.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Morning research typing: The Message of the Sphinx, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, and A History of Private Life 1: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. Taking it easy with my right hand, the wrist of which is developing a ganglion--a flare-up of nerves or tendons from repetitive strain (mouse-clicking, I believe).

Back into the document "14 - Notes". I headed into the backstory of Marcus, a place I've been reluctant to go. Why? Because it's hard. It's hard and uncertain working on a character's past. Also, it's easy to overdo it, to spend much more time on needless historical details than can ever pay off in the story. I like the idea of creating backstory only as I need it--when a character is going to do or say something significant, for instance. But that won't quite do. Without the important events in a character's past, the character cannot function meaningfully in the present. We're only interesting--that is, have a strong point of view--to the extent that we've had strong experiences that have shaped us. You can create a character who has a strong point of view on the assumption that it must be there for a reason; but at some point you're likely going to have to come up with the reason.

Marcus must have a very strong point of view, because he was (or is) suicidal. I knew that he was depressed, more or less because he finds his life pointless and disappointing. But I also felt that wasn't enough. Increasingly I've been building the idea that he is plagued by guilt. Guilt over what? That's what I was working on today.

An overarching theme for the whole project is that of redemption. I was especially inspired by Liz Greene's discussion of this in her authoritative book The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption. From the opening page of her introduction:
The hallmarks of the longing for redemption are, first, that it is a longing; second, that it is compulsive and absolute, and often collides violently with individual values; and third, that its goal is not relationship, but rather, dissolution.
Astrologically this "compulsive longing" is symbolized by the planet Neptune, the ruler of Pisces. My project is The Age of Pisces--the age in which we now live. To say that we live in the Age of Pisces is to say that our experience of the world is dominated by this compulsive longing for dissolution. According to my Webster's dictionary, to be redeemed is to be "freed from the consequences of sin." And sin? "A vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God." So we live in an age in which there is a general compulsive longing to be freed from our vitiated state of estrangement from God.

Of course, we don't all agree on who or what or whether God is. We could also call this the sacred, the divine, or ultimate reality. But it is a religious age, or perhaps better, a spiritual age. For Neptune is a mystical, theosophical planet, while Jupiter symbolizes the dogmatic and institutional aspects of religion. My story is about the dawn of the age that is now drawing to its close. I'm hoping that in its origins are the seeds of its purpose and our destiny.

So Marcus: depressed, guilty, 52-year-old ex-centurion, experiences his own vitiated nature, and, like the rest of us, must find his own way of addressing it. Each of us, in a sense, is confronted with the problem of solving the riddles of the cosmos, of existence, so as to redeem our lives. Mostly, feeling inadequate, we take answers from others. But does that really work? Or have we in some way hit a cosmic "snooze" button to postpone the personal, private confrontation with what we really believe? We spend so much time and effort trying not to admit this awful solitude of ours, the aloneness of our experience. In the end, outside reassurances mean nothing.
Some things came to me today--reasons for why Marcus feels the way he does. In a way it's a grind, but it is also exciting to discover these things, that they might work. Marcus is the least-developed of my protagonists so far, so I owe him this. He won't be able to fight off his nest-mates Menahem, Herod, or even Alexander without his own plausible and unexpected life story.

He's growing. He's becoming somebody.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

the spiritual adventure story

Rain fell through the night and continues to fall. Raindrops sparkle on leaves outside. There is the insistent beep of the garbage truck backing up the lane. The air is still: only the longest feathery twig of the yew shrub outside stirs, almost imperceptibly. Kimmie is taking today off to extend the Easter long weekend. I served her coffee in bed so she could lie there and read I Hate You, Don't Leave Me, a book on borderline personality disorder (no--Kim doesn't have this).

On those rare occasions when I'm asked when I began this novel, or how I decided to do it, I usually say something vague like, "I've been developing this idea for years, even decades."

It's hard to pinpoint the origin of it exactly. My first response is to say that its origin was in 1979. I was 20, traveling with my friend Brad, and we had reached Belize City, a hot, damp woodframe settlement crisscrossed by stagnant sewers called canals. We had found a room in a clapboard hostel, which we shared with Terry, a gruff-voiced, longhaired traveler from upstate New York who had spent more than a year on the road, and Orit, a young Israeli woman. (Yes--the Belizeans were casual about throwing young men and women into the same sleeping-room together, where they would meet each other for the first time.) There I started reading a copy of Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom, an investigation of modern man's strange attraction for totalitarianism, which I had got at an English book-exchange in Mexico (I think I may have left Faulkner's Sanctuary on the shelf in exchange).

The pages of the mass-market paperback had become puffy and fat from the moist tropical air. I enjoyed Fromm's writing (Brad had first put me on to him a couple of years earlier by lending me The Art of Loving), and his digging into large-scale social and political trends by looking at their psychological causes. There was something about this--the science of mass movements, mass behavior, as being linked to the dark closets of our personal unconscious drives--that attracted me.

I was also thinking about astrology, which I had just begun not so much to study as to open my mind to. I would draw the astrological glyphs in the little pocket-notebook that I carried around in my hip pocket, again following Brad's example, and study them, trying to intuit their symbolic meaning. And I thought about the famous alchemical slogan I had read in Jung: "Our gold is not the common gold." This phrase excited something deep in me, stirred my bowels with feelings of profundity and creativity and possibility. Using this slogan as a watchword, one could create an adventure story that was really a spiritual quest. One could combine narrative excitement with depth of meaning. The gold sought by your characters would not be the common gold--although it might look like the common gold.

If not the phrase, then at least the idea of a spiritual adventure story was born in me. I knew that this was the type of work I would like to write, although I had no idea how I might do such a thing. If I wanted to have spiritual content, then I would have to find that. My own life would have to involve a spiritual education or search to give me the authority to include it in my work. How does one come to write with authority about spiritual things?

My search had already begun. What seemed to have happened in that hostel dormitory in Belize was that I realized that my spiritual search and my writing career were not separate, but were, possibly, intertwined and belonged together. The seeker is a writer, and the writer is a seeker. The work (if any), and maybe the search (if fruitful), would be a unique product of that alloy.

As Brad and I continued our adventure into Belize, through Guatemala, and back up through Mexico, the thought and feeling of that inspiration resonated in my mind while my senses were jammed and barraged with the intensity of those brilliant, chaotic, strong-smelling places.

Monday, March 28, 2005

reading chapter 12

Flaubert said that a key test of any piece of writing is to hear it read aloud. As I finish a draft of each chapter, I read it aloud to Kimmie. It's a way of sharing my progress with her, as well as of hearing it myself to test my own reaction. Yesterday afternoon I read chapter 12 to her.

It was actually a rewrite of chapter 12. I read my first draft of it to her on 11 February, and was so dissatisfied that, contrary to my usual policy of "hold your nose and keep moving forward," I decided to rewrite it. It's the first chapter of Part 2, set in autumn 48 BC, after the events of Part 1 which are set in Palestine in the preceding summer. I had been looking forward to chapter 12 because I would be bringing together my protagonist Marcus, the retired Roman centurion, with a new character, Gaia, a woman just expelled from the Jewish spiritual colony of the Healers on the shore of Lake Mareotis outside Alexandria. Gaia was to add a much-needed female presence to my story, and provide a challenging and unexpected relationship for the depressive and solitary Marcus.

I think I must have believed that their unexpected meeting would be interesting in itself. They meet on a sailboat bound for Alexandria, just as the city is being occupied by the Egyptian army, which has arrived to eject Julius Caesar and his 4,000 troops from the palace where he's holed up. Marcus's meeting with a strange, single woman would naturally provoke curiosity about what form their relationship will take--will they become lovers? So I wrote my first draft without doing all the necessary preliminary work on studying the characters' "backstories" (their stories prior to the time of their appearance) and motivations. The result, I felt, was disappointing, and even Kim thought the chapter lacked the oomph of some of the earlier ones.

To me this meant I must go back to the drawing board. In my haste to get pages out I had taken a shortcut in working through the preliminaries. I returned to the document called "12 - Notes" and started making new entries, asking questions about my characters, their backgrounds, and their motivations. On Valentines Day, the day of the death of Kim's eldest and last surviving brother Freddie, I made a new dateline and started keying notes. That day's entry was brief:
"Chapter needs more spine: more definite goals and motivations for Marcus and Gaia. Not just chit-chat, but things they definitely want to achieve, want from each other."
The work took me down byways of thinking and research. I tunneled more persistently into Gaia's backstory. Where had she come from? Why exactly had she joined the Healers? To me she had been a free-spirited Jewess who had become a traveling poetess--for these existed in the Hellenistic world. But as I dug into where she had come from, I came up with the idea that she had been born at the temple of Aphrodite at Paphos, Cyprus--a child of the goddess, and so divine herself. A divine orphan. I loved this idea. It speaks directly to my emerging theme of the sacred and the profane, the divine and the human--this great dichotomy that Mircea Eliade characterized as the distinction between being and nonbeing: for this is what the divide really is. The divine, the sacred, is; while the contingent and profane are not. The thirst for the sacred is the thirst for being.

Looking into this past had me taking down my old fat copy of The Golden Bough and my bright-yellow copy of The White Goddess. I typed passages from these books into my research documents. I typed material from my copy of The Oxford Classical Dictionary on Cyprus, and from The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. I gradually, with effort, fleshed out a backstory for Gaia--a backstory that will be only glimpsed in Chapter 12.

I did my rewrite. It was an uphill job, since I don't like revisiting material in draft 1 before I've finished the draft. It prolongs the journey to the end, making eventual completion feel even more like a mirage, and creates a sense that I am multiplying the eventual workload, since this chapter, even though rewritten, will still need to be revised along with all the others for draft 2. I kept what I could, and tried to inject more conflict in the Marcus-Gaia interaction. The chapter grew 5 pages in length, to 41 typed pages.

So I read this to Kimmie. She said she enjoyed it, although she was feeling preoccupied and fragile from all the drama unfolding in her family in the aftermath of Freddie's death.

Later, while we were watching TV (Taking It Off, a reality show about a group of obese Canadians trying to slim down), we got talking about it some more during a commercial break. Some offhand remark of Kim's, that Marcus is "old," provided an entree to more honest probing.

"Old?" I said. "He's only two years older than you!" (Marcus is 52.)

"Yes, he's manly," she said. "But we just haven't seen much of him yet. And it's hard when you're comparing him with Menahem or Herod."

Menahem and Herod are two other protagonists, the main actors of Part 1. They are younger and, so far, more dynamic characters--even sexier.

"I mean, Marcus is depressed," she said, "and he tried to kill himself."

True. Marcus wanted to off himself in Chapter 1.

"And we don't know why yet," I said.

Interesting. Kimmie was seeing Marcus as kind of a dead letter, a gray-haired has-been with no interesting life left in him. A quitter. Yes, he's strong and resourceful, but he has no future.

I felt indignant on his behalf. I'll show you, I thought. I'll get Marcus moving his butt in this thing. I'll make you care!


Friday, March 25, 2005

Good Friday

Yesterday I finished chapter 13, a final 3-page run of action writing, having worked out the choreography. The feeling of victory that accompanies the completion of a chapter, a definite subunit of the story.

I opened an Excel workbook I keep of the progress of my project. On completion of each chapter I enter the number of pages and the number of words (for chapter 13: 23 and 5,441 respectively). I have set up the spreadsheet to calculate the total number of words drafted to date (99,425), the average length of chapters in pages and words (currently 30 and 6,614), and the total projected length of the project in pages and words (currently 1,532 and 338,000).

These numbers point to the greatest nagging fear, well, several nagging fears, I have about my book. It is massive. This can only be an obstacle to publishability. It is also an obstacle to completion. At 99,000 words already, this book is now book-length, but is only 30% drafted (the percentage is also automatically calculated by the spreadsheet). My novel will be 3 times the length of a regular full-length book.

This is not by intention. Rather, it results from the fact that I decided not to let commercial or practical concerns affect my creative decisions in any way. In the past I have tried to write "commercially," and it just doesn't work. Not for me. I can't just slip into the persona of someone who writes for the market. I'm too strange. This strangeness leaks through in all kinds of ways that I can't control and that I don't, at bottom, want to.

Also, at age 46 and climbing, I don't want to write about things that don't matter to me. Nay more: I want to write about what matters most to me. I'm slow enough that I'll be lucky to get even a small portion out before my ashes are being dumped into the icy creamy-green waters of Lynn Canyon. I don't want to waste more time doing things for money.

Of course, large projects are hard to complete, especially on an income of $0 a year. But it's worth it to me. What else is my life for? The choice of this project, The Mission and the novels I intend to follow it with, was not quick or ill-considered, but rather the result of years and actually decades of searching. I liken it to building a monument (and I draw my inspiration from the Great Pyramid of Giza): before you even start to clear the brush, you have to choose your site. In writing, this is equivalent to discovering what to write about. In the case of the Great Pyramid the site selection was more careful and exact than almost anyone realized for thousands of years. In that same spirit, I have chosen to set my story at this particular place and time--48 BC in Palestine, Alexandria, and Rome--not because they are remote from our own era but because they have a close and intimate bearing on it. My task is to show how and why.

It's Good Friday. Probably no writing today, with Kimmie home and the solitary routine disrupted by errands and fun. Fun includes heading down to Save-On Foods to visit with stepdaughter Robin a bit, and then breakfast out somewhere I think.


Wednesday, March 23, 2005

the distractable one

Kimmie took today off, so no alarm in the morning. Using different drugs (a Sleep Aid for me--diphenhydramine hydrochloride, same active ingredient as Sominex and over-the-counter antihistamine medication--and ibuprofen for Kimmie, whose arm and neck were sore from incorrect sleeping the previous night), we both slept well. Didn't rise until 6:30 or 7:00, to a sunny day.

Started off with coffee and research notes, as ever, just running later. Still the same triad of Message of the Sphinx, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries, and A History of the Jewish People. We ate toast for breakfast, and I felt the loss of creative compression that comes with free time. Kimmie wanted to take it easy, and I'm ready to grasp at any tissue-thin excuse to avoid my project. Indeed, I had felt unusually pessimistic about it as I lay in the dawn murk, small beams of light streaming around the felt blackout that we put over our window at night. Too big, too weird, too unfamiliar...

But I did come down to the office and open the document "13 - Notes" to key my thoughts on the choreography of Alexander and his book. This anonymous book is a keystone for the astrological Age of Pisces about to dawn, and it is in danger of being burned in the fire of Alexandria. Thinking through character motivation and the choreography of action is much more a logical exercise than anything that could be called inspired. The answer to the question, "Why would such-and-such a character do that?" is usually right to hand if you think about it; just as the answer is often not far away in real life. People's decisions are, despite all appearances, usually rational. It's just their crazy underlying beliefs and altogether defective knowledge, along with terror and insecurity, that screw them up.

I didn't apply myself for very long. My attention flagged. I started doing other things. Before long, I was taking Kimmie and Robin out to lunch at Troll's in Horseshoe Bay, fish stew on a fresh spring day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


Hardly slept after 3:15. Dozed for awhile just before the alarm at 5:30, and rose at 6:04. Kim dutifully pulled the meditation cushions out from under the bed to do her morning session while I made the coffee.

Sunny glorious day, with thick frost in places to begin with, but warm by late afternoon. Got an e-mail from Warren in Chicago, very encouraging as always about my project, in which he has complete faith. Spent some time reading that a couple of times, then back into chapter 13. Tougher going today, choreographing action scenes. What happens before what, what flows. Lots of this type of fiddling when we were writing for TV. I eked out 3 pages before feeling fed up with it. Sort of like Kimmie's description of giving birth: you can't rush it, it happens at its own speed. You can only go with it or fight futilely against it.

On my way out to buy fresh water (and scotch) I found the car's battery dead. I'd left the overhead cabin light on over the weekend after losing the small garage-door opener in the emergency-brake housing (that was a difficult search--finally retrieved it with a pencil and chewing-gum). So I walked up to London Drugs to buy a set of jumper cables. I asked a very tall, thin girl in the blue uniform whether they still had an automotive section.

"There are a very, very, very few automotive items in this aisle, on the left," she said.

I appreciated her effort to lower my expectations. As it happens, they had a perfectly fine set of Chinese-made jumper cables for $20. At home, my 71-year-old neighbor Allison agreed to provide her Toyota to help me jump mine. Hey presto--worked first time, no electrocutions. Back inside to push ahead reading Message of the Sphinx and, for pure pleasure, The Long Summer by Brian Fagan: a climatic history of humanity from 10,000 BC to the present. Exciting.

Now, upstairs, Kimmie has her old friend Katie over for a glass of wine. The three of us all met on the same day: Halloween 1983, our first day at ICBC.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Pushing on with chapter 13...

Back to the writing routine. Slept not badly and did, as planned, key chapter 8 of The Message of the Sphinx, highlight a half-chapter of Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries (about the Roman police and fire services), and also key a the last part of subsection 27 of A History of the Jewish People.

The weather had turned cold overnight; snow in Lynn Valley. Kimmie bundled up to walk to work down at ICBC. I finished reading an article in Scientific American Mind on thought-controlled machines, did my morning exercises (stretching, pushups, and various crunches on my wife's Ab Master, nicknamed Ab Bastard in our house), and settled here in the office with a glass of grapefruit juice--what I drink instead of the cliched coffee (which I have earlier) or scotch (which I have later).

I opened up my own chapter 13 in Word, which I've given the title "Marcus and Alexander" so I can be reminded of its content when I see a list of chapters--I plan not to title my chapters in the finished work. Marcus, the old Roman soldier, has made it to Alexandria to deliver a message to Alexander, a young Jewish copyist at the great Library. Problem: Julius Caesar is holed up in the palace district--where the Library is--with 4,000 troops, and now, today, the Egyptian army has turned up to root him out of there. Caesar sets the whole Egyptian fleet on fire in the harbor--72 ships. Meanwhile, Marcus has picked up a traveling companion in the person of a certain Gaia, a small 40ish woman who was expelled from a mystic community called the Healers on the shore of Lake Mareotis while he was passing by.

Not bad. I like this situation. And it is historical. Marcus is a historical character--the old Roman soldier who appeared on the beach of Pelusium on 28 July 48 BC when Pompey's headless corpse was being cremated by a freedman named Philip. It's a fertile and, to me, real-feeling situation.

So I picked up the story at page 11 of the chapter, where I'd left off, and started typing, feeling, as usual, that sense of trepidation and uncertainty--the "what the hell am I doing?" feeling. That's right: Marcus and Gaia had just made it to the Library, talking their way past the guards, and arrived at the Mathematics Hall where Marcus had been told by Philip (Alexander's father) that Alexander worked. It seems deserted, however, when they get there...

I pick up the threads from my "13 - Notes" document: "oh yeah--that's what I was going to do..." I typed, I sipped. I checked the price of gold at kitco.com. I typed some more. Outside, I could see the top of the green recycling truck arrive and dump our newspaper box into itself. Hail dropped on the wooden stairs and red patio bricks as though sprinkled by a god oversalting his food: handfuls rather than a downpour.

The goal was 5 pages of double-spaced Courier text, and I just made it by noon, as I felt my attention dissipate. I'd got Marcus and Gaia down to the warehouse on the docks where Alexander is supposed to be, rescuing books from the approaching flames...

So that's it. I inched forward to chapter 13, page 16. It was humdrum and workmanlike. As writing days go, they don't get much better.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Into the mind of the novelist...

Sunday morning after a night of wind and driving rain, chimes tingling wildly over the sound of shuddering leaves and clacking blinds. Kim had to get up in the night to shut the window in order to sleep. For me, earplugs are the solution to the ever-louder commotion of the suburban night.

I rose at 7:12 and made the coffee. Kim got up to do a short period of meditation as recommended by Ellen, her counsellor. I brought my dark-blue meditation cushion and floor-mat up to the bedroom on Friday night after her first counselling session, and reviewed the meditation technique with her yesterday.

Down here in my office I continued keying my research notes, first from chapter 7 of The Message of the Sphinx by Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval. My method is to highlight text when I read the book, essentially creating a condensed version. How much I condense the book depends on how relevant and useful I find it. I open a Word document for the book, and simply type all the text that I've highlighted. I spend coffee-time in the mornings retyping books.

When I've typed a section or chapter, I copy parts of it to a folder I call Encyclopedia: a set of Word files arranged by subject. This morning, I took only 4 sentences from chapter 7, and they all went into a Word file called "Great Pyramid". If I have material from other books relating to the Great Pyramid, that too will go into this subject file.

Next: I opened a Word document created from a downloaded version of an 1885 book by the Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani called Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries. This book I'm reading on my PC, and highlighting it using the highlight function in Word. When I've finished a chapter, I delete all the nonhighlighted text and then copy and paste the remaining text to appropriate files in my Encyclopedia folder. This morning I finished the chapter on the libraries of ancient Rome. I copied the whole chapter to a new Word document called "Rome - Libraries". I love Lanciani: the passion, intelligence, and unique insights into the world of ancient Rome from the viewpoint of a Roman.

My second mug of coffee not yet finished, I moved on to a third research book, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ by Emil Schurer, second division, volume 2, published in 1890 and printed again by Hendrickson Publishers in 1994. I bought the whole 5-volume set used for US$100 online from a Christian used-book store in Michigan. I'm delighted with the set. Today: more keying from subsection 27, School and Synagogue. I didn't finish the chapter, so I didn't copy any of the material to subject files yet.

After a walk with Kimmie in the rain this afternoon, I read another chapter of The Message of the Sphinx, highlighting the material I will probably key tomorrow morning. Then, down here to the office to look into this phenomenon of blogging, which I read about in an issue of Foreign Policy that I got in my Christmas stocking. The political scientists enthused about the possibilities of blogs and their growing role in shaping journalism and what events get covered. I looked at a couple of blog sites, and was soon referred to this one. I'm setting this up as a test.

Kimmie just ran down excitedly.

"Quick, Whale!" she said (Whale is one of my nicknames--not because of my size). "Come and look at the rainbow! It's really bright!"

I ran upstairs behind her to the front door. We opened the door to our tiny porch that faces east. Sure enough, a great, brilliant double rainbow arced across the watery dark sky over the townhouses across the boulevard, which glowed in the lemon light of the setting sun. I padded onto the wet concrete walk in my moccasins for a better look. Gorgeous: a revelation.