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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

the seeds of today

I'm in one of my work slowdowns. I suppose I'm like one lost in the woods: the advice is to stop and figure out where you are and where you're going, rather than striking out in some direction, hoping it's the right one.

Action does feel better than inaction: it seems like you're achieving something, rather than just sitting there thinking (or worrying). And yet, in order to arrive anywhere, you need to know where you're going. It's better to get that sorted out and proceed calmly.

I continue to learn about the ancient world. The research books I'm currently reading are Isis in the Ancient World by R. E. Witt, and The Cults of the Roman Empire by Robert Turcan. Kimmie and I have also taken to watching the HBO series Rome, which is set right in my period. Very impressive. (A fun challenge: try to count all the producer credits at the head of each episode. I haven't counted, but I'm going to guess it's about 14.) Each book (or show) takes me on a tour through another piece of the ancient world, and enlarges my "experience" of it. I feel that my task is to get beyond the facts to the feel of that world--the underlying feelings and motives of its people.

I've read that good writing makes the strange seem familiar, and the familiar seem strange (I thought this was Samuel Johnson, but I can't find the source). Well, writing historical fiction presents special problems of strangeness and familiarity. The strangeness is obvious, so the challenge, I think, is to find the familiarity. Other forms of--what shall I call it?--"displaced fiction", such as fantasy and science fiction, present their own challenges with regard to strangeness and familiarity.

In the case of fantasy, it's a purely invented world, which maybe poses special problems in making it seem familiar enough. (My guess is that fantasy characterizations might therefore tend to be somewhat restricted--when the world is too strange, the characters need to be somewhat standard-issue.) With science fiction, it's a matter (often) of extrapolation from the current world: perceiving the seeds of a possible future in our present, and growing these into a jungle of consequences.

Historical fiction presents a different case again. The idea is essentially to present a world that factually was, and thus give the story the authority of factuality. It's "factual", but nonetheless makes imaginative demands of the reader, just as fantasy and science fiction do. Like science fiction, it is linked causally to the present, but instead of growing the seeds of present facts into big consequences, it shows the present as the jungle of consequences which has grown from the seeds of the past. In some sense it answers the question, "how did we get here?"

It's a tall order. Can I answer it even for my own life? How did I get here?

Of course, it might not matter. If you're lost in the woods, then how you got there is less important than how you'll get out. And yet I think it's important to know the history of a situation--including one's own. Knowing the history tells you what causal factors have been at work, and may still be at work. As with the science of ballistics, to know where you've come from is to know where you're going. Or at least, where you will be going unless you make deliberate changes.

So I float over the foggy landscape of the deep past, searching for the seeds of today. I like to think that I'm not actually lost in the woods, I've simply stopped to gather seeds.


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