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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

discovering things that work

Another wakeful early morning. I woke just after 3:00, lay there for about an hour and a half, dozed off, and woke up again soon after. But that final catnap seems to be enough to let me feel rested in the morning. Kimmie has suggested that I just get up in the middle of the night and get to work. I tried it a couple of years ago, when my nerves were in worse shape. I got up at around midnight, poured myself a big scotch, and sat in the living-room to read a copywriting text. Three-quarters of an hour later, feeling very sleepy and half-cut, I crawled back up to bed.

I haven't wanted to get up in the middle of the night, partly because I don't expect to get quality work done at that time (I could key notes, sure), and partly because I'd be out of my routine, which is dangerous for productivity. When would I return to bed? Sure, maybe a half hour later--but how would I feel coming back to the PC in the morning? Would the freshness be gone? I foresee chaos.

So I lie there in the dead of night, trusting boredom to eventually sedate me. It can take its sweet time.

Morning notes: The True Believer; A History of the Jewish People.

Writing time: Better. As I typed my notes, I discovered that I was writing dialogue, or anyway the subtext below the eventual dialogue. I wanted to construct a path through the topics I needed to visit--how will I touch all my bases? (I sometimes think about an image that Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence once used to express what it's like to write a novel: keeping a number of plates spinning on the tops of broom-handles.) I worked with the scene backstory: the events immediately preceding the scene. This backstory sets the tone and gives the sense of being in mid-flow when the scene opens. When this is poorly worked out, there is a sense that the characters come to life only when the reader opens the book, like puppets. They don't feel like people caught in the middle of their lives, in the process of chasing their goals.

I felt things clicking into place. I pasted in a section of a Word table I worked out a couple of years ago called "Alexandrian War Timeline". Using the sources I had available, I created a list of events in the Alexandrian War between Caesar and the Egyptians. For the current chapter, I need to know exactly what's been going on lately (at least according to my reckoning--no one knows the exact dates of all these things). Endless decisions. Has Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe left the palace yet? Yes. Has Caesar executed the eunuch prime minister Pothinus yet? Hmm.... Yes. Today.

And so on. Then: who are the players in this scene? What are their objectives? This is all hard. It requires mental effort. I have to concentrate and think. In theory I'm supposed to enjoy that, but in reality I find it hard and I avoid it. It takes discipline. The reward is discovering things that work.

As I typed out my dialogue subtext I started to see how these characters could relate, what their attitudes are. I could already feel some characters pushing forward, some holding back. My reticence about writing such famous historical characters as Caesar and Cleopatra is becoming less. Here's their situation, here's what they want to do; let 'em rip.

By lunchtime I felt just about ready to start writing again.


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