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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, September 29, 2006

an old-time lovebird

I feel somehow like an invalid recuperating from a long illness. I need to relearn the habit and method of making blog posts. I'll do one more for this week, and will return to it on Monday--I can start taking weekends off. We'll see how that goes.

Today I got off to a slow start, and returned again to my researches into imagery and symbols. I made some headway, I think.

I became involved with looking into partridges. According to Robert Graves in The Greek Myths, the partridge, sacred to Aphrodite, was linked to the smith-god Hephaestus, who was her husband. Hephaestus, like his Roman counterpart Vulcan, was lame (the result of being thrown off Mount Olympus for the second time--not the first!), but of surpassing skill in his craft. (He even made a number of metal women to work in his shop--the forerunners of Austin Powers's fembots.) This lameness is one of the links to the partridge, which, according to Graves, practices a hobbled love-dance, keeping one heel raised to strike at rivals.

According to J. E. Cirlot in his Dictionary of Symbols, the partridge was remarked on by many ancient and medieval authors, who all pointed to the fact that its young do not follow their parents when they hatch. Thus the partridge became for Christian writers an image of the rich man whose wealth does not follow him beyond the grave.

I suspect though that this is a later overlay on an older symbolism. Searching online, I found material on the gray partridge (in French, darn it--I had to read with a French-English dictionary). When mating they are very affectionate and amorous, male and female rubbing their necks, bills, and faces together. This will be one reason that they were held sacred to Aphrodite. Another will be the fact that in season, both sexes flush to a vivid rust-brown color on their faces and necks--a sign of their erotic excitement and readiness.

But I became interested in the image of the abandoned young (and I'm not sure that's true). What is the significance, the symbolism, of that?

A couple of thoughts: one is that the partridges are lovers rather than parents. This strengthens their association with eroticism. But another is that the young partridge must find its own way in life, without parental guidance. So the young partridge is on its own, equipped only with its instincts, and whatever it can learn. It has been not orphaned but abandoned--a significant difference, for it speaks to the relationship with the parents. Who among us might not identify in some ways with such a creature?

Incidentally, the Christmas carol "A Partridge in a Pear Tree", which I didn't find any reference to (except a quick parenthesis that partridges would never be found in trees), seems quite clear--at least, as far as the partridge goes. Sacred to Aphrodite, it's a true lovebird, and there being only one, the implication is that it stands for the singer, and he (or she) has just got a big hint from his or her true love...

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

you have to love it

An early post today, as I'm to head off to Mom's place for lunch--a near-weekly tradition now.

I returned to my desk at around 6:30 this morning, coffee mug in hand, and nudged myself back to my project after touring through some news stories online (I'm experimenting with Google News, getting fed up with distracting animated ads on CNN.com, as well as increasingly frivolous content).

Somehow I have become wrapped up in symbolism--delving into the symbolic aspects of my story, researching the meaning of different possible images. In a way I disapprove of myself as I do this, since it seems like intellectual footling and not really related to storytelling. And yet symbolism is at the heart of all storytelling, since, as Robert McKee declares, the cardinal rule of good storytelling is that nothing is as it appears.

Nothing is as it appears. This operates on many levels. On the level of imagery, it means that a boat is not a boat, a knife is not a knife. That is, a boat is not merely a boat; a knife is not merely a knife. Every story is like a dream, where meanings are expressed through images and through events. So the storyteller is confronted continuously with the questions, which images? which events?

The task is difficult, fussy, and uncertain. There are moments of illumination and inspiration--but much more questing and tinkering. I feel like a plumber down in the sub-basement of my story, digging and wrestling with rusted pipes in a cramped, dark space that is not intended for human occupancy. Just getting a rusted nut off can be a minor triumph. Minor, as well as private and useless in itself.

But I think of the last time a plumber was in my house, about five years ago, installing a new hot-water heater. Small, wiry, and enthusiastic, he liked nothing better than talking about his work. While he torched solder onto the new joins he talked about the many call-outs and late-night jobs he'd had. He was entirely cheerful about it.

"It's not enough to like this work," he said. "You have to love it."

I felt joy for him, as well as admiration. He loves plumbing. And if I'm honest with myself, I love poring through A Dictionary of Symbols and The White Goddess and the Dictionary of Word Origins, making discoveries and connecting meanings--finding a hidden network of order beneath the chaos of my incomplete work.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

back at it

I'm back. At least, I'm trying to be back.

I see my last post was on 8 July, two and a half months ago. Things have been going on in my life, mainly inwardly, not all of which are bloggable--at least, not yet.

One of the reasons I left off writing in this blog was that I was undergoing a crisis of continuation with this project, and had diverted my attention to another project, an idea for a completely different story. Indeed, I mentioned that in my last post. I did spend some time working on it, and ordering a number of books to start my research, but at some point I discovered what I always discover when I start getting excited about a diversionary project: that the amount of work ahead on the new project is even greater than the amount of work ahead on the old. The excitement of a new idea does not, in itself, provide the energy to get it done any faster. It's still a pile of work, no matter how you slice it, and at some point one gets bogged down in difficult, even painful and annoying, tasks in order to get it done. Might as well go back to the old project, which one has already pushed through so many mudholes and pulled across so many stony creeks.

But apart from the "sunk costs" aspect of The Mission, I found a new inspiration arriving. I've used the image before of wind arriving at a becalmed sailboat; well, it's felt like that again. A couple of weeks ago I opened up some working documents, a couple to do with characters and another I had set up to record notes for ways to make the next draft better, and I liked what I found. I saw further into my main characters, and worked at finding their key issues and key desires--things necessary for good storytelling, and which have eluded me all these years so far. A few things went click and I felt a strong urge to get going again.

I wrote 19 pages quite fast for me, in about a week, then had to pause while I got back to more research. What I had hoped would be just a few things to research has turned into something much deeper, as it so often does--days upon days of sifting through books, typing, and copying material from websites into Word documents, as I dig, dig, dig to learn enough to be able to prosecute my own story.

I've been working up past my usual lunchtime of noon, unwilling to give up the chase. Today, with warm sun beaming through the smoky-blue haze of the Indian-summer sky outside, I finally left off at about 12:40. I put a bookmark in my thick yellow copy of Graves's The White Goddess, ready to pick it up again tomorrow.

As with many things these last few weeks, looking at this book again takes me back powerfully to the summer of 1985, when I first read it. I remember buying it in the subterranean grotto of the old Duthie Books at Robson and Hornby. I felt excited and ready, having just got through Graves's version of The Greek Myths. I would sit out on the sun-beaten plywood balcony of the apartment that was still Kim's, drinking tea in the hot sun and reading, reading.

What a lot's happened since then. Some things have come full circle. One of them is my amazement and appreciation as I look into Graves's masterpiece.

So: back at it.

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