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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, May 01, 2005

the sketchbook

A spring Sunday. K and I went out to Mom's for breakfast, where other family members were also gathering: sister Mara and her two daughters.

Before that, my morning notes routine. In addition to my 2 pages from The Twelve Caesars and a few entries to bring When Prophecy Fails up to date, I opened another document in a folder called Sketchbook. Here I keep a few documents devoted to writing descriptions of some of my locations. I take this any way I can get it: from books, from videos. Yesterday I got a couple of picture-books on Egypt from the library. One of them was Egypt: Gift of the Nile--an aerial portrait: a picture book of aerial photos of Egypt. I went to the last section, "The Sea", where there are pictures of Alexandria, and started keying what I saw.

Here's the "Avenue al Horreya, following the course of the ancient Canopic Way":

Looking east: a wide boulevard still, maybe 100 feet, divided into three equal stripes: the two lanes of traffic separated by a broad paved boulevard with a series of central lawns, each with its own long hedge and palm-tree. Along the sides: denser, lusher trees, throwing their deep shadows on the street and on the walls and yards to the north. The sunlight is veiled, still casting definite shadows but not with the blasting harshness of the desert sun. To one side, a park with a half-dried lawn, and a neat row of palms planted in sand. Next to that, a lot torn up for construction: sand piled in heaps with rubble and some dark shrubs clinging to life in one corner.

From this, and other sketches like it, I hope to get a feel for Alexandria and capture some of this in my prose. I visited Alexandria early in 1982, but I don't think I have many notes from that time. I might have described it in letters home. I have some memories, but they are faded. For immediacy one needs fresh sensory input.

One of my best resources for this is the 8-CD-ROM series called the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, a set of thousands of high-resolution digital images of biblical locations. I was delighted to discover this, and decided to buy the whole set (about US$250). I'm very happy with it. Israel, of course, is extensively covered, but they also have lots of photos of Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, and Rome. Even if I could afford to travel to all those places now, I would not be able to take anything like the number of photos these people have, even if my photos were as good.

Here is a "sketch" I did from one of their images:

Alexandria Bay: Pale blue over disturbed deep-soaked blue, pitted cubes, weed-mottled, stand like broken teeth along the crumbling gumline of the shore. Pale flat strip of land separating water and sky; puff of green trees; faint puff-clouds only suggested in the sky. Shadows clear on the north faces of buildings.

When I'm trying to set a scene I might drop some of this in there, along with whatever impressions I can recall from my own experience. So far, I think, the results have been pretty good. Warren said in one of his e-mails that he found my depiction of the Nile Delta completely lifelike. My description won't pass muster for someone who knows the delta well, but for this piece of ancient-world fiction, I hope the scenery will be convincing. I want it to be at a level that I as a reader would find evocative and persuasive.

I do have a certain flair for description, and I know it, but nonetheless I've lowered my sights in this regard over the years. At one time I thought that I could match the work of, say, Thomas Pynchon, with his almost preternatural ability to evoke a feeling of time and place--even for times and places he never experienced, such the Battle of London in Gravity's Rainbow, when little Thomas was still in diapers somewhere in upstate New York. His descriptions there were woven through the consciousness of troubled characters to create a vivid but mentalized effect.

No, I can't do that. I don't have his ability--or anyone else's. I'm stuck with my own, such as it is. I need input, so I reach for picture-books, videos, and CDs. From these sources, and with some imagination, I build the dream of my world.


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