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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, December 07, 2007

creating by association

Yesterday was what I would call a good writing day. I focused and kept at it for, well, a certain length of time. I worked in my Notes document, following the heuristic approach of asking myself questions and then attempting to answer them.

One thought leads to another. The interesting thing about this is that, remarkably quickly, you move from the self-evident to the unexpected--or anyway to the not-so-obvious. One fact leads to another, in a chain of connection. And those other facts can be charged with new significance.

Harold Bloom makes the point that a large part of Shakespeare's genius was that he used soliloquies to show how a character comes to new realizations by hearing himself put something into words. While this isn't exactly what Bloom meant, I think about Hamlet's famous line, "To sleep, perchance to dream...", in which, in using the metaphor of sleep to describe death (his own contemplated suicide), he is led on to the connected idea of dream--that consciousness lives on even when the body is "dead".

Every idea, every concept has associations. I think that creativity lies exactly in following promising trains of association. The associations available to you for any given concept depend on your education. Not just your formal education, but your total experience of and learning in life. If you're not very educated, and if your mind tends toward the routine and prosaic, you won't be capable of coming up with creative ideas.

For example, take the idea of a banker. If you don't know much about bankers, don't know any of them personally, for example, and haven't learned anything about banking beyond your own consumer experiences, you won't be able to come up with many interesting associations. If you're trying to create a banker character, you will be limited to cliche notions, such as that bankers like money, enjoy power and prestige, and so on. Your banker won't be much more than the pinstriped mascot of the Monopoly board-game.

Linda Seger, in her excellent book Creating Unforgettable Characters, talks about using this process to sketch in the traits of a potential character. As an illustration, she suggests that you're creating a character for the next Indiana Jones movie--say a professor of religion. She then steps through a process of association to discover more about this character:

If this religion professor has a Ph.D., we would expect that he has done a great deal of research and can easily ferret out all types of obscure information in libraries or bookstores. It would be consistent for him to be interested in related areas, such as philosophy, church history, sociology, anthropology.

Many religion professors...have had liberal-arts backgrounds.... It wouldn't be inconsistent for a professor to love literature or music or art or architecture--or to be knowledgeable about these areas. This interest in archaeology and early church history could lead to a love of travel. Perhaps he might have done some archaeological research in Turkey, or Israel, or Egypt. It wouldn't be unusual for him to know several languages, perhaps Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

Notice how one set of characteristics implies other character qualities. A person who is sophisticated enough to know the music of Mendelssohn may also know the painting of Vermeer and Rembrandt. A person who grew up on a farm probably knows something about repairing tractors and cars, and about how to read weather patterns.

Linda Seger's professor of religion already starts to sound like a person, just by going through likely associations. (There's more to do, of course, to create an actual character.) If you were writing a story, any one of those connected traits might be a doorway to somewhere useful. If the character speaks Hebrew, maybe he's Jewish, and you have another field of associations. Or if he loves travel, maybe he flies his own plane--and voila, another set of possibilities. You move steadily in the direction of a more definite, unique individual--a character.

The connections are logical and probable, but not necessary: you choose the ones you want. The choices are guided by your intuition and the needs of your story.

It's work. It requires actual thinking: actively imagining things and working through the connections. It's rather like cooking: the creator works hard so that the consumer can have a relatively fast, pleasant experience.

Creating story events is similar. You imagine something happening, and then imagine how characters respond. If you're not sure, then you need to work more on the characters. Work, work, work.

That's what I did yesterday, and I inched forward once again.


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