Sunday, January 31, 2016

Getting It Right

                                                                    Milton C. Toby photograph

By Milton C. Toby

Writing nonfiction is, for me at any rate, a very research-intensive pursuit. I learned the ropes from Kent Hollingsworth and Ed Bowen, my editors during a dozen years at Blood-Horse magazine, and they both were sticklers for accuracy in reporting. I took their lessons to heart, to the point that I typically spend at least as much time researching a topic as I do writing about it. Sometimes the ratio of research-to-writing is skewed heavily toward fact-finding.

When the research goes well, the writing usually moves along at a relatively smooth and comfortable pace. When the writing bogs down, on the other hand, the reason often is that I don't have enough information. This is when I stare blankly at my computer screen and envy my fiction author friends who have the luxury of making something up to write themselves out of a corner.

After Dancer's Image was disqualified, owner Peter Fuller put
 up a bill board in a pasture at his New Hampshire farm
proclaiming that his horse remained a Derby winner.
The billboard is still there. Photo by Roberta Dwyer,
copyright 2011, all rights reserved.
If it sounds as if I'm knocking the research skills of fiction authors, I'm not. Many fiction genres require extensive research and my hat is off to authors who can weave a batch of sterile facts into a compelling story. I try to do the same thing with my nonfiction, to make the usually difficult leap from reporting to storytelling. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. The balance between success and failure often turns on research help from an unexpected source.

The story of Dancer's Image and his controversial disqualification for a drug positive in the 1968 Kentucky Derby focused on the proceedings at a lengthy hearing before the state racing commission. Without the transcript of the hearing--some 400-plus pages--there were serious gaps in the story and how I could tell it. The problem was that, more than 40 years after the fact, none of the usual sources had a complete copy of the transcript-- not the attorneys involved, not the appellate court, not the state racing commission, not the court reporters.

Working at the Keeneland Library with a deadline looming for my book about Dancer's Image, I found myself trying to write around the gaps in what I knew about happened at the racing commission hearing. The Keeneland Library is a wonderful treasure trove of information about Thoroughbred racing. Director Becky Ryder and Librarian Cathy Schenck are among the most knowledgeable and helpful people on the planet. A few months ago, Cathy was named winner of the prestigious National Turf Writers and Broadcasters 2015 Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service to racing. Way to go, Cathy!

Winner of the Dr. Tony Ryan Award for
the best book about Thoroughbred racing and an
American Horse Publications Editorial Award
for the best equine book of the year.
Another of the librarians, Phyllis Rogers, asked what I was working on. I explained about the Dancer's Image book project. She nodded, said there was "something you probably need to see," and vanished into the cavernous back part of the building reserved for storage. She returned a few minutes later with a battered cardboard file box covered in dust. It was apparent that no one had opened the box for years, probably for decades.

Inside was the complete transcript of the hearing. I was flabbergasted. I had given up on ever seeing the entire transcript and for some reason it never occurred to me to look in the most logical place of all, a library devoted to preserving the history of Thoroughbred racing.

Conventional wisdom holds that writing is a solitary activity, and that's true. Writing this, I'm sitting at my computer in the company of Plumpkin and Sherlock, our two rescue cats. (I count this as a solitary activity due to the almost complete disdain shown my work by the felines.) Effective research, on the other hand, takes a village. For me, The Keeneland Library and the staff are essential parts of my village.

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