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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, January 20, 2006

fictions within fictions

Kimmie is depressed about her job. Something happened the day before yesterday--she won't say what--that has put her into a black mood. Well, dark-gray perhaps. Having left early for a chiropractic appointment, she lounges with Robin on Robin's stripped day-bed, watching Dr. Phil on Robin's TV. I have just returned from a trip to Save-On Foods to get some Mexican food for tonight's dinner: a couple of bean burritos from Que Pasa, pre-made salsa, organic corn chips, and two just-right avocados and cilantro for guacamole. The sun was shining in the clear rinsed blue of the southern sky, beyond the rumpled pearl-colored duvet of cloud massed against the North Shore mountains.

Still feeling much resistance this morning (wrote an e-mail to Warren first thing rather than anything directly book-related), I forced myself to type things in my Notes document for chapter 21. With each chapter, it's as though I have forgotten how to begin. There is a kind of desert-island feeling: I'm marooned with only a few lines from my outline. How to turn those into an interesting, engaging, dramatic chapter. Like rusted gears my thoughts slowly start moving. Just logically make inferences based on the outline. If this is to happen, then that must be there, and this other thing must already have happened.

One of the challenges of fiction, for me, is coming up with all the contingencies that don't arise in the story: the thoughts, expectations, and fears of the characters that never actually take place. I'm responsible not only for a fictitious story, but for the fictions-within-fictions of eventualities that never occur--almost like dreams within a dream. This makes for extra creative overhead, but the story suffers if it's not there; it will lack richness. Weak or hastily written fiction has this problem, I feel. The writer has not given enough thought to the characters' inner world, providing the expectations that in life we all have, and which so seldom come to be.

I pushed myself forward. I opened research files, tapping back into what I'd keyed of The Jewish War by Josephus, a primary source document that I realized I don't consult enough. I remember when I first read it, while traveling alone in 1981. I recall trying to penetrate its dense prose while riding a bus from Nairobi to Mombasa in Kenya. It was a welter of hard-to-remember names and endless, pointless violence and reprisals. "How can anybody get through this," I wondered, "much less keep everything straight?" I looked out the window at the grassland streaming by, and adult giraffes browsing on trees.

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