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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, October 13, 2006

authority again

The sun continues to shine. It's like summer, but the sun is lower, and the shadows darker. Trees are turning yellow and orange.

I had a chance to do a bit more work on chapter 25 (notes thereon) this morning, around my copywriting tasks. I'm still investigating the symbolism of my material, making connections. I don't want to say too much about it, since symbolism is not effective if it is perceived consciously as such. At least, this is certainly true in filmmaking. In fiction there is more leeway, since the reader controls the pace of his or her interaction with the material. Some readers enjoy thinking about the material on more than one level.

I'm thinking now about how I like to read a work of fiction. What do I do? How exactly do I do it?

I like to be in an alert, receptive frame of mind, unhurried and relaxed. If I'm just starting a book, I look for signs of the writer's authority: can I trust this person with my attention? I notice awkward or redundant turns of phrase, and these count heavily against the work; I start switching off. If the writer appears to know what he or she is talking about, though, I will bear with it as long as I can.

I've said it before but it bears repeating: authority is the writer's only asset. If you don't know what you're talking about, why should anyone read you?

For some reason I wanted to pull down my paperback copy of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. Here is how it opens:

One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.

To me, this exudes authority. The narrator to me suggests that he knows this world and its people, and this knowledge comes through in subtleties of expression, what he chooses to emphasize and chooses not to mention. Weydon-Priors sounds like such a specific place, even if fictional: it grounds the story. And Hardy even, in those two sentences, manages to evoke a sense of curiosity, even mystery, making me wonder why this young couple has been on such a long journey on foot with a baby.

Authority comes only from knowledge. The writer's job is to communicate, but first of all it is to know.

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