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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, June 03, 2005

creativity in action

Got to fight back against other pressures and make time for blog posts.

Yesterday I was still embroiled in strata stuff in the afternoon, with a quick council meeting at 5:40 at my kitchen table to approve the AGM package to go out to the members.

Today, somewhat hesitantly, I was back in the saddle with chapter 17. I say hesitantly because I feel some fear and reluctance about coming up with new material. Yes, even though creativity is my middle name and I've come up with endless wild and creative ideas throughout my life, it's a daunting task.

I opened up 17 - Notes and typed my usual dateline ("Fri 03 Jun 2005"). I scrolled up to yesterday's entry and read through that. Then, under today's dateline, I just started keying the first thing that came to mind:

Yes: what is their conflict? Is Sos in the middle of important observations that he doesn't want interrupted? Does he already have an assistant or two with him?

My notes usually proceed as a series of questions like these. When I get ideas, I often type them in sentences that start with Maybe. Or sometimes, as in my next little paragraph, with Probably:

Probably Alexander should have the book snatched from him, and Sosigenes tells him to F.O. Or maybe it's an assistant--the very one whose role Alexander has usurped by lying about his connection to Sos. Alexander can't get past the gatekeeper.

The foggy beginnings of how to get into my scene. There is no one single approach to writing a scene. In this case, I know what the scene must do, what its outcome will be. The creative problem is how to get to that outcome. It must be through conflict, or there's no interest in the scene and no point in showing it. Conflict forces the characters to show themselves, to reveal something of their true nature. This is most of the pleasure of reading. According to Robert McKee, stories are ultimately about why people do what they do. To know them is to understand them.

All right. So one way to generate conflict is simply to pile obstacles in the way of my character. If he's going to see Sosigenes, don't let him see Sosigenes. Sosigenes slams the door in his face. Now what? How will my character respond? Will he just give up? Or is he motivated enough not to take no for an answer?

My guy's motivated. He's got a lot riding on this situation. But another thought came to me: maybe it's not Sosigenes slamming the door, but an assistant. Yes: that distances the sought-after sage even further, and may provide opportunities for a three-way dynamic once I can get my guy inside. It feels good, even if I don't know exactly why. I can generate business, have my guy arriving in a situation that's already in mid-train, in a conflict--yes!--that's already happening. Maybe all is not calm and peaceful in the observatory. Liking it. We think of astronomers as calm, patient, contemplative types. Well, what if they're not?

The previously unsuspected character, whom I just started calling Assistant in my notes, captured my attention. What's this guy like? An officious busybody? How'd he get to be the sidekick of one of the world's leading scientists? Since he's already told Alexander to F.O., I feel he's surly and bad-tempered, maybe sarcastic and condescending. He likes to make you feel bad about yourself. He's very smart, and not very physical. He idolizes his master even while complaining a lot. Listen to this neat little paragraph that I jotted down:

What are Assistant's strong points? Maybe an incredible memory for numbers and details. As well as a naturally servile temperament that has him obeying commands almost as though against his will, as though his body were at the beck of his master's mind rather than his own.


Yes! That's good enough to go straight into the book. Now I was seeing Sosigenes bickering with his longtime assistant like an old married couple. This is the milieu that Alexander happens onto.

It's a start. But there's still Sosigenes himself, and the content of their discussion. Ach...

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