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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, February 02, 2006

the historical novelist's burden

Luckily, I like solving problems. For writing a work of this size and nature is a continuous path of problem-solving on many levels: story, theme, character, but also history--I must come up with my own solutions to historical problems, gaps, and controversies. Scholars are divided on all kinds of issues, but I can't be; I have to choose. While I enjoy this, it also feels like a heavy responsibility. I want to get it right--that is, to offer the solutions that to me make the most sense--and to do that I have to examine the evidence.

Writing fiction about historical characters is tightly constrained work; but, again luckily, constraint is exactly the spur to creativity. If I know that a character in history did x and y and z, then these things must be accounted for in my story; they must be consistent with the character I'm creating and with the other, fictional events I build around him.

If I were writing a work from scratch I would never create so many characters or saddle myself with so many seemingly disconnected events and details. I take on this challenge because I feel I must in order to address the material I want to address. After all the years I spent searching for the story that I really wanted to tell, the material that really expresses what is important to me, I must take on the creative and research overhead required to get that story written.

The result will be a kind of panorama of that time and place: the best that I can provide. I want the reader to feel that he or she is a time traveler, fallen from the sky into the world of my story, and kind of trapped there until it plays itself out. The reader is there with the textures, sights, smells, sounds of the world; with pungent characters, not different from the people around us now in any important respect, merely in the details of dress and the technology they use and some of their beliefs about the world. They, like us, are people with problems to solve, equipped much as we are to solve them. They are our ancestors, both physically and ideologically.

A time so remote that it seems shrouded in the mist of myth becomes something living and immediate. The things that seemed all-important to them we can see were mere trifles in the flow of history. And certain things that seemed to insignificant for them to notice have become the life's blood of our own age.

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