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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

reelin' in the years

Awoke at 5:30 and lay in the dark, as ever feeling dissatisfied and not up to the task. Kimmie was awakened repeatedly in the night, she said, by the loud sound of raindrops dripping on a sheet of metal, and another set of drops on plastic. It's probably the strips aluminum soffit tucked under our back deck, which is no longer waterproof since it was resurfaced by a friend four years ago. Water drips through to what is below.

"I'll see what I can do about it," I said.

It has rained for 23 straight days in Vancouver, according to the radio. The song that came on as I sat up in bed was "Reelin' in the Years" from Steely Dan's original Can't Buy a Thrill album in 1972. The title means more to me now, but I always liked the song, and it took me back to a specific memory: early 1973, when I was 14, and had just finished delivering The Province newspapers one Saturday--and had collapsed on my bed just after sunrise. Sunlight streamed pinkly through the homemade red-corduroy curtain of my basement bedroom, and Elliott Randall's carefree guitar solo seemed to express perfectly the feeling of wellbeing and freedom of having finished humping an extra-heavy paper sack up and down the streets of Upper Lonsdale. This morning I dawdled as I put on my T-shirt and sweatpants and socks and glasses and wristwatch, listening.

Then: downstairs to make coffee, open up the PC, and get to work. My new strategy is to skip research notes first thing and get right to writing. The idea is to increase my productivity. It makes it harder to get out of bed, since the instinctive fear and resistance keep me stuck to the mattress longer (what I have sometimes called the Bed of Procrastes), but eventually I must get up, if only to make sure Kimmie gets a cup of coffee. It's actually a good way to start: a bit like jumping into the pool instead of creeping down the stairs, getting your skin wet one centimeter at a time. It's a shock--but you're swimming, and you feel alive.

I didn't hit my stride first thing, since I still was underpowered, knowledgewise. I found myself wanting to name which particular Judean fortress my characters would be using, which got me hunting for what and where the fortresses were at that time. I pulled the book Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans from my bottom shelf, checked the index, flipped to the pages describing the geography of Judea, recognized that I hadn't yet keyed that material into my research documents, so took a detour to see to that. It did list fortresses in Judea, but when I spun to my desk (behind me when I'm facing my computer, which sits on a decommissioned kitchen table), where Aharoni and Avi-Yonah's The Macmillan Bible Atlas rested open, I flipped a couple of pages and found a perfect map of the fortresses of that period. It was almost right in front of me! My first impulse was the best: Hyrcania, overlooking the desolate wilderness east of Jerusalem, just before the rocky hills drop 4,000 feet to the Dead Sea.

As I fussed with this and other details of my scene (how many legions were with Caesar when he left Egypt?), I bogged down and wound up producing only 2 pages (almost 3). For me, this is how it is.

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  • Yep! I can relate. Y'know, I've given up fighting with it and just follow the thought as it scampers along, grateful for the one or two pages (or two or three paragraphs) I'll have at the end of the chase. d:)

    By Blogger Debra Young, at January 10, 2006 4:21 PM  

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