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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, October 06, 2005

knowledge and creative choices

Morning notes: A History of Technology, Alexander the Great.

Then: more chapter-prep. I can feel when I know enough to start drafting a chapter, or a scene. Sometimes it takes me by surprise: I might be expecting a couple of more days' preparation, and suddenly I'm typing in the chapter document. It's the same with endings: I might feel the end of the chapter is another day's or two days' work away, then suddenly I'm there--this page, this paragraph. I might sit awhile thinking about what to type next, and suddenly realize I don't need to. It's over. Feelings of pleasure mixed with suspicion and even guilt arise. But I file away the chapter and move on.

Today was still preparation. I treat each chapter as a story in its own right. I like each one to have its own drama, its own turning-points. The basic purpose of the chapter is already established in my outline. I have both the short version and expanded version of the outline text pasted at the top of my notes document. The challenge now is how to achieve that purpose: how to make it happen dramatically, unexpectedly, as the result of forces and pressures acting on my characters.

Creative ideas come from knowledge. I've said it before, but it bears repeating. For one thing, I need to remind myself of this as I pore through seemingly endless research material. I feel a mixture of enjoyment and fretting as I open research file after research file. What would Ostia, the port at the mouth of the Tiber, be like at that time? Hm. I have a file on Ostia--clever me. These prepared files are making the pre-chapter research flow ever more smoothly. Ah. It's still republican Rome; the big port complex was not yet built. The Romans didn't bother with engineering their way around the exposed mouth of the river, or dealing with the sandbars created by the huge volume of silt deposited there each year. Warships, with their shallow draft, simply rowed over them; heavy freighters were partly unloaded onto barges before being towed the rest of the way in.

Will I use that information? Not necessarily. I'm constructing my character's trip, my character's day. In this case the character is Menahem, the magician turned Essene monk. He's never been to Rome, so he will be barraged with new impressions--impressions that will also be the reader's. I need to find those impressions, but more importantly I need to find the factors in that environment that are going to make his day challenging. The forces pushing at your characters should always seem bigger than they are; it should always be a little in doubt that they will be equal to the demands being made of them. Fiction, like life, should offer no guarantees--only insecurity, but with great moments of success and failure, joy and distress.

I wound up reading and highlighting more material in Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Lesley and Roy A. Adkins (indispensable for researching this period), and keying it into various research documents, copying and pasting certain sections into my ever-growing chapter-notes document. I know more. I feel my range of creative choices growing. Soon I will have enough to create life, to show living people moving through a bewildering but completely real world.

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