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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

technical accuracy

I'd better start a post while I've got the chance. Yesterday zipped by and I never got to it.

I've just finished my morning writing session. The weather has turned cool and wet. We've closed our windows. I'm still wearing shorts, but now have my navy-blue fleece on over my T-shirt. (My office attire. When I quit ICBC in 1989 to write TV with Warren, we both showed up at the "office"--my house--relatively well-dressed, in near-office attire. We also used to attend story meetings with the network wearing jackets and ties, something that baffled and nonplussed the TV executives, who were aggressively "casual". Nowadays, having proven to myself that I can indeed make myself come down to my office and write, my attire is "household casual". I think of something that my mother recently told me: that John Mortimer, the British lawyer-turned-novelist, was warned by his father not to be a writer, one of the reasons being that a writer never gets out of his dressing gown. Well, why should he?)

Yesterday I steamed ahead 5 pages, but today I again dropped back into highly technical research. The discussion in the story is turning to the calendar, a highly technical topic. I already had a fair amount of material on the ancient calendars and the origin of the Julian calendar, but I wanted to take time to look through the extensive material provided by Christopher Bennett. Now there's a guy who takes ancient-calendrical research seriously. I'm delighted to make acquaintance with his website. I downloaded the Excel spreadsheets he provides on the Egyptian calendar and its synchronization with the Julian.

Why this mania for accuracy? It's certainly at least partly temperamental: the same drive that had me, as a boy building a plastic model of a bomber, wanting to paint all the inside engine parts, even though these would not be seen on the finished model. I needed to know they were there.

But it also has to do with what I think of as the modern mythology of facts. As Joseph Campbell points out, in the ancient world, when, for example, the Christian religion (myth) was born, the creation account in Genesis was regarded as factually true. Myths were regarded as having levels of truth, one of which was the factual level.

Now the popular usage of the word myth means something that is contrary to fact. Facts are regarded as truth, whereas myth is true in, at most, a poetic or symbolic sense.

The real meaning of myth is better expressed as that which people believe to be true. Strictly speaking, this is beyond the level of fact, since facts reflect sense-data rather than something we "believe". Elaine Pagels, in her book The Origin of Satan, talks about how she, after the death of her husband, became aware of living in the presence of an invisible being--

living, that is, with a vivid sense of someone who had died.... I began to reflect on the ways that various religious traditions give shape to the invisible world, and how our imaginative perceptions of what is invisible relate to the ways we respond to the people around us, to events, and to the natural world.

She goes on to say:

Conversion from paganism to Judaism or Christianity, I realized, meant, above all, transforming one's perception of the invisible world.

This relationship to the "invisible world" is the realm of belief. Our beliefs are those things we take to be true which we cannot verify with our senses or with strict logic.

I haven't worked out exactly what I mean when I say "the mythology of facts". It's a phrase that feels meaningful to me. It has something to do with the modern reliance on scientific theory as our account of what is invisible to us. We have the Big Bang theory, quantum theory, the theory of evolution. We have made experiment, factual testing, the criterion of truth.

So: if myth is that which we hold to be true, then modern myth, like any myth, must be supported by facts. In ancient times people didn't go looking so hard for natural facts as we do. We keep quizzing nature, and getting answers.

Any viable mythology then must be able to coexist with (if not account for) facts in the modern scientific sense, or we won't accept it as true--we won't buy it. My pursuit of factual authenticity is related to this. I intend to promote conviction in my (admittedly fictional) story by basing it as closely as I can on fact. I want to create a strong sense of: "This seems to be the way things actually went down--what I would have seen if I'd been there to witness it." Not unlike naturalistic technique in painting: it creates conviction through lifelikeness.

Thus I scan large complex spreadsheets of ancient calendar conversions so I can set my scene on the right day. This fiction will feel like nonfiction.


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