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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

the hard way

More reading and keying from "Pompey" in Roman Lives, as well as from Vintage: The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson, which I got from the library. Since Marcus comes from grape-growing and wine-making stock, I need background in this. Johnson's book seems just the ticket. I set up a document for it in my Research folder, and started keying excerpts while I scanned the text.

Was delighted to receive an e-mail from Warren in Chicago. He was delighted with Chapter 9 (Menahem shows up at the Baris in Jerusalem to petition Herod for the return of Matthan), which was a morale-booster as always. It encouraged me to open up the chapter again and look at it through his eyes, so to speak. I like the chapter myself, and have mostly forgotten the effort required to make its action flow and get the characters generating conflict. So I enjoyed it too, and read the whole thing. Then I popped open Chapter 10 and read that, more superficially, before mailing a copy on to Warren. Woops, there went an hour. But I was happy.

The enjoyment of previous chapters, seen through a reader's eyes, was a spur to get my story moving. I reopened Chapter 12 and wrote more material near the top about Marcus's reaction to the death of Pompey. I wrote freely, trying to portray Marcus's sense of catastrophe. I want to be able to break through like this more often, to write in a gush instead of with my usually measured approach. But writing in a gush also takes preparation: you have to reach critical mass with your research into character and background. Then you can gush. There are no shortcuts.

One of my favorite quotes I learned from a book on the life of English landscape painter John Constable. In his worrying about his own art he took heart from his older and (then) more famous and successful contemporary, the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who said, "There is no easy way of becoming a good painter." I remember reading that while holding the lovely art book propped on my knees in bed, and feeling a deep feeling of assent. I only needed to substitute the word writer for painter, and Reynolds was speaking to me.

There is no easy way. Consider what that means. Every way to quality is a hard way. There is no easy way.


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