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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, June 08, 2007

the task: concentration

After the relief of finishing chapter 28, back to square 1 with chapter 29. By "square 1" I mean the gathering-together of materials and thoughts, working toward creating the critical mass that will trigger the writing of the actual chapter.

In a simple-minded, clerical way I go through some of the reference works for which I've created Word documents, and copy and paste sections into my Notes document for the current chapter. As I have thoughts or ideas based on what I read, I type these in the free section at the bottom of the document, where I begin each day by typing the current date before pushing ahead with my notes. Then I go through the previous day's notes and highlight any "keeper" ideas.

At the beginning of this process I feel a certain helplessness, baffled at the task of finding stuff for my characters to do. There is anxiety involved: no guarantees that I'll find anything, or that it will be interesting. What will it be like for the eventual reader, who gets to flow through the story uninterruptedly, rather than the author's laborious trek through a wilderness, where I can barely remember what happened three chapters ago, written sometime in my ever-receding past?

In a certain sense, all work is concentration. By that I mean not mental concentration, but the more physical act of sorting things and bringing together the most valuable--concentrating them. Just like Kimmie preparing her lunch this morning up in the kitchen: while I poured our second cup of coffee, she stood at the counter, patiently cutting the less-desirable parts of lettuce leaves away, and dropping the still-fresh parts into the plastic box that would hold her eventual salad. She took some aging lettuce leaves and, by applying work, created a nice salad for herself.

Where is this thought-train taking me. I think about placer mining: panning for gold. That is the classic effort of physical concentration. The gold is out there, but its value cannot be realized unless it is concentrated into once place. So the miner patiently washes sand, finding the glinting flecks mixed in with the endless silica.

Also: the more valuable a commodity, the rarer it is, meaning the more dross or sand you have to go through to find the nuggets. It's possible that the great effort I'm going through of sifting through all this research material is a sign that the "nuggets" I seek have extra-special value.

Lately Kimmie and I have been watching the 1984 British miniseries The Jewel in the Crown, based on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. Excellent. The adaptation was done by Ken Taylor, and he did a fantastic job with a more than usually difficult task, because Scott's tetralogy, inspired, I'm sure, by Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, is written in a nonlinear way that makes it hard to perceive the exact sequence of events. Taylor had to find that sequence, and then dramatize it. On the plus side, the underlying story and characters were wonderfully drawn in the original work, making the task very worthwhile.

As I watch the show, the scenes, the speech and actions of the characters, flow with a naturalness and logic that I don't naturally question as a viewer; I simply enjoy them. But as a writer I ask myself how and why the choices were made, first by Paul Scott, and then by Ken Taylor, to realize the drama before me. Why this scene? Why these characters? Scott will have wrestled with these questions, and the very quality of the final product tells me that it was hard going. Now I get to enjoy the company of these finely drawn characters, taking them for granted as I take for granted real people as naturally complex individuals, because that's what people are. But the "people" created by an artist are not naturally complex--they have to be made that way through art, by someone who knows what he's doing. And even if he knows what he's doing, it's hard.

As I think of it, the Raj Quartet is a modern epic: it features multiple heroes or protagonists embroiled in a large political problem: the struggle of India to shrug off the yoke of British rule.

Hmm. Maybe it's time to poke my nose into the Raj Quartet again. Time to read some more fiction?

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