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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, May 06, 2005

research and more research

Again a research day. During the morning notes session, I keyed material from a book I just got from the library: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer. I found it while searching the web for material on fanaticism.

It's already a fascinating and excellent little book. I would have borrowed it anyway, but I was especially intrigued by Hoffer's life story, as I read it in a review on Amazon.com by J Onyx. An elementary-school dropout who lost and later regained his sight, Hoffer became a philosopher-drifter and manual laborer. When I read this, I immediately identified with this man, whose life has a mythological cast. I want my life to be like his; I want to live with integrity as he did.

Meanwhile, his book is great. It's not a psychological or sociological study so much as a series of reflections based on his wide reading and thinking about the topic. I'm only 25 pages in, but I can see that his method is essentially to deduce what makes mass movements, and the people who compose them, tick. He presents a series of insights with supporting examples. His writing is deep and concise.

I can't highlight a library book (although I do wipe down library books when I take them out--removing the gray human wax that accretes on their covers), so I read it down here by the PC, keying notes as I go.

Coffee number 2: I switched to my Sketchbook folder, and keyed "sketches" from Egypt: Gift of the Nile. Here's an example:

Egyptian homestead: Impoverished place, looking as it might have in pharaonic times: On an irregular patch of bare tawny ground, between a palm grove and a rocky outcrop tufted over with little desert shrubs, is the homestead: a silt-colored mudbrick house that is itself shaped like a giant brick, roofed with bundled and woven sticks laid in squares on rough natural roof-poles. A "porch" extends from one side: similar roofing standing on sticks. And a lower extension or barn steps from one end of it, also roofed over with bundled sticks or grass. The dooryard and other enclosures--five or six of them--are surrounded by shaggy stooks of bundled grass or papyrus. A round earthen stove sits in the dooryard for making bread. Red peppers are gathered to dry on one flat corner of the roof. The smaller animal-pens are partly roofed with long sticks laid across the space. Straw lies scattered on the ground in a couple of little pens. The big "front" yard is bare, a mini-desert of dun sand, with a couple of dead-stick trees standing at one end. Shadows are deep black. Two people and one red cow look up at the passing plane: man in a red headscarf and white shirt and black skirt; woman in a long red kerchief, black vest, long red skirt, holding a steel washtub. All barefoot.

It's a very good book for my purposes: the photos are big, detailed, colorful, evocative.

On to the writing day. I again spent the time in "16 - Notes". As I worked with the starting lineup to a scene that was originally planned to be a chapter, I asked myself questions about the motivations of Julius Caesar, who is a character in it. It got me digging into aspects of the career of Alexander the Great--the leader against whom Caesar measured himself--when he was young, anyway. I opened my compressed Word version of Mircea Eliade's A History of Religious Ideas 2, in which I remembered he mentions Alexander's world-uniting spiritual aspirations. Hmm....yes, excellent, can use this... A spiritual dimension to Alexander's conquest of the world...

I wound up buying another book online: Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox. It's praised so highly and so convincingly by such obviously knowledgeable readers on Amazon.com that I thought I can't afford to miss it.

Essentially I'm plotting the course of an after-dinner conversation. There are topics I need to cover, and ends I need to achieve. I must cause certain results to happen. It's exciting to find ways to connect a starting situation with an outcome I already know must occur; it forces inventiveness, and, I think, heightens the surprise of the outcome. My foreknowledge of it makes it harder for the reader to guess, somehow, I think because it's not the seemingly logical outcome.

Noon rolled around after some fairly satisfying note-making. I often worry about days like this, when no actual prose gets drafted. I think back to research I did on More Things to Come all those years ago: I was investigating how the KGB operated. One of its case officers said of one their moles, planted under deep cover in some North African country, that he spent so long under cover that when the agency finally tried to activate him, he wasn't interested anymore. "An example of all cover, and no spy," said the case officer.

I'm concerned about being all research, and no novel.


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