I Poke Slow

As a fairly new writer, it would behoove me (sorry if I reminded you of an old boss with that phrase) to pick a topic for my novel that I’m intimately familiar with. That way, I could focus more on the actual craft of storytelling; more of an 80/20 split between writing and research.

But I didn’t.

Why not?

I think it comes down to the fact that I love to know what I don’t know. Rehashing the facts already filed away in my brain is, well, boring. Discovery engages my mind and renders passion, both of which I think are a must to write well.

I’ve always been a history buff, followed by science fiction and fantasy. When I was in college and discovered there was a genre called Alternate History, it was such a shock to me. “You mean people have been combining my favorite things all along?!”

Those are the types of stories that I love to read, and therefore love to write. They require an ample amount of information to be done right.

Readers of every genre have their expectations. Whereas science fiction aficionados will throw you out an airlock for confusing quasars with wormholes, historical fiction lovers will burn you at the stake for putting stirrups on your Scythian horses. Inconsistent magic systems in your epic fantasy? Poof, your novel ends up in the trash can.

Getting things right takes time. It’s not a job for the impatient.

Of course, there’s the trap of being debilitatingly patient. I can obviously research until I’m old and gray, because there is always more to learn about and so many ways to look at any given topic.

Why does this happen to potential authors?

There’s always the worry that getting ahead of one’s self on the writing will result in large swaths of the book that will have to be thrown out because it’s discovered that some or all of the events are logically impossible. The fact that I’ve gone through that drama before has put the fear in me.

I don’t know if there’s any real way around that. I think the answer is to write while researching, and just suck it up when it happens; to realize that it’s never easy, and thank God for that. We wouldn’t be such special, little creative flowers if writing was simple.

I leave you with a quote from successful historical fiction author, Elizabeth Crook. She has seven rules for writing historical fiction and her final axiom sums up what I’ve been going through the past few months better than I can:

Rule#7: Anticipate a Long Process. 
Historical novels usually take several years to write, as they require research at every turn. You won’t always be able to anticipate what you’ll need to know for a scene, and will constantly have to be returning to your references. This is entirely different from writing contemporary fiction.

Take, for example, in my part of the world, a trip from Austin, Texas to the nearby town of San Marcos. If you are going to write a present-day scene in which your character makes this trip, you will simply need to put him into a vehicle — a pickup, or a Volvo — and head him south for forty minutes on the flat terrain of interstate 35, passing strip malls and fields and the town of Buda. He will then take the exit marked “Wonder World”, named for a local cave and visitor’s center, and arrive in San Marcos. The only research needed to write this scene will be to drive the route yourself.

But if your character takes this journey in 1906, you will have to learn a few things before starting him out, and learn more things along the way. First of all, you need to know where the road is, and what’s on either side of it, and what kind of conveyance your character is driving. If it’s a flatbed wagon, what’s pulling it — a horse, a half-lame mule, two mules? How often do mules need water? How much traffic will there be? Any cars? What kind of food or luggage do you have along? And what if a wheel breaks, and you have to fix it, and you cut yourself with a rusty tool — how do you disinfect the cut? Do you even know about disinfection? When did people figure out where tetanus came from? And — assuming that you eventually make it to San Marcos, what’s in San Marcos, anyway? As for the Wonder World exit — when was the cave called “Wonder Cave” actually discovered?

But here is where the magic comes in: you begin to think, “Wow. The discovery of Wonder Cave. Now that would make a scene . . .” And then suddenly you have a story, and a book to write. The only problem, of course, is that you will soon find out that Wonder Cave was discovered in 1898 instead of 1906, so you will have to move your story back eight years and find out what sort of vehicles they drove in 1898 and along what road, and the rest of it, or else joggle the facts and sacrifice credibility in the name of literary license. Or ditch Wonder Cave.

Writing historical fiction is like trying to get to San Marcos when you have no car, you don’t know where the road is, and you have never in your life harnessed a half-lame mule to a flatbed wagon.


0 thoughts on “I Poke Slow

  1. I think for writers it’s extremely important to soak up everything. You never know when a piece of information will come in handy or inspire you. Like you said, all that research (or lack thereof) can make or break a story with readers.

    1. “You never know when a piece of information will come in handy or inspire you.”

      So very true, Jae. Another reason why it’s always good to keep a pen handy (or in my case, Evernote on my phone).

  2. Sometimes I feel like a human sponge. 🙂 Great post, Phillip!

  3. […] I grabbed some tea with a good friend, read more of my research books, made some noise about why it’s taking forever and a day to write my novel, and admired my wife’s […]

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