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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, August 07, 2008

researching with a machete

Bit of a late start today, since we both drifted off after the alarm rang at 5:30. A hot night, and as usual now, trouble with staying asleep through it.

Even my basement office feels warm. But a soft cool breath of air comes through the window, along with the far-off sounds of impatiently accelerating motors.

I toil on at the chapter I'm currently numbering 32. No actual prose yet, but the notes documents are ballooning to dozens of pages. I'm not even exactly sure what I'm looking for, but I'll know when I find it. I'm working my way through images, objects, symbols. I'm still looking for my core images; at this late date I still have not found them, and that means I still don't know exactly what my story is about.

When you know exactly what you're writing about, your writing loses its arbitrary quality and takes on purpose. I know the feeling of arbitrariness well; many times I've had the feeling, while writing, that I'm just pulling any old thing out of the air to stick in my scene or my description. This is inevitable when you don't have a clear sense of the meaning of your story--and probably is a universal feature of first drafts. One of the greatest pleasures of doing a second draft is the feeling of confidence in removing material that you now know does not belong. This you can do because you now know what your story is about. The feeling of not really knowing--the feeling I have now, and have had for the past several years--is one of unease and anxiety, at least for me. You can only just keep going along, doing your best.

That said, I find the actual search for key images and ideas fun. Yesterday I was digging into Mount Etna in Sicily and Mount Parnassus in Greece--both said to be the place where the ark of Deucalion (the Greek Noah) came to rest after the Flood. Mount Parnassus is the peak that looms over Delphi with its oracle; it is sacred to Apollo and the Muses, among other things. Because the Muses were said to live there, the name Parnassus has been associated with artistic creation throughout Western history; references to it pop up in the work of artists like Nicolas Poussin and writers like Louisa May Alcott.

I prowl from my computer to my bookshelves, taking out copies of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves and A Dictionary of Symbols by J. E. Cirlot. I read Wikipedia articles, and paste parts of them into my research files. And I type my thoughts as I go, under today's dateline. I read through my earlier notes, highlighting potentially significant or usable ideas I find there.

In short: I'm still at the "machete" stage: cutting my way into the jungle of the unknown. Eventually it will be a highway and the journey will look easy.

But looks can be deceiving...


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