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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, September 24, 2007

let excitment be your guide

"Write what you know" is a well-known and basic tip for writers. And it's a good one. After all, what else are you going to write?

For the fiction-writer, it's not a completely straightforward question. Because fiction is "made-up stuff", you can put as much of it in your work as you want. You "know" the stuff you make up, and then you write it down. There--you've written what you know!

That's a specious self-deception that I myself have bought into plenty during my life, and no doubt still do. To me, "writing what you know" always suggested writing about one's own family life and so on--subjects that never really excited me as a writer. But, driven by the commandment to write what you know, I would ever and again return to my own life and look for ways to fictionalize it. After all, was that not what James Joyce did with his magnificent Portrait of the Artist, and what Malcolm Lowry did with his brilliant Under the Volcano?

Starting at about age 18, I have spent, cumulatively, a great deal of time trying to find a way to mine my own life story for fictional material. All such efforts have so far gone bust. In about 2000, when my mother put me on to a very good book by Tristine Rainer called Your Life as Story, I became excited again by the idea of "lifewriting"--simply turning one's own life episodes into story. Once again, as in the past, I beavered away at finding the "story structure" of my own life. Now I felt I might be better able to accomplish it, since, like Tristine Rainer, I was now a scriptwriter and had studied story structure.

As with so many projects, I generated a lot of pages, but was not happy with where I got to. It gradually dawned on me that I would need a definite theme in order to provide a criterion for selection. What exact story would I be telling? But to know that, you need to have an idea of what your life is about. What is the purpose of my life?

In fact, Ms. Rainer provides strong counsel in how to search for exactly this, and I went through the exercise carefully, and was delighted with the result--for awhile. I came to feel that my life is many stories, has many themes. I thought, "Fine, pick one." I picked one--but it became obvious that it interlocks with all the others. How to disentangle them? How to simplify my life into a coherent story?

Ach--I just went and checked the folder called Lifewriting, and saw that yes, it does indeed contain many documents, some of considerable length. I never was able to solve my structural problems, and eventually gave up in despair.

Now what? You have to do what excites you. Excitement is the psychic energy that drives you forward--is perhaps the "intoxication" that Nietzsche said must precede the creation of any work of art. You need to be excited. I remember visiting the Pacific National Exhibition here in Vancouver with my friend Brad back when we were in school. At age 12, we loved James Bond-type action-adventure, and would talk enthusiastically about turning the various aspects of the busy exhibition-ground into sets for action-movie scenes. For us, a ride on the chairlift-style people-mover that traversed the site was like a movie-location survey. That creative excitement got us involved in story-writing, filmmaking, and animation. I remember staying up all night at his house making animated films with his 8mm movie camera. We were powered by excitement: how will this turn out? What will it look like?

I do seem to be naturally inclined toward the adventure genre (I note that The Odyssey, which I created and wrote with Warren Easton, was an adventure-fantasy show). The adventure genre, with its exploratory, revelatory, and questing elements, speaks to me--gets me excited. It's the genre of questing in uncharted territory, and that somehow connects with my heart.

But you need to know enough. In writing about your alien world, you need to know it, and that means research. You need to know enough about the world of your story to make your characters seem at home in it, and therefore to let your audience feel at home there as well.

Kimmie and I are currently watching the HBO series Rome. I watch with special interest because it is set in my period and place, and so I have researched that world myself--although not in as much depth, for one thing because I'm only a single person, and each department of the series--writing, art, wardrobe, props, hair, makeup--will have done its own research. But the show is striving for authenticity, and so it has authority, and the ability to involve me. (Some things I'm less happy with--such as the Forrest Gump-like appearance of its two commoner heroes at all the critical junctures of the period's history.) I'm very interested and excited by the prospect of creating authentic exotic worlds. The Odyssey was an example.

So, as much as possible, I try now to let spontaneous excitement be my guide--and follow that up with the discipline of research.

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