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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, April 08, 2005

research detours

I started writing Chapter 14 yesterday ("Marcus Seeks Shelter"), got 2 pages drafted. Today when I tried to press on, I found that I wanted background on my fictitious temple of Atargatis. What did I know about Atargatis, or Fish-Tailed Aphrodite, as she was known in Ashkelon, one of her major centers of worship?

Not enough. I opened up The Oxford Classical Dictionary and keyed extracts from its entry on Atargatis into a Word document I opened for the goddess. I searched for snippets I'd already keyed on her, and found them in A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, and in Aion by Jung. Because fish were sacred to Atargatis, I also looked up fish, sacred, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, and keyed what I found. Then I looked it up in Cirlot's Dictionary of Symbols, and keyed what I found there.

You can see that this can form quite a detour from the writing process. But I can't just let fish slide: my project is The Age of Pisces--the sign of the fish. At some level, I'm all about fish! This is what happens to me: I want to know something, and an hour and a half later, after a blitz of information-collating, I'm staring at my story again, feeling a bit drained. Am I any further ahead?

I must be. As the storytelling guru Robert McKee says, the word author is the same as authority: you must know what you're writing about. Otherwise, why should anyone read you? He also says that personal experience is overrated as the writer's main source of inspiration. What makes you an authority is understanding your experience.

I agree. And of course, if one's personal experience is the only valid source for writing, then fiction has no valid place in literature. Whatever one's experience, the writing must trigger a feeling of authenticity in the reader (that word-root again).

So: I spent a good part of my morning writing-period typing information on Atargatis, fish, eunuchs, and ritual transvestism. I was able to write another page of Chapter 14, cracking it from page 3 to page 4, but then I was spent. My mind starts wandering, and I know I'm not going to be writing any more.

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