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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, September 12, 2005


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

Then, in the morning writing session, after only a little post-weekend procrastination, I opened my draft and notes documents for chapter 18 and got to it.

It. The vague anxiety I feel about what to do when I open my project documents I remedy by reading my most recent notes (I prefer not to read any more of the draft than I have to; often I feel queasy at what I see). Right. I scrolled all the way back to my notes for Tuesday 6 September. Got to remind myself of what's supposed to be going on in this chapter. I've got Marcus and Alexander at the Egyptian naval base. Right, I knew that. But what's their specific conflict? Hm. Still not really resolved.

Under today's dateline I keyed some notes to recap my decisions on a few details that were hanging over from Thursday (took Friday off, since K took the day off). Right, sounds good. In fiction-writing, problems really are opportunities in disguise. A nagging problem for the writer is often a nagging problem for a character, and the writer's eventual solution will become the character's. What's more, the writer's sense of difficulty, irritation, and struggle with the problem can then be convincingly written for the character. The result can be characters doing ingenious things.

This is another reason I put such emphasis on verisimilitude. Real, lifelike problems create real, lifelike characters, and much greater participation by the reader. I think back to the 1990s when Robin was a passionate fan of the TV series Beverly Hills 90210. The early episodes, written by Darren Star (the creator), were pretty good. But as the seasons went on, the show became a (tremendously successful) soap, and even more captivating to young fans like Robin. I, however, could not watch it. Disgusted with her love of the show, I tried to point out why it was no good. I failed.

My mother tried watching the show once or twice, and was also disgusted.

"That's not how life is in an office," she said. "Have these people ever even been in an office?"

"A production office, maybe," I said.

But a production office would not be very recognizable to people who spent their lives in real offices.

I think of a quote I once read from Ingmar Bergman, who was talking about the popularity of the soap Dallas in Sweden--even in his own house, for he watched the show too. He said something like this: "The show is badly written, badly acted, badly directed, and badly shot. But people watch it because of its tremendous cynicism."

Likewise Beverly Hills 90210 and the other soaps: their appeal lies in their cynicism. If we're tuning in only to watch good-looking people be vicious to each other, any stage-set will do. The props are just something to do with their hands, like a cigarette.

But even in non-soaps verisimilitude is often violated in order to serve the author's needs. Hence, cabs show up on cue for heroes, a character can accurately use a gun he's never seen before, and there are convenient man-sized air-conditioning ducts plumbed through many a building that people need to escape through. All these things damage my involvement in a story. I become uninvolved. I become ever more aware that I'm merely watching mediocre actors spout bad dialogue--and who needs that?

The cure? Verisimilitude. Give the characters lifelike problems. If the character needs quick transport, don't leave an unlocked bicycle nearby. If I had to flee someone, I just know I wouldn't be able to find one of those. The writer has chosen a lazy way out. The writer needed to think harder, and couldn't be bothered. That's the truth of it.

So: my chapter. I had become sidetracked by a seemingly detailed problem about how my characters would gain access to this facility. I had solved it one way, but that didn't seem to square with the historical situation that was on the ground. So I read more, thought about it, and came up with a different way for them to approach it. Maybe the average reader would never notice the difference, but my insistence on staying as authentic as I can makes me more authoritative in what I write--and that finally is the author's only asset: authority.


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