Friday, April 8, 2011

MY RESEARCH by Elle Newmark

Today's guest post is from Elle Newmark.  She talks about her research for her new book "The Sandalwood Tree."  Welcome Elle!

Researching The Sandalwood Tree
The Sandalwood Tree required more than a year of digging around in a multitude of books, including history texts, personal diaries, and colonial politics. It was fascinating and it gave me a sketchy plot and a cast of two-dimensional characters. But India is one of those places that is so confoundedly complex you simply cannot fill in the blanks with generic background. After all the library research was finished, there was one more thing I had to do—I had to go to India.

I had visited India ten years earlier and I already knew that it is a perpetual motion kaleidoscope, simultaneously squalid and beautiful in ways I didn’t understand. It is a sensory overload of marigolds heaped before stone idols, plush opulence alongside rock-bottom poverty, heavy air, smelling of curry and smoke, food that sear the skin off your tongue, all the colors of the world including some I could not name, and all this pageantry accompanied by the thump of small round drums, winding flutes, and the swell of a billion voices.

You can’t make that stuff up, and you can’t rely on ten-year-old memories. I needed a refresher.

So I took my notebooks and a tape recorder and flew to New Delhi where I hired a car and driver, Ramesh. We roamed Northern India for a month, visiting all the places in the book, while Ramesh graciously answered questions about history and politics and social customs.

The most important discovery I made was the fact that the place I had set my story did not exist in 1947. That explained why I hadn’t been able to find much on the Internet, but it required that I find a new location for the book. I was like Goldilocks finding one place too hot and another too cold, and I was quite frustrated by the time I remembered I was writing fiction and I could simply make up a place. I took a typical village and put it exactly where I wanted it, and a mountain of logistical problems disappeared. My characters live their fictional lives in the fictional village of Masoorla.

Whenever we stopped I asked whether someone might be willing to talk to me about the British Raj. I offered to pay, but there are not many people left from those times and for those who are it is a taboo subject, better forgotten.

I had almost given up on finding someone to interview until we got to Dharamsala, where the local tour office put me in touch with a Colonel who had served in the Indian Army under the Raj. We arranged to meet at a restaurant and I expected to meet a bent old man in a turban and dhoti. I hoped his English wasn’t too bad.

Imagine my surprise when a tall, dapper man in an immaculate suit and handlebar moustache greeted me with a posh British accent. Colonel Chand was charming and smart and thoroughly anglicized, but he was not happy to have Ramesh sitting at the table with us. The colonel was seventy-five-years old and it offended him to sit at a table with a mere driver-wallah. Ramesh was tolerated for my sake—I was paying very well for the interview—but it was clear that the caste system was being seriously violated.

These experiences are the things you can’t get from a book: seeing the caste system at work; feeling your heart open to the little girl holding her white rabbit up for you to pet; waking in the dark to the haunting call to prayer before dawn; watching people bathe in the Ganges only a few yards down from the funeral pyres…

This is India: a daily, multi-colored compilation of reminders that we are simultaneously living and dying and trying to figure out why.

Author bio: Elle Newmark is an award-winning writer whose books are inspired by her travels.  She and her husband, a retired physician, live in the hills north of San Diego.  To learn more about Elle Newmark and her work, visit her website at

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