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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

the long stages of completion

My effort at this long and difficult project has fallen naturally into stages. I refer not to stages of completion, but stages of kinds of effort, or stages of emotional attitude--something like that.

There was a years-long gestation period before I regarded this book as begun. During that time I was searching for the story I wanted to write. I didn't know where or when the story would be located, or who its characters would be. But I was excited by certain ideas, certain trains of thought, and I knew that I wanted to write about those things.

I regard the actual beginning or birth of the project as having happened in 2002 while I was temporarily a monk at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton. If I look through my papers I may be able to come up with the exact date. It was probably about April. I discovered what I felt was the beginning of my story: the historical scene of the cremation of the decapitated corpse of Pompey the Great on a deserted beach in Egypt.

How excited I was. I would spend Saturday mornings--our open day at the Abbey--in the library, writing notes for my story. In fact, I couldn't resist starting to write the story itself, even though I knew that it was vastly premature to do so. I just had to do it--I was that excited by it.

When I returned home from the Abbey that August, ahead of schedule due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, I spent my days sitting in my foot-cast in the living-room, writing in my notes-binder and poring through research-books. Having begun with a handwritten process at the Abbey, where I had no computer, I continued in the same vein, and did not think about starting to type my notes on the PC. In part it this was also due to the fact that going up and down stairs was a bit inconvenient.

I wrote hundreds of pages of longhand notes before I started typing notes directly onto the computer. Those sunny days in the living-room were mainly wonderful, my mind restlessly pushing forward, solving problem after problem: historical contradictions, story problems.

The fiery passion of the beginning gradually died back to something more like glowing charcoals. With my outline still not really complete I decided to start writing my story, I think in 2004, because I was afraid of delaying any further. Working with history--actual historical events, not merely the backdrop of a period--forces constraints on the story and presents and severe story problems. My aim is to hug as closely to historical accuracy as possible, to take zero liberties. The resulting story is the trail of the struggle between fact and imagination.

I'm still going. I've settled into my pace for the long haul. As with running, my pace is a plodding one. I look out the kitchen window at the path on the boulevard and see young runners running smartly along it at a clip that, to me, looks like a sprint. I sigh and think, "That's not me."

I'm still waiting for the stage to arrive when I've locked on my story--when I know exactly what it is, and what it means. I'm still not there, and this I find frustrating at such a late date. My background reading is not slowing up; it might even be increasing. I have a load of new books set to arrive as my researches continue to carry me in still more directions.

It's like a boundary commission. I'm walking through wilderness with the aim of outlining a new territory. Someone's got to cover every meter of the border of the territory, no matter how large it is and no matter what kind of wild uncharted country it passes through. The space must be marked out.

I'm still engaged with that. My country is still coming to birth.

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  • This post rang bells with me. It reminds me of the energy and effort, the mountains of notes, and the sense of still not knowing the story that is "A Lamentation of Swans" that I'm caught in. Just getting the story together, exploring the boundaries of all that unknown territory and mapping its paths is as much an adventure as actually writing the novel. d:)

    By Anonymous Debra Young, at August 17, 2008 11:27 AM  

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