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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Yesterday afternoon I was delighted to find not one but two packages dumped on my porch by the mailman--two more books I've ordered recently: Columella's On Agriculture, from a small used-book seller in Chicago, and Cato's and Varro's On Agriculture, from Powell's in Portland, Oregon--both translations from the ancient Roman originals, small red volumes from the Loeb Classical Library. They were mentioned as sources in Hugh Johnson's Vintage, and on impulse I decided to buy them.

Over afternoon tea I opened Cato. I wasn't expecting too much; I figured an ancient book on farming might be dull. But Harrison Boyd Ash's introduction (he completed the work of William Davis Hooper, who was prevented by illness), written in 1934, was very good. I didn't highlight material on Cato, because he died 100 years before my story, but when I read Ash's introduction to Varro, I quickly realized this Roman was not only relevant, but very likely will become a character in my story.

His dates (116-27 BC) put him in the right range, but he was also closely involved with the Roman civil war (on the Pompeian side), and, furthermore, was appointed by Caesar to superintend the collection and arrangement of Rome's first public library. This will draw him closely into the orbit of my characters, especially Alexander, who is destined to have a role, if only a tangential one, in that project. So I highlighted much of Ash's introduction on Varro: good stuff.

As for the book itself, listen to how Marcus Cato, stern, upright, old-school Roman, opens his book on agriculture:

It is true that to obtain money by trade is sometimes more profitable, were it not so hazardous; and likewise money-lending, if it were as honorable. Our ancestors held this view and embodied it in their laws, which required that the thief be mulcted double and the usurer fourfold; how much less desirable a citizen they considered the usurer than the thief, one may judge from this.

I loved this dry, cutting observation as a way of getting on to the topic of the farmer, an honorable and noble person by comparison, in Cato's view. I didn't find it dull at all.

Today, pushing on with notes toward chapter 15, I felt I broke through. Again I went back in my mind to where the action left off at the end of chapter 14, and rolled the tape forward, so to speak. How would Alexander be feeling? What would he do? Again I walked the action along, using thoughts and insights from previous runs to flesh out this more step-by-step approach. And when I got to what I think will be the point of attack for chapter 15, it came to me what the dominant thought and feeling for Alexander should be--what will push him forward. Yes! Suddenly he's got gas in his tank again.

Yesterday, at the end of my writing session, I searched out some prose I wrote longhand in the big blue binder I used to launch this project. I set it up while I was still at Gampo Abbey in 2002. Saturday was everyone's day off, and I would spend a couple of hours each Saturday morning in the library, playing with this idea. One day (27 April 2002) I was too excited to contain myself: I just had to start writing this story. I wrote about a page and a half longhand. At that time I thought the story was going to begin with Alexander. Here's how I opened it, just as it appears in the binder:

The sparkles on the water were brighter than stars: they flashed into and out of existence as a relieving breeze flowed up the canal. When Alexander narrowed his eyes the sparkles rotated en masse, turning to Xs, then crucifixes, then little swords of light, swarming, living, and dying, below. Others would see different sparkles. These were happening only for him. What did that mean? It was a private experience. He was alone.

I was writing my own experience of looking out over the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the bluffs of the monastery. I remember sitting on the little log bench near the flagpoles, filled with intense creative desire. I would open with those sparkles on the water, I thought, changing shape as I looked at them.

Three years later--to the day, I suddenly realize--I took those opening words, and the ones that followed, and used them to start my draft of chapter 15. For that is where this scene of Alexander's has wound up: not the opener anymore, but 30% into the book. Since I'd already done some writing for this, I thought, I might as well use that old material as my starter. I adjusted, trimmed, and made it to page 2 of the new chapter. Another chapter begins.


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