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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

the pleasure of notes

It was back to work for Kimmie, and so also the end of my vacation of researching the question of identity: back to the project. I opened my notes document for chapter 20, read through the last couple of entries, and resumed keying.

Even if I do sometimes (often; usually) lie awake at night fretting about my project and my life, when I get into my notes I always remember that there is no rushing it. As I muse about the world of my story, I learn. Characters emerge from the fog of grayness, sameness, to become individuals with unique life histories. If you want to write something that's any good, you must go through this.

Part of my reluctance to work on notes, or even writing the draft, is that I don't like to face how slow the process is. I feel that someone is going to catch me--going to find out how slowly the ideas come to me, how few of them there are among all the rejects and dross. As though the value of the finished product--the collection of "keeper" ideas--would be diminished if people knew how difficult it was to find them and gather them together.

This must be faced: the seeming wheel-spinning of much of the notes process. It feels like wasting time, pursuing an idea, seeing where it goes, or elaborating it, only to find that it's not what I want and rejecting it. Today I was working on the character Doris--the young commoner whom Herod becomes attracted to early(ish) on. She is what I'm calling a New Jew: someone who has been baptized by Hillel into a community of Jews committed to observing their faith in a simple and wholehearted way. I've already decided that she's done this; today's question was why.

That question took me far and wide. I had to open research books to remind myself of recent history. What motives would help my story? What motives might complicate her potential relationship with Herod? I found things I thought I could use--even things that I liked. This is the reward of the preparation phase. You have the pleasure of finding an idea that's interesting, unexpected, relevant, and that should make your story richer and more engaging.

But won't people realize how difficult it was to find that idea? Better not even to open the notes document. Better to ignore the whole thing. Say: this identity topic sure is interesting...

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