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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, November 08, 2007

book as cornucopia

Yesterday I pressed forward in my morning writing session, typing more into the document I call "Draft 2 Notes". I've decided to move my note-making to this document, since my thoughts are ranging over the whole range of my story, and, for one thing, I want to be able to find these ideas later when I go looking for them. If they're all buried in the notes for one of my chapters (30 currently), I might not.

It was tougher going. I'm investigating the ancient idea of the Twelve Tribes of Israel as it may have been used by the Essenes in their community. I feel a bit frustrated, since I seem to be retracing the same ground over and over, crisscrossing over my own tracks, like Pooh and Piglet in search of the elusive woozle. But I know the feeling when I "get" something: there is a click of insight, and I know I've got it. Until I get there, I have to keep fiddling with it. Another analogy: working at a large jigsaw puzzle, and repeatedly trying pieces in one spot. Inadvertently, you try the same ones over and over again, in and among a few new ones.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy this process. My fear is that I enjoy it too much. I might rest in a place of happily footling with bits of historical information, forging connections, finding symbolic links--and never move on to actual writing. Very little of this material will wind up in the finished piece--there's just too much of it. But, as I've said before, having so much groundwork under it will lend that all-important quality of richness: the feeling that the writer has selected details from a superabundance of possibilities, rather than laid out everything he's got.

The image just popped into my mind of visiting, with my granddad Alexander in March 1982, a "supermarket" in Soviet-era Riga. Even in that relatively well-off "republic", the shelves were meagerly stocked: a few root vegetables, some canned goods. It was a depressing sight.

"When we hear there is going to be toilet paper," he said in his very good English, taken up only when he retired, "people come rushing--with broom handles, or pieces of rope, to put the toilet-paper on."

"Stringing it on like beads?" I said.


Well, I don't want my story to be any Soviet supermarket. Neither do I want it to be like my own Save-On Foods, however: a palace of packaged goods, with a few unpackaged things ranged around the periphery. No, how about the central market in Barcelona, as I remember it from 1979, when Tim and I were driving through Europe. It was the biggest and most impressive of all the many markets we visited on our travels: a maze of tables banked with fresh produce of every kind. I remember masses of fresh fish of many species laid on beds of ice, their scales scintillating under the bright lamps that hung over the stall. All the fresh, tender pork chops, sausages, green-leafed vegetables, bread. We wandered through it hungrily. What to choose?

Yes: let my book be like the Barcelona public market! Vast, fresh, wholesome, delicious.

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