I was never a writer who did much in the way of research for my fiction. Here and there I'd double-check a fact—make sure I had lyrics or a song-title right in Fiddler's Dream, or that I was mentioning the right make and model of guitar or banjo, giving the right dates for a particular bluegrass boy in Bill Monroe's band.
All of that changed with my latest novel, INUKSHUK. It actually began with research. I knew I wanted to write something about the story of my great-great-great-uncle Sir John Franklin and his epically, tragically failed Arctic expedition to seek the Northwest Passage. I knew it was in the works for years, knew it was a subject I had to hit, but I had no idea how I'd actually approach the narrative part of it. So I read everything I could find, browsed websites, looked at pictures, watched videos, traveled to Inuvik, even got some old original-edition publications from John Franklin himself and Elisha Kent Kane (complete with faded color plates and out-of-date maps), anything at all so long as it interested me. In the beginning—because it was such a racket of information to register—I just went about it like that, pursuing only what interested me. I let the information pile up in my head until it felt like a fictional context
like my own fictional context, and then I kept waiting, reading. I wouldn't say I ever got stuck at that point of "research rapture" I've heard other writers talk about, where you keep postponing the act of getting down to it and writing something, in order to learn a little more about your subject. I was never quite patient or enthralled enough for that. But I certainly read more than I ended up using. That's probably necessary and inevitable. I had to absorb enough material to where it felt like I'd internalized it, owned it somehow—until it felt ripe for development.
And then one night, in the midst of all this, visiting my wife's family in Alberta during a sudden, severe cold snap, I had this vision kind of thing that let me into the novel. I saw one of my main characters, Thomas, standing outside in the middle of a winter night in his underwear, and I knew that he was obsessed with Sir Franklin, and that he was trying to give himself scurvy. I knew too that his father was watching him
and that his name was also John Franklin. And that Thomas had an older brother. I sat up half the night making notes about all this.
Then, life being what it is, I had to set those notes aside for months.
When I did get to the actual drafting of INUKSHUK, my research became much more targeted and efficient—more like what I was used to from past writing: checking up facts and details here and there, nautical terms, place names, dates, etc. Of course, it was a little more involved because of the strangeness of the material (for me), and at times some of the things I'd learn from my research while drafting pages would force me to go back and redo or recast entire scenes. Through all of this, I wanted to be right enough, but one of my aims was to avoid seeming like I had any claim to or intention of offering "real," definitive verisimilitude for the historic/Arctic parts of the book. For one thing, it's not really possible: no one knows what happened to Franklin and his crew, or how or why. It's unknowable. That's why I'm interested in it. And pretending to know the unknowable made me feel either like a fraud, or like I was writing something more akin to genre fiction—something meant for escapism and entertainment, meant to provide answers rather than to leave you thinking. So I devised Thomas's movie storyboards and his dreams as a way of letting the reader into the researched historical stuff—I let him (and his obsessions) drive the more filmic, Merchant/Ivory tone of the narration there, and found it was incredibly fun to do, once I had that freedom. I wasn't pretending to be accurate (though, actually, much of it is probably accurate enough), didn't have to be. During Thomas's dream passages, however, I felt more like the onus was on me, as the author, to be clear and accurate and true. In those stretches, it's almost more like Thomas is channeling the dead crewmen, not actively imagining or creating them as characters and reflections of his day-to-day troubles. Out of respect for the crewmen, in those stretches, I felt I had to get it as "right" as possible.
For the longest time the book was called Ice Masters—a title I never loved, because it put me in mind of a figure-skating showcase. But I seemed stuck with it, for lack of anything better. As final revisions came together, reading through a stretch of interiority from one of the novel's current day, main characters, I discovered what seemed to me a better title in the word inukshuk—a word common to many native northern languages (Inuktituk, Inuvialuit) literally translated to mean, "in the shape of a man." Practically speaking, inukshuk refers to those stone, wilderness markers made of rock slabs placed one on the other to form a human-like shape, arms outstretched, pointing the way to a food cache, or shelter, marking a cairn, commemorating something significant, or just helping a lost hunter feel a little less alone. I saw it on the page, and knew it was my title because of the way it bridges the novel's historical, contemporary, and thematic elements. A novel is, after all, another kind of inukshuk, one made of words—bearing the shape of a man or woman, pointing the way toward something useful, commemorating, caching, making us feel less alone—and the process of shaping a narrative from research had been, as I said, all about letting the material settle into my consciousness until I could begin seeing within it the human shape
the shapes of a few men and women, who were to be my main characters.