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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

building the highway

A return to colder weather. Heavy rain falls and has been falling, changing from time to time into a slush of half-melted snow. Snow is accumulating on the upper slopes of the North Shore. Strong gusts of wind set the plants outside shivering violently: rhododendron, irises, yew. Now they are still again, and rain raps metallicly at a sheet of soffit blown on its side under our balcony.

In my strange mental and emotional state (it's kind of like depression, but isn't, since I have plenty of curiosity and interest in things, and my sense of humor is mostly intact; it's more like a sense of low energy with flattened affect), I wrote a bit further, surprising myself by making three pages. As though happening on the scene as a participant, I found myself getting caught up in the action. This is surely a good sign, but I remain glumly aware there is tough writing ahead in this chapter (to say nothing of the great heap of unstarted chapters before me).

A thought I had while writing: Some of the most enjoyable reading experiences result from some of the most unenjoyable writing experiences. I have found this in the past with my own work. The writing that involves solving the largest number of most difficult problems is usually the material that reads best. Usually problem-solving in writing leads to the quality I call richness: verisimilitude in suggesting the fullness of life. And I believe that all interest is specifically the result of tension: we are drawn to tension, intrigued by it. This is known as conflict in drama, but tension exists at every level, I believe. By definition, it is the pull between opposing forces. Just as when watching a sporting event, where opponents struggle to win, we are drawn to all such tense oppositions, whether of idea, dialogue, or description.

An example, for me, is in writing scenes with multiple characters. I find this to be a chore. How do they interact? Which ones get prominence? How to keep them in the reader's mind at the correct level of importance? What different attitudes and goals are they carrying, and how do they try to realize them? Difficult. I dread writing multi-character scenes, and yet I've saddled myself with quite a few of them. So I pay attention to how other writers handle this problem (it's not often handled all that well). The creative task of merely creating a number of distinctive characters, who make impressions different enough to remain distinct in the reader's mind, is hard enough. (One writer who has recently impressed me favorably in this department is Gregory David Roberts with his Shantaram, which writhes with a great many characters, but in which he succeeded, mostly, in distinguishing them. When I read certain early scenes in the Bombay cafe, in which he introduces several characters at once, I admired his ability to distinguish them and make them unique.)

Part of the enjoyment of reading such material, for me, is no doubt the same as the enjoyment of walking or driving over a section of road that has been built with great difficulty through difficult terrain, such as through mountain passes or sheer rock faces or steep valleys. There is a certain deep satisfaction in driving smoothly along a nice, flat road through rugged wilderness. I'm aware that many people had to toil long and hard in this forbidding place to create such an easy, pleasant experience for me. In that same spirit, I toil in the forbidding place of my own imagination to create an experience that I hope is pleasant for others--if not altogether easy.

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