Friday, November 20, 2015

Sleuthing among the Dusty Tomes

At heart, I will always be a historian first. Sure, I write novels—in part for fun and relaxation, in part to introduce a wider audience to this fascinating and little-known world that has preoccupied so much of my adult life. With help from my critique group and a small library of books, I have mastered the essentials of story structure, characterization, and the rest of the writing craft. I’m still learning, of course—who isn’t?—but I’ve reached the point where I can see trouble on the page, at least most of the time.

Yet I experience a special thrill when I start a new novel, because a new book means research. Research in printed archival sources; research in academic studies, some of them marvelously obscure; research in books written for children, whose authors don’t assume that the reader must know how sixteenth-century Russians constructed a fortress and don’t scruple to include full-color illustrations, each element marked. I look for photographs and films, run Internet searches in Russian, check government sites from Tatarstan to Tula and everywhere in between. And whatever I find goes into the Research folder in the Storyist folder assigned to that book. My memory, alas, isn’t what it used to be, so the contents of that folder sometimes take me by surprise. But so long as it’s written down, I’ll find it eventually.

Of course, research is not my only means of preparation. I change the desktop images on my computer and set up music playlists and photo collections for the new book, so that the sights and sounds of my imaginary world are constantly at my fingertips. I draw up goal, motivation, and conflict charts for all the major characters and jot down ideas for events that should take place. I write rough scenes, knowing they will not make it into the final book without massive revision—if they make it in at all. I write long notes to myself about what needs to go where. Having learned from Swan Princess, I probably won’t draw up a detailed outline for The Vermilion Bird. It’s a waste of time, when the outline invariably goes out the window within the first ten pages. Besides, I already know where this book needs to end up, and the history is dramatic enough to carry the rough outline of the plot. But I will work on the characters’ backstories and voices, their unique takes on each event as it occurs.

I love the whole process: the magic of watching the story unfold, the absorption in the lives of others (even if they are my own invention), the chance to bring a long-vanished world to life on the page. But most of all, I love the digging in my library, the revisiting with old acquaintances, the moments of realization that a much-needed detail lies right there, in a source previously ignored. By temperament, historians are detectives, ever pursuing nuggets of information through trails of documents that no one has examined in centuries. In this case, I am immersing myself in the politics of 1537, a year with enough going on to have left some traces in the record, but not so many that a novelist has nothing left to fill in.

So once again, as Sherlock Holmes would say, the game’s afoot. And the pathway to success lies through piles of dusty tomes. See you on the other side!

Quick note about my November 6 post

Some people read my statement that I was moving most of my books to Kindle Select as a decision to abandon print books altogether. Not so! I love print books and will produce my novels in print for as long as the technology remains available and affordable. The only change is that most of my novels are no longer listed as e-books on stores other than That seems like the best decision under current circumstances, but technology changes constantly, so even that arrangement may not always stay the same. If you’d like to know more about my publishing plans, please send a message via my website. I’d love to hear from you.

Image: Clipart no. 23660559

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