In Which I Run Into A Wall And Rethink Some Things

Since I started my experiment I’ve managed to get about 50 pages written (remember these are 50 hand-written pages), but I also ran into some trouble. One of my workshop leaders at Vermont College of Fine Arts, A. M. Jenkins, said that a novel is like a picture frame, but you as the author have to know everything that’s going on outside of the frame. Well, after 50 pages I discovered I have no idea what’s going on inside or outside of the frame.

One difficulty is that I have no idea what timeperiod I’m in. Parts of it seem to be in the 16th century, other parts are in the 18th century, and there may even be some earlier time periods stuck in there somewhere. I’m realizing I have a very tenuous grasp of history. I also decided to include some characters of various ethnicities around the Mediterranean, which just made me realize how little I know about the Mediterranean and its various cultures and history in general.

I’ve been reading an enormous tome of Mediterranean history, which is nothing if not daunting, and trying to decide how much research is necessary, whether I should start with research or start with writing and research later, etc. etc. Thankfully, I had a very helpful conversation with fellow Secret Gardener, L. Marie, in which she reminded me that I’m writing fantasy and can make things up.

So this brought about an interesting internal debate. Am I writing historical fantasy? Am I writing about an alternate universe Mediterranean? Or am I writing a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy? After some angsting, I’m leaning towards a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy. I think I will still have to read about the history and culture for inspiration, but I’m going to make things up because that’s what I’m best at.

I wonder if some of my fear and anxiety about this is an unconscious belief that making things up isn’t as legitimate. History seems so much more, well, serious and intellectual. Not like making things up for fun! Of course, I also don’t want to fall into the trap of perpetuating cultural stereotypes and hurting people. I still haven’t decided whether choosing the route of a Mediterranean-inspired fantasy isn’t at its heart an act of cowardice on my part. But it does feel safer.

What about you, readers? Do you write historical fantasy, alternate universes, or culturally-inspired fantasy? Do you do research and how much? And do you start with research or wait till after you’ve written the first draft or write and research in tandem?

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16 thoughts on “In Which I Run Into A Wall And Rethink Some Things

  1. Oh, I know about this research trap. I think Linda is wise for having you sidestep it, right now. It can wait. I’m writing fantasy that happens in a real town, I’ve spent more than a few days trapped in the history of this town, and while some of it was helpful, it was also a delay to getting to the meat of the story. I say plow ahead any way you wish on this first draft, worry about veracity come second! It will likely inform your second and third drafts with a whole new energy then.

    1. I was wondering if the town in your story was real! That’s so cool! I’m reading one book on the Mediterranean right now, but I’m trying not to go crazy about it. I find the imagery in it helps me come up with cool details. I totally agree about waiting until later drafts, though, to worry about research.

  2. Oh, Shawna, Shawna. This resonates with me: “I wonder if some of my fear and anxiety about this is an unconscious belief that making things up isn’t as legitimate.” As soon as I find the post that includes Neil Gaiman’s commencement address, I’ll send it to you. In it, he talks about his desire to tell made-up stories. I have that same desire.

    This is not to say that I’m against research. I love to research! I have to know what’s plausible and what isn’t (i.e., how many miles a horse can travel in a day; types of materials for roofs; mixtures of trees in forests). Otherwise I lose credibility. However, the fun part of writing is using my imagination–to give shape to a world currently residing in my head. But my world is not of this world, though it has some elements in common with ours (hence the need to research).

    But I fell into the quicksand of research at one point. All I did was research. I was afraid to put anything on the page. Thankfully, I had advisors like A. M. Jenkins to get me moving.

    1. That’s so funny, I was just rewatching Neil Gamain’s commencement address the other day and thinking about how much I love that address. I also loved what he said about believing you’re the kind of person who can do something. I’m trying to believe I’m the kind of person who can write and finish a novel right now.

      And I agree, it’s really easy for me to think i don’t know enough, but then I could easily spend years reading and researching and still feel like I don’t know enough!

      1. Good. I’m glad you saw that. I love the fact that Neil said he didn’t know what he was doing. He just made up things.

        Of course, you walk a fine line if you’re writing a fantasy based on an existing culture. You have to know the mythology of that culture and other pertinent information. So that’s where your research will prove valuable.

      2. Yes! I often feel like I have no idea what I’m doing so I’m glad I’m not the only one 🙂 That’s very true. I’m definitely going to have to be careful with some of the ethnicities in this story.

  3. I think there’s two traps here:

    1) Endless research! I don’t know enough! What’s the airspeed velocity of an unladened swallow??? I can’t write anything because I might get it wrong! More research! Repeat until the end of time.

    2) I can make up whatever I want! Who needs order and plausibility? Screw the laws of physics, this is my world and swallows can carry around concrete blocks, but I don’t know anything about concrete so I’m just going to call it “solidcrete” and a swallow can lift it but my main character can’t because that would be inconvenient for the plot!

    I don’t think #1 is exclusive to historic fiction or unknown places at all. I have these incredibly time-consuming diagrams of plane crashes, how they went down, who survived and who didn’t and where they were sitting, and complete FAA reports. I did not, however, do much writing during that time. And then I eventually put the plane crash novel aside and started something else. Talk about time well-spent!

    On the other hand, I think #2 is a huge fear of a good writer. Because I don’t read a whole lot of fantasy, but from what I’ve read, there are some really well-developed worlds with impeccable inner structure and rules used consistently throughout the book, and then there are some where it’s obvious that the writer just made shit up to suit the plot or because they were being lazy. I think good writers live in constant fear of coming across as the latter. And I think that’s where the devaluing of invented worlds come in–from half-assed world-building. The minute the writer says “well hopefully the reader won’t notice,” the reader notices.

    But I think good writers do pull off well-developed worlds. You have the tools to do it. I honestly don’t think you’re in danger of #2. I’m thinking of Holly Black’s lecture on magic systems–she gave so much great advice in that one that applies to all kinds of world-building. I don’t think writing fantasy is lazy or a cop-out unless you make it that way. But then again, that’s true of all fiction.

    1. Shawna,

      Martine’s words to me when I faltered and was unsure: “You are the God of your story, and you can do anything you want.” 🙂

      1. Oooh, I love that, Sharon! I should use that as a mantra while I write…

    2. Shelby, you are absolutely right! And I’m going to take it as proof that I’m a good writer that I’m terrified of both extremes 😉 I know someone who spent years researching a novel she never finished and I so don’t want that to happen to me. I think, though, that I often forget I can get away with all sorts of things as long as I make it credible. I also wonder if this is a question of first draft vs revision. Like can you write a first draft without limiting your imagination at all and then go back during revisions and say, “Okay, does any of this actually make sense?” And thanks for the reminder about Holly Black’s lecture. I keep meaning to look up my notes/handout for that. P.S. Now I know who to go to if I’m in need of plane crash details 😉

      1. For real, I’m your go-to gal on plane crashes. I think you could also make good use of the place holder. Like “Dick and Jane walked [insert number] miles to get to the pub” and in revision, you can correct and fill in the details. That helps to not derail your momentum.

      2. That’s a really good idea, Shelby! I get so caught up in trying to make my drafts look perfect that I forget I can skip chunks or even write notes to myself.

  4. I vote for momentum on the first draft. I agree that research will inform your 2nd draft. Have you considered taking a class on Med. History in the pertinent centuries? Even an online course might be more enjoyable than a heavy, dry tome. You might even take a local history professor out for coffee and ask exactly the questions you have noted. I am in the process of doing this with a police officer for the final scenes of my MG novel.

    Have fun!

    1. Thanks, Sara-Lynne! I hadn’t actually thought of that, but that’s a really good idea. I’ll have to look into what kinds of history classes they have at the university here. And I really like the idea of interviewing people 🙂 That’s really cool you’re doing that.

  5. I am right there with Sharon and Martine–you are the God of your story. I love that! It’s your creation. If you are being bogged down by the limits of keeping historically-correct, then go for pure fantasy. If history inspires you and feeds your creativity, than go that direction. Let me also remind you of another VCFA faculty member who received six starred reviews–six!–and said that she created her own version of England so that she wouldn’t be creatively stunted by history. So, if you make that choice, you are in good company.

    1. Thank you, Sandra! Was it Martine’s Keturah and Lord Death that you’re talking about? I completely understand not wanting to be creatively stunted by history. That’s how I’m feeling right now. But I also have a desire to steal from history and use it to suit my own nefarious purposes 😉

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