Collision of Worlds for the Historical Novelist
There is little doubt a writer's life is one of uniquely conflicting inhabitances. And no, I am not simply replucking the string that reverberates trite tales of emotional conflict, alcohol, and shall we say the 'hermititous' of writers. I am talking about the juxtaposed existences within the narrative being created within the manuscript, and the one outside the words (oft referred to as 'reality', but I'll refrain from applying brutish labels). The cavernous division between those two worlds is particularly acute for the historical novelist...or so goes my experience.
When writing contemporary-set fiction, for the toothsome words to begin to flow I must open my laptop, bring up the manuscript, scan a page or two prior to where I left off, alight my cursor...and begin. But for my historical novels a significant journey must occur first. I must first alight a precarious elevator shaft of time, pull shut the heavy cage door and dial in the year of my destination. What follows can be a nauseating ride to be sure, made worse by the ugsome insecurities I share with all writers, as well as my unique stresses and insomnia-born delusions. But the journey to that far shoal is required. I must comport my mind into a state of coexistence among my characters. I cannot begin to write until I smell their air, feel the silence of their world, touch the raw fabric of their garments, feel their weapons' weights, hear the sound of their illnesses mixed with their laughter.
A requisite tool in the story’s world is a solid road map…and here I mean that literally and figuratively, simultaneously. I must know where the characters and actions are within the geography of their time. This requires me to have those maps at hand, ready for referral while I observe and move within that distant land. Indeed I have found that if I do not adequately pack punnets for the trip, with references and maps, water and sandwiches, then I risk finding myself writing into a proverbial dead-end, finding the characters staring at me as if I am an unwanted malingerer in their space. To correct my bearings I must return to the elevator shaft, take the uncomfortable trip back to my current life, retrieve the necessary references, and then traverse back again to their world.
The jarring cycle between the worlds creates two major opportunities to collapse my writing for the day. The first is my exposure (in what appears to be the 'here and now') to anything that grabs my attention and forces me to lose focus. This could come in the form of anything as innocuous as making a new cup of coffee, to something as dangerous as deciding that, while here I will read that text I had heard come in while I was away. Allow the distraction to exist for more than a moment and the loose bonds suspended between the worlds will snap, and my characters will be gone.
The other risk I have found from having to take a break from my historical novel’s environment is that upon return, things may have changed. This phenomenon may seem a bit of misology, or even artistic indulgence, but I will wager fellow historical novelists would confirm its existence. Sometimes, and without warning, when I come back to that location, to that moment in time, the characters have moved on without me. What I was certain they had said prior, now no longer makes sense. Where I once observed them heading, now is bricked up or never existed at all. This can be confusing for both them and for me. At its least impact, it requires all the more time for me to settle in and begin writing down my observations there. At its greatest impact, I may return to find that whole conversations, characters, even events that I had once recorded now prove to have never existed.
All novelists cohabitate their daily world and that of their story. But if you are an historical novelist, pack carefully for each day’s journey, and be ready for those twain worlds to pull at you in ways you may never have expected.
David Marlett is an attorney, artist, and self-trained historian who grew up in a storytelling Texas family. He attended Texas Tech University where he earned multiple degrees in finance, economics and accounting. Subsequently, he earned his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law.
David has created and written stories and screenplays since childhood, and is particularly interested in richly textured history and the drama behind major courtroom battles, such as in his first novel, FORTUNATE SON. His second novel, AMERICAN RED, another historical courtroom drama, is due to be published in late 2014.
He is a serial entrepreneur focused primarily on the arts. (He once owned eight bookstores across the United States.) David currently speaks and lectures at conferences and universities on transmedia, storytelling, entrepreneurship in the arts, and crowdfunding. He has been a featured contributor to MovieMaker magazine, Digital Book World, and many other publications.
He has developed and sold a number of film scripts and has directed/ acted in many regional theatrical performances. David is also a photo artist whose work has appeared in several galleries across the United States, and can be also seen at www.MarlettPhotoArt.com. He lives outside Dallas, Texas, and has four children.