Monday, March 04, 2013

Research and retention

I have recently been reading accounts of Dorothy L Sayers' life and rereading some of her books, since this year I have been invited to do the lecture to the Dorothy L Sayers Society's annual convention in Essex.  It has been particularly interesting for me because she and I have both written books – in my case a whole series – set in the beautiful, unspoiled county of Galloway in south west Scotland.  We have travelled the same roads, described the same stunning scenery and even stayed in the same hotel.

Her book, Five Red Herrings,  with its intricate plotting required a great deal of research into the train timetables: which trains stopped at which local halt, which ran right through, and precisely at what time of days – trains which, alas, run no more.

The most demanding research she did, though, was about bell-ringing for her superb novel The Nine Tailors, set in England's fen country.  It is such a complex subject, and the work she did on this was so meticulous that she had to write another book while she did it to keep her publisher happy.  If I quote the introduction to chapter one, you will understand why:

By the Course Ends
8th the Observation
Call her in the middle with a double, before,
wrong and home, repeated once.'

She was proud afterwards to boast that expert bell-ringers had only found three small errors in 'ringing the changes' in the course of the book.

What I want to know is, how much of this expert knowledge did she retain a year later?

I have, in my time, been an expert on silversmithing, deer farming, the habits of the golden eagle, the psychological problem of therianthropy, sheepdog trials, lifeboats and the rest.  How much of it do I remember now?  Only the most vague and general impression.  .

I was intrigued by the information I gained at the time and the big problem was to prevent myself from serving up great slabs of it, like cold rice pudding, to my readers and understanding that they were probably not going to be as fascinated by the subject as I was at the time.  So why don't I remember?

The same thing applied once I had sat an exam.  I was mortified to find, when going through a pile of university essays twenty years after I had written them, that I had written a whole essay on the works of Thomas Carlyle, despite being quite confident that I'd never even read Sartor Resartus.

Is it just me, or does everyone have some sort of mechanism in the brain that junks stuff it reckons we won't be likely to need again to make room for more stuff that will go through the same process in its turn?


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Toe Hallock said...

Dear Ms. Templeton: I understand exactly what you are talking about. Most of us go about life performing routine duties. After a while, we don't even think about them. If something goes out of sync it messes up our entire day. If our brains aren't required to achieve specific tasks on a regular basis, most of us lose that "edge." Like with certain computer programs when we have to relearn the basics. It's frustrating, but I believe our minds need to clear out the junk so that we can go on to the next project. Thank goodness we retain much of our learning, so we don't have to keep starting over. Yours truly, Toe.

Donis Casey said...

I tend to remember a lot of the research I don't use, Aline, but sadly it seems that I only remember useless facts, especially if they are weird.