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Friday, 2 December 2011

The hidden value of performances.

"Those really were two unforgettable hours.  It's been a long time since I've been able to concentrate so well on my problems with arsenophenylglycine.  We'll have to make a small substitution the first thing tomorrow."

That was, according to an article published in New Scientist 22 August 1985, p. 48, the comment made by Paul Ehrlich (1854 - 1915), to his wife as they left the concert hall.  That was my notes say, but in these modern days, you can Google and see the book review that it actually appeared in.

Lehar's bust in the Stadtpark, Vienna, found  while
idly wandering  through there in 2006. The committed
statue photographer can have a great time in Vienna!
Last Tuesday, I was at the last night (in Sydney) of the Australian Ballet's production of The Merry Widow.  I have seen it before, but a month or two back, I saw the Australian Opera's production of the operetta.  
The handy label, set in the lawn nearby for
foolish and confused foreigners who
assume that in Vienna, every statue is
Sigmund Freud, Johann Strauss or Wolfie

While I had seen Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow before in German (in which I have bare survival skills), it was only then that I "got" the  complicated plot line.  The operetta's plot is rather slimmed down in the ballet, so a lot of the Gilbertian foolishness of the operetta is left out, but John Lanchbery's arrangements of Franz Lehar's music are loads of fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

But, and I hesitate to confess this, I entered the hall, where we sat in the same subscriber seats that we have had since the Australian Ballet first performed at the Opera House in 1973, with a puzzle in my mind, and I walked out with a new narrative structure for the next book, which I have been researching for some years, gathering the data.

I store all of my research notes, quotes and snippets in a spreadsheet, on which I later play cute tricks to get an order. You can see some of my methodology here, but the main point is that I do free-form fact gathering, chasing interesting bits, and later, I choose from among them, dig some more where I need to, and not long afterwards, the story takes shape. To give you an example, the next book will be perhaps 60,000 words, maybe less, but there are almost 250,000 words in my files at this stage, in about 2800 lines on the spreadsheet (with other sheets in the spreadsheet storing references, image details and other stuff that I will need.  My rule is to over-research, and then pick out the most interesting bits.

This time, though, I had lots of interesting anecdotes but the narrative flow wasn't there. I had sorted everything, but it just didn't gel. But now it has.  It began with something I read, just before we walked down to the Manly ferry, which I told Chris about as we dined in the foyer. It was an October 5, 1851 report in the Sydney Morning Herald about events at Sofala the previous Sunday.  That, I realised, somewhere in Act 2, was the kick-off point, and everything follows from it.

Sand from a Sydney bush track, x10.
This morning, I have been slapping down headings and heading sequences, and it is going to work. I also have in-principle interest from a publisher.

So now I am prepared to come clean, though if you search previous posts carefully enough, I have referred to the idea before, though I was then contemplating a world history—until I saw how big the story was.  Now it will be an Australian story, with many visits to parallels in other times and places.

Sand from a Sydney bush track, x60.
The subject will be gold and gold rushes, which you might have worked out from Sofala, 1851.  It will be a social, a scientific and a technological history, and it will concentrate mainly on the real costs of gold mining.

But the microscopy won't be stopping.  I am still researching the book after that, and that means I will be looking at a lot of sand.  Does that sound mysterious?  If so, good!

To do that sort of work, I think the cheap microscope is going to prove adequate, but it's summer here, and I'm hitting the beaches with clip-lock bags, taking lots of samples to bring home and study.

I'll let you know in a couple of weeks how useful it was, and which lighting proved to be the most useful.

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