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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


The fall rains are here: water falling out of a wet but still faintly glowing sky, pasting big rusty maple-leaves to sidewalks and streets.

It's been a solitary day. The phone has rung twice: each time it was the dead sound of a telemarketer's automatic dialing system waiting to connect, and I hung up before the salespeople clicked on.

Down here in my dim office, in the pale splash of light given off by my tiny metal desklamp, I typed in little bursts in my Notes document for chapter 25. I'm feeling stuck, and this creates a sense of futility and anxiety, since it seems no more productive than standing by a high wall, waiting for a way over to present itself.

Looking for ways to break the logjam (new metaphor--sorry), I went to the dictionary to look up words. I typed the definitions into a Word document I have for Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition: credit and grace. Rome was in turmoil just before Caesar's return from the civil war in the East. The big issue was the cancellation of debts--a law pushed forward by the aggressive and heavily indebted patrician-turned-plebeian Dolabella. People weren't sure whether Caesar would ever return, or whether he would be killed first, and so the issue of who was running the show was up in the air. Nominally it was Mark Antony, the so-called Master of the Horse appointed by Caesar to run the city in his absence, but Antony was preoccupied with carousing and transferring the property of Pompeians into the hands of himself and his cronies. Meanwhile, armed gangs roamed the streets, fighting each other and terrorizing other citizens.

The situation echoed with some reading I did in the morning on the conditions in Baghdad, which are (or were in spring this year) much grimmer than what we generally hear about on the news, which for me generally appears only as headlines of daily body-counts from bomb blasts and such. I think back to when I was growing up in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War. Every evening the news would come on TV, and Walter Cronkite would somberly report the day's (or maybe the week's) death-toll. Even by age 9 I could see that the death-tolls followed a strange pattern. U.S. casualties were always in the single digits; South Vietnamese in the tens; and Vietcong in the hundreds, sometimes over a thousand. How was it they always died in those same proportions? I wondered.

I didn't know then that the proportions were due to the very first casualty: truth.

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