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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Recently I started reading volume 2 of William James's The Principles of Psychology. The second chapter in this volume, chapter 18, is entitled "Imagination". I was struck, even astonished, by what I read in there.

Psychologists of the 19th century made wide-ranging, if relatively informal, surveys of people's ability to imagine visually--to visualize objects and scenes not present--and were astonished to discover a huge variety in people who outwardly showed no great difference in their ability to function normally in life. In particular, I was amazed to read the following, quoted from an 1880 work by the psychologist Galton:

Scientific men, as a class, have feeble powers of visual representation. The highest minds are probably those in which it is not lost, but subordinated, and ready for use on suitable occasions. However, men who declare themselves entirely deficient in the power of seeing mental pictures can nevertheless give lifelike descriptions of what they have seen, and can express themselves as if they were gifted with a vivid visual imagination.

Many of the scientists that Galton surveyed reported that they could not come up with any mental image at all even for very familiar objects, like their own dining-tables at breakfast-time! By contrast, Galton found:

The power of visualizing is higher in the female sex than in the male, and is somewhat, but not much, higher in public-school boys than in men. After maturity is reached, the further advance of age does not seem to dim the faculty, but rather the reverse; but advancing years are sometimes accompanied by a growing habit of hard abstract thinking, and in these cases the faculty becomes impaired. Language and book-learning certainly tend to dull it.

Galton also found that women in general were much more interested in introspection than men, and much better able to do it. Some men seemed barely to have considered the idea that it was possible to examine the inner content and tone of their own minds!

Of course, artists, novelists, and such were (usually) the exception, and had better powers of imagination than most other people.

All this got me wondering: where do I fit in in the world of imagination? I did some of the exercises, such as imagining things not present, and was relieved to find that I could indeed bring mental pictures to mind, although not nearly as vividly as some of Galton's subjects could. I fretted further, since I am a scientific type by nature (Miss Warden, my grade 1 teacher, wrote on one of my report cards that she was concerned that "Paul seems to lack imagination; he prefers facts to stories about imaginary things"), plus I have done a very large amount of book-learning in my life--notorious killer of the imaginative faculty. Could I visualize my own breakfast-table?

Whew, yes, I could. (I eat my morning granola at the coffee-table in the living-room, incidentally, a habit I somehow got into while wearing a cast for my ruptured Achilles tendon in 2002.) As I sit here now, and close my eyes, I can see the coffee-table before me, with its stack of books and the copy of The Economist that I tossed on it this morning on my way downstairs, and the soft burgundy leather furniture surrounding it, and the spruce-green walls...

The images are not very vivid, but they are there. When I was a child I had quite strong imaginative powers, and liked to spend time in my imagination. I used to deliberately "trip" into my imagination often, visualizing myself in stories. When I was a teenager I sometimes used to read novels in a deliberately imaginative way. When I came to any descriptive passage--and some writers were much better for this than others; one of my favorites was Mary Stewart--I would pause, close my eyes, and mentally build the sensuous environment evoked by the writer. I tried mentally to put myself into the scene, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling it. I found that this greatly heightened the enjoyment of reading. I didn't like reading just "to find out what happens"--I felt that was a waste, and I still do. For that reason I didn't like stories that were too suspenseful, and I still don't.

No doubt some would be astonished that someone like me, co-creator and -writer of a successful fantasy TV series, might have any doubts about his imaginative abilities--but there it is.

I should get back to some of that imaginative reading. I don't want to lose this faculty altogether, like the grumpy scientists who responded to Galton that they didn't know what he was talking about. And indeed it has always been my aim as a fiction-writer to create material that others can read in this imaginative way. In fact, that is one of my chief aims altogether.

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