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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

writer: know thy world

Another (sunny) day of Kimmie off work. I offered to drive her to her 10:45 doctor's appointment in West Van. So again I skipped my usual note-keying first thing, and dove back in to chapter-19 note-making.

I remember why this chapter feels so much harder to prepare: I've taken the story to a new setting. Finally I arrive at Rome, and I now must go back to all those self-made encyclopedia entries and, first of all, read what's there. Then copy and paste the most relevant material into my chapter-19 notes document. For example, here's a neat paragraph from Rodolfo Lanciani's 19th-century Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries:

At the entrance of the Fabrician bridge (ponte quattro Capi), leading from the Campus Martius to the island, there were shops for the sale of ex-votos of every description, exactly as along the approaches to the great sanctuaries of Catholic countries. One of these shops contained anatomical specimens in painted terra-cotta, beautifully modelled from nature, and representing heads, ears, eyes, breasts, arms, hands, knees, legs feet, ex-votos to be offered by happy mothers, etc. The most interesting pieces are their life-size human trunks, cut open across the front, and showing the whole anatomical apparatus of the various organs, such as the lungs, liver, heart, bowels, etc.

Interesting, no? I get to learn things like this as part of creating my fictional world. Will I ever use it? Maybe not. But my knowledge of it will inform the way I depict my story-world; it will add to my authority.

I had lunch at the local Japanese restaurant Honjin with Greg, a fellow fiction-writer and former coworker at ICBC (former because I no longer work there; he still does). It's been a couple of years since I've seen him. I really enjoyed it; we talked about the projects we each currently have on the go. While tucking in to my teriyaki-chicken bento box, I pontificated on my idea of richness as it applies to fiction-writing: that fiction often--usually--suffers in comparison with narrative nonfiction when it comes to evoking the richness of the world being depicted.

Lately I've seen blog-posts by three different writers, all warning novelists against getting too involved with research and thus postponing the actual work of creative writing. Speaking for myself as a reader, I find that most novels are under-researched, and hence come across as thin, implausible, and, well, impoverished--the opposite of rich. Writers often appear to try to get by with the minimum amount of knowledge of their fictional world. The work, in my view, suffers for it.

Robert McKee, in his Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, tells writers that:

The world of a story must be small enough that the mind of a single artist can surround the fictional universe it creates and come to know it in the same depth and detail that God knows the one He created.... By the time you finish your last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your world--from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in September--than you couldn't answer instantly.

When reading a novel, you can immediately sense whether the writer has this level of knowledge. It's not common. I remember when I opened David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. I was immediately in the spell cast by Guterson due to the authority he showed over his fictional world: the San Juan islands of Washington State in 1954. Incidentally, Guterson also passed the first-sentence test handily with his opener:

The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table--the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.

I was willing to read on.

Anyway, speaking here as a reader, one who has a damned difficult time finding a novel he can enjoy, I would like to urge writers not to worry about doing too much research. There's no such thing as a writer who knows too much. But there are plenty who know too little.

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