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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, December 16, 2005

from notes to authority

More rest last night, thanks, I think, to a Sleep Aid. That took me up until 3:30 anyway.

So, yes, still have a full cold. Last night it developed quickly into the runny-nose and occasional-cough stage. I'm still groggy and have low energy. But you know, today I again did an OK day's work (by my standards). Once more it was a matter of going in with no expectations: whatever I might get done is gravy, so it doesn't really matter what I do. Lethargically, but then sometimes also less lethargically, I wandered from file to file, reading background material that I'd keyed months or even years before (I've been working with Word files on this project since 2003). The distilled notes from research books I would read, slowly, and then copy portions of those to drop into my notes document for chapter 20.

I will start by wondering about the motivation for a character, and then realize that to know that I need more knowledge of my world. Back to the research material.

"Hmm," I thought, sipping at my grapefruit juice, "this stuff is pretty interesting."

My notes document is now 24 pages long--most of it research extracts. Here is a list of the works that I have extracted from to drop into the document, as possibly relevant:

  • Caesar Against Rome
  • Chabad.org (website)
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah
  • Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian
  • Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews
  • Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans
  • A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ
  • A History of the Jews in Babylonia
  • The Jews Under Roman Rule

Here is where I think back to when I first read Frank Herbert's Dune as a teenager. I really enjoyed the sense of his knowledge about his fictional galaxy, and venturing into (for sci-fi at that time) not-so-common spiritual and religious territory. I liked the idea of a Space Guild and the Bene Gesserit and some company called CHOAM that bigwigs had shares in. There was a sense of historical depth and conflicting interests. This is what I seek for my own work.

The issue is authority: that which an author has. In the end, nothing is more interesting than being talked to, in well-formed prose, by someone who knows what they're talking about. The literary critic Wayne Booth in his The Rhetoric of Fiction talks about the techniques of persuasion (rhetoric) used by novelists to help their readers suspend disbelief and accept as actual what is going on in the story. For me, a well-observed setting and well-observed characters are probably the crucial element.

As an example, the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts that I'm still reading (a chapter a day; I'm on page 418): for the past couple of chapters his protagonist, Lin, has been incarcerated in the Indian prison system. Aside from causing me to form the intention that that never, ever happens to me, his treatment of it displays all the marks of authority. I have reason to believe that Roberts has indeed been inside the Indian prison system, but if he hasn't, he writes about it with an insider's authority. Real-feeling settings and characters make sense while also being utterly unexpected. This is the opposite of cliche, which gives us only what we expect (Irish cops; goodhearted but downtrodden immigrants; frosty condescending rich people). If asked my image of an Indian prison, I might have pictured a crowded, dirty place with a bunch of tough but morose inmates. Roberts paints a picture that does include much more crowding and filth than I would have dared to suppose, as well as tough, morose inmates, but much more as well: the way viciousness and compassion coexist, along with entrepreneurialism and the most ruthless Darwinism. The prisoners sort themselves into five groups, a rigidly stratified society of hundreds of men living in just a few square meters.

In short: his knowledge of his exotic world alone makes for gripping reading. This is the kind of authority I aspire to. It's not actually possible in a work of historical fiction; it can only be simulated. But I believe the reader accepts this limitation as part of the price of admission. I do, anyway.

My future readers: I'm trying to make it good, I really am.

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