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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Morning notes: A History of Technology, The Grail Legend.

Back at the notes for chapter 18, about which I'm feeling better and better. In some ways, this is the real fiction-making step. In the Notes document I speculate about who is doing what and why, and how they feel. And at the same time I draw in my research, reading through articles in my homemade encyclopedia.

Today I was wondering what the crew positions were on ancient warships. Did I have that somewhere? Would it be under Weapons? No. Hm. How about...Rome - Army? I opened it and did a couple of searches. A few mentions of "navy", but not many. Where's all that stuff about warships?

I looked further in the R-S folder of my encyclopedia, and found Rome - Navy. Ah! I'd forgotten. Opened it up and sure enough, I'd pasted in material here from Caesar Against Rome by Ramon Jimenez and from A Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Adkins and Adkins--both excellent resources. Mm-hm, I thought I remembered that: a breakdown of the known crew of the typical Roman warship in the Adkinses' book. I copied a few paragraphs and pasted them into my Notes document for chapter 18. Detailed factual information gets the creative juices flowing. (Robert McKee offers this as a tonic for writer's block: library research. He maintains that the cause of writer's block is lack of knowledge. We can write when we know enough about our subject, whether fact or fiction. In my experience this is borne out.) Not just a ship, but a specific type of ship. Not just an officer, but a specific rank of officer, with a specific job.

While I typed ideas for the scene, other things flashed into my head: reasons for my character Marcus's behavior in this scene and chapter. I simply typed these thoughts as they occurred, dropping them in their own paragraphs in the stream of notes, surrounded by parentheses. Yes, I thought, that's it!

This is my strange, backward approach. I have already developed the story in outline; I spent many months doing it. When it comes time to write chapters and scenes, I have the problem of fleshing out the story, and not making it easy for the characters. Almost every story event or turning-point should be a surprise or upset for the characters concerned, meaning that events develop seemingly unexpectedly, despite their intentions. My way of making this happen is to take the event that has already been ordained (by me) and work back from it, looking for ways to set characters' objectives in disharmony with what's about to happen.

It's not really such a linear process, of course. The outline itself was created so as to produce surprises. But part of the creative work--and worry--of outlining the detail of a chapter or scene is this problem of how to get the characters motivated, and motivated strongly and plausibly, toward a goal that, in some way, is usually going to dance sideways on them somehow. It's like fashioning decoys, one after another.

Having bulked up my preparatory notes, I ran out of steam, feeling the anxiety of losing interest in my situation and the story. My story-work was done for today.


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