in it, I want them to be accurate. I also want to make sensible fiction out of history, and that requires at least some understanding of the people, places and events involved. Before the Internet (and Google) made research relatively easy, my bookshelf and file cabinets were stuffed with maps, almanacs, dictionaries and encyclopedias. If I couldn’t find what I needed there, I’d head for the nearest library.
When I began writing The Devil's Inkwell, a short story in which the protagonist joins the Peoples Temple and ultimately goes to Jonestown, I felt I knew the character, known only as the girl, because I once attended a Peoples Temple rally. But I still wanted to hear the voices of people who were members of the Peoples Temple and felt that letters and diaries would be the best source. I have a degree in History, so I knew how to research primary documents, but I also knew my story was going to be short—fewer than 2000 words—and I really didn't have the time it would take to arrange for and then conduct research at the California Historical Society, where Peoples Temple documents are archived.
So I began looking on the Internet where I found a lot of junk, but I also found Alternative Considerations of Jonestown, a site sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. There I looked at photographs and read many primary source documents and came away feeling confident that I could create this character without exploiting the memory and experience of people who had lived and died at Jonestown.
In 2008 the story was published, and I recently posted it at Fictionaut where Jennifer Gibbons, doing research for the SDSU web site, came across it, having googled references to Jonestown. She passed it along to Fielding M. McGehee III who manages the site. And then Jennifer contacted me.
When I first saw her name in my e-mail inbox, I was a little puzzled. I recognized Jennifer’s name because she is also the Content Coordinator for Red Room, a website for readers and writers, which I am a member of. But I hadn’t had any direct communication with her. She told me that McGehee was interested in talking to me about The Devil’s Inkwell. I was pleased to discover that he felt the girl was developed in a way that not only rang true but portrayed the humanity of the people of Jonestown. He is interested in representations of Jonestown in the arts and last year published an essay in The Jonestown Report by Scott Blackwood, the author of We Agreed to Meet Just Here (a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Literary Award), a novel at the heart of which is a fictional Guyanese doctor who is called to Jonestown to vaccinate children. When McGehee asked if I would write an essay about writing and submitting The Devil’s Inkwell for publication, I was honored. Finding Truth in Fiction appears in the latest issue of The Jonestown Report.
So I’ll let Nicholas Carr worry about the effect Google is having on my intelligence. And other people can worry about whether or not I spend too much time on social networking sites. I’ve got reading, writing and research to do. Oh, and I need to post this blog.