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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, January 06, 2006

author convenience

Had a theoretical chance to sleep in, since Kimmie had a bone-density scan appointment first thing, but in fact I lay awake after 3:45, not dozing off again till 6:00. A crowd of dreams, then up at 6:30.

This week I have not keyed notes first thing, but instead just opened up my chapter notes document and started work. When working on relationships or characters, I find myself taken into the social background, the politics and history of the area. Sometimes I feel angry with myself for not knowing my world better already, for not remembering all the things I've learned about it and decided about it. It's not enough to have vague knowledge: it must be precise, just as knowledge of events in your own life is precise. It's not: "I went to school somewhere"; it's "I attended Balmoral Junior Secondary School and Carson Graham Senior Secondary School, from which I graduated in 1977". It makes a huge difference whether you attend a junior high school on the wooded mountainside of North Vancouver, B.C., or a public secondary school in the Bronx. Even though I've had only one of those experiences, I know they are very different from each other, and will form the backgrounds of different kinds of people, different kinds of characters.

So I fuss with the history behind my characters and their situation. Of course, my novel is a historical one, and more than that: a story about the history, about its impact on the world for the following 2,000 years and beyond. The questions the scholars can't answer definitely ("exactly why and when did the five district councils in Judea, established by Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria, dissolve, and what kind of government took their place?") I have to solve for myself. So I feel anyway: I must come up with something, choose among the alternatives. Because the world of my characters is a particular world. Knowing it in every detail, or as many details as possible, is my job.

Another thing is: I can't stand author convenience--the plotting flaw of events' being designed by the author to facilitate his story contrivances. Implausible events are designed in order to make the story go the way the writer wants. Kimmie and I are watching season 3 of 24 on DVD (borrowing it from the library). The series 24, in the thriller genre, packed a punch in season 1, but is now a shadow of itself in season 3. Creator fatigue has long since set in, and the writing has drifted downhill, with author convenience and cliches rearing their heads often. An example: the Counter Terrorist Unit, having abducted the archvillain's daughter to use as a hostage, transports her back to base in a compact four-door sedan with a lone driver and no other escort. I believe that having secured this lever against the villain, their single most important asset in saving the lives of millions of Americans from gruesome viral death, they would look after her more carefully and transport her much, much more securely. When she is abducted back away from them again it will be no surprise, and all the heroes' ensuing difficulties will really be their own fault.

That is but one example of many I could give. The fact is, good writing takes not just ability but also time. Even a brilliant writer needs time to become acquainted with the world of his or her story. This is true even if you are writing about your own life, for such writing is much improved by becoming more knowledgeable about the facts surrounding your own existence. What were the leading news stories on that day? What was the stock market doing? What do sociologists have to say about the dynamics of society at that time? All these things can help even the autobiographical writer. The writer of things other than autobiography needs that much more time to gain knowledge of the world of his story.

I wrote on into the morning, petering out by about 11:15. I decided to try some keying of notes: a bit more from Identity: Youth and Crisis by Erik Erikson. I also looked over the notes I made on identity just after Christmas.

What on earth am I doing?

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  • A fine and thoughtful post, Paul. I have the same worries about ALS--my not quite enough familiarity with the world of the novel.

    As to what on earth are you doing? --Despite your anxieties, you're doing fine. (Hold that thought.) d:)

    By Blogger Debra Young, at January 06, 2006 5:31 PM  

  • Thanks Debra--I appreciate the encouragement. These are dark days for me, somehow, literally and figuratively...

    By Blogger paulv, at January 06, 2006 6:12 PM  

  • When writing a novel, particularly a thoughtful and complex work such as yours, you've crossed a Threshold into realms unknown, and soon enough you find yourself in the Belly of the Beast. I think that is where you are, Paul, but you know what follows--Apotheosis. Hang in there...d:

    By Blogger Debra Young, at January 09, 2006 12:07 PM  

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