Sunday, August 19, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Adventures in Proofreading

I was eating blueberry pancakes, aware in the back of my mind that I didn't have a Garage Sale Idea on hand yet, and not caring because hey, blueberry pancakes, when I read the following sentences:

The polyglot Bible kept thirteen presses and fifty-five men occupied, not to mention the job of proofreading, which was done by several expert linguists as well as Plantin's own teenage daughter. It was said that she could correct the script perfectly accurately, but without understanding a word of it.

Say what? The polyglot Bible in question, produced in Antwerp between 1568 and 1572, contained parallel text in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. Those don't even use the same alphabet. Who was this teen-age daughter? Was she really working from shape recognition, with no knowledge of the languages? Or was she playing dumb and learning all these languages in secret as she worked? How did she feel about being saddled with this (potentially monstrously tedious) job and not even having a shot at inheriting the family publishing business (which was eventually taken over by her brother)?

What was her name, for crying out loud?

Unfortunately, the book in which those sentences occur (Books: A Living History, Martyn Lyons, Getty Publications, 2011) has no notes of any sort, or even a proper bibliography, just a "Further Reading" section full of modern secondary sources. Not cool, Mr. Lyons and Getty Publishing!

Proofreading is not a charismatic, action-packed job; but the teen-age girl who could do this job is an intriguing character; the more so since most of the information on her, even in primary sources, will probably be of this elusive character. Teen-age girls have a tendency to peek out around the margins of history books, come and gone in a flash, their real selves kept private by the indifference and limited gender concepts of those producing most surviving primary sources. This is one reason why historical fiction features them so largely - they provide a screen barely marred by any shadow, onto which an author and an audience can project their own concerns while wrestling with the unfamiliarity of her historical moment.

There are two ways to write a book about such a person. One involves inventing a character who makes sense to the author, doing enough research to dress up her story in convincingly period clothes, and writing it. I don't much approve of that, but such stories have their appeal as long as no one mistakes them for genuine historical writing.

The other, of course, is to dive into everything you can find on sixteenth-century Antwerp, hunting for pearls of information about this particular young woman (one should at least be able to learn her name, and a few details of her subsequent fate) and filling in the gaps between with as much context as you can find. When everything you can find is fit together, believe me, there will still be gaps plenty big enough to write your story in. You'll know what conflicts your heroine would really have faced; the context in which she undertook (or was forced to perform) this job; a little something about the family and social dynamics she grew up in. And once you have that, you'll know what the story is.

This is a big job. I know, I've done it before. You probably don't have to actually read Dutch (or Syriac or Aramaic; I'm sure Latin would help) in order to do the right amount of research - but it wouldn't hurt.

I can't do this particular one because I've never been to Antwerp. That sort of thing doesn't stop other people, but it does me.


  1. I have a love/hate relationship with your Idea Garage Sale posts. (I've got enough of my own and hate having new ones suggested. But I love reading them just the same. Strangely sadomasochistic.) This is definitely a story worth looking into, certainly it's something I knew nothing about until today. I hope someone, someday investigates and writes an award winning novel. (It won't be me. Sigh.)

  2. It's not like any of us can avoid finding new ideas! That's part of the point. People think it's hard, or that there's something special about the process, and really all it is, is paying attention and having your brain tuned to Perpetual Story Generation Mode.

    If I can get people to realize that they are, by nature, creative and that storytelling is our birthright as human beings, I will not have blogged in vain.

    Although I sometimes wonder if it's a worthy goal when I look at the midlist...but no, you don't have to try to publish to enrich your life this way. You don't even have to write, per se. The habit of noticing how interesting the world is, is enough.