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    The Telling Detail - or, how not to overpack

    One of the trickiest issues to manage when writing historical fiction is the urge to "overpack." You have all this research, all these amazing details and factoids and lovely little tidbits of information about what life was like back then (whenever "then" is), and you want to share them all. At once. En masse. 

    Let's put aside for a moment the question of motivation. After all, does it matter whether you're trying to put in all those details because you think it's necessary to create the proper atmosphere, or because you feel a need to prove that you know your stuff? (In my case, it's often out of a fear that sometime, after the book is published, I'm going to get a call or e-mail from a graduate student somewhere in, say, Bulgaria, or Germany, or Dubai, or deepest darkest Berkeley, to protest that so-and-so had already died three years before I had him appear in my book, or that stirrups were made of wood, not metal, at that period, or whatever.) The more important question is this: does that level of detail really belong there?

    Remember: we're writing historical fiction. Not a doctoral dissertation. The critical requirement is that you create an effective story that immerses the reader in your fictional world, and keeps her hooked on your unfolding narrative. It has to feel real. And when you're trying to make something feel real, sometimes less is more.

    Many craft books on writing talk about the "iceberg principle" - the idea that behind your narrative's surface, there should be a vast amount of life and thought and emotion and "story" that is hinted at, but never directly shown. You need to give the reader a chance to put her own imagination to work, filling in the texture and smell and context around the latticework of (limited) specificity that you explicitly describe. Invite the reader in. Don't bludgeon her with information.

    The thing to look for, as you do your research and plan your work, is not how to amass a complete, seamless, irreproachable description of a given historical place, event, or person. You're not trying to get it exactly right on the surface. You're trying to make it feel right - and often the way to do that is to tell less, but make sure the details you do provide are so evocative, so attuned to the spirit of the whole, that they will suggest a whole world around them.

    You're looking for the "telling detail." 

    It can be a smell - that precise odor of animal fat and grease and soot of an unperfumed tallow candle, for example, or the mildewy mustiness overlaid with creaky finger-stained leather of a vellum codex. It can be a sound - the arhythmic slap-kerslap of a sandal with one sole flapping half-loose. Or a personal quirk that, historically accurate or not, suggests an entire personality that will bring a figure to life, like Marie Antoinette's predilection for pretending she was a simple shepherdess, keeping a little herd in the midst of the elaborately manicured gardens of the palace, maintained by battalions of servants. Whatever it is, the detail is the tip of the iceberg that suggests the enormous mass lying beneath. Whether or not you truly have researched and thought through everything that supports that "telling detail," your reader needs to believe that you've got it all in your head. 

    Think of it as though you are filming a movie on a bare-bones budget. You can't fly your cast to, say, Numidia and spend months shooting on location. You need a backdrop that will make the audience believe, utterly believe, that that's actually where they are. How are you going to pull it off? Pretend you're filming Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Co. never got anywhere near Morocco, yet somehow we never doubt - during the time-suspended period that we're watching the film - that we are there, in German-occupied North Africa, in 1941. How did Michael Curtiz manage to take a recycled set on a Warners backlot and conjure an entire world out of it?

    As you're working on your historical writing, look for "telling details" that you can interject to conjure your world, and then look for the natural places to put them, as though you're planting Pandora's boxes in the underbrush for your reader to trip open at key points. This, I think, is one of the ways you'll keep the magic alive.


    Daily inspiration for writing

    Today's words of wisdom to guide my work come from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird:

    You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, roaming all over the place. Trust them. Don't look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.

    I'm crazy about Bird by Bird. (Some would say I'm just crazy, full stop. But that's neither here nor there.) The most compassionate, funny, wise, soulful, and generous book on the craft of writing ever written - or at least, that I've ever read or heard about. I wish Anne Lamott could be my friend. I wish I could have her over for coffee. Every morning. At 4:30am, when I'm starting my work day.

    Of course, that would be rather sadistic, so I'll settle for reading her book.


    Fresh from the trenches of the early 8th century, we have this update

    Yes, the novel is still plugging along. A few updated statistics on my progress:

    • Current version of the manuscript: 48,000 words (about 130 paperback-formatted pages)
    • Total written thus far, including partial scenes and rough-rough-rough drafts: 135,000 words (about 490 pages)
    • Bibliography: more than 100 primary and secondary sources researched (no this does not count Wikipedia)
    • Dents in desk from banging of forehead: too many to count

    The work has benefited enormously from both of the advisors under whom I've studied thus far in Pacific University's Master of Fine Arts program, Mary Helen Stefaniak and Frank X. Gaspar. I can't say enough about how incredible these two people are, as mentors, writers, and unbelievably generous, patient human beings. When you add in the other talented writers who have touched this manuscript in various ways, large and small - Mike Magnuson, Elizabeth Kostova, James Hynes, Pete Fromm, and Bonnie Jo Campbell among them - I've been extraordinarily blessed. I can only hope I don't embarrass any of them in the end, though I strongly suspect Mags will moan over every split infinitive and dangling participle no matter what I do.

    Over the past two weeks I've been working primarily on structure and pacing. My method: roll out an 8-foot length of plotter paper, jot down each plot point for each major character (point-of-view and otherwise) on a color-coded sticky note, and lay them out in time sequence. This has helped me sort out who was where when between the beginning of the story (October 714) and the end (late 718). It also works well as a visual tool to identify clusters of action and conflict, weaknesses in the pacing, and the major milestones in each character's story arc. 

    The only issue: even rolled up, this beast is kind of hard to carry around to the various coffee shops that serve as roving offices when the kids are besieging the house. That, and I've discovered that 3-year-olds love re-organizing Post-Its, when left unsupervised for more than 45 seconds. 

    Note that I've added a new page, listing the most useful reference sources I've located thus far. It's a fairly extensive list - so much so that I suddenly figured out where all my time has gone over the past two or three years - but I make no claims about its completeness. It is, after all, as idiosyncratic as my book (or, indeed, as I am myself). Still, someone out there might find it useful. 

    Note also that I've finally, officially become a Twit. (My sister will claim that this is not news.) You can sign up for my Twitter feeds by looking up @KDavidSmithAuth, or by subscribing via the widget on the sidebar. I'll do my best to tweet updates and interesting tidbits about Byzantium, early Islam, writing, and/or General Life Stuff as I stumble upon them. Joy!

    And that, folks, is all the news that's fit to print. For now.


    Rumors of the book's death have been greatly exaggerated...

    The ruins of Anazarbos, a former Roman city that served as the launching pad for Muslim raids into Asia Minor by the early 8th century (courtesy of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut)I'll spare you the lengthy explanations of all the delays that have interfered with the timely completion of my project on the Second Siege of Constantinople and the clash between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Umayyad Caliphate. That kind of hemming and hawwing might work for George R. R. Martin, but somehow I doubt it'll help much.

    On the other hand, I don't have fans by the millions making death threats if I don't hurry up and complete it. So there are pros and cons, I suppose.

    The novel does continue, let's leave it at that. I draft a bit, research a bit, hack off extraneous subplots (which tend to sprout like suckers around the trunk of a pear tree), and draft a bit more. Along the way I learn every day about the deep and complex cultures I've chosen to inhabit during the writing of this sprawling work. It's hard to say whether I find the Romaioi (Eastern Romans, Byzantines) or the early Islamic peoples more fascinating. Half the battle is trying to remain true to the different worldviews of those two distant cultures - each distinct from the other in profound ways, and both utterly unlike our own.

    One day, I'm an amateur archaeologist, sifting through summaries of projects spanning much of southeastern Europe and northwestern Asia. The next, I'm trying to get a grasp of numismatics, or medieval economics, or comparative linguistics. I've found myself delving into the history of food and agriculture, metallurgy, shipbuilding and navigation, cartography and the methods and materials used by early medieval scribes. Comparative religion... always top of mind, for better or worse. I constantly have to remind myself that the research is merely the means, not the end. The book still has to get written.

    And here I said I wasn't going to make excuses...

    I'll be starting to work on a Master's in Fine Arts degree in Writing at Pacific University in June. A major element of my work there will be to make significant progress on this novel, with the help of some of the best mentors in the business. Stay tuned. Both of you.


    A weekend in Bear River

    Just emerged into the Real World after a five-day immersion in the Bear River Writer's Conference, in Northern Michigan near the property where Hemingway spent his teenage years. It was, as it was last year, a phenomenal experience. Inspiring, encouraging, supportive, educational... I worked for three days with a group of extraordinarily talented writers, going over new work and offering each other thoughts on how it could be strengthened, as well as where it really sang. But the best part, for someone like me who spends so much of my writing year in isolation, plugging along with little or no contact with other writers, was simply to be surrounded by people who know exactly what I'm talking about when I say I'm struggling with a structural problem, or find my dialogue clunky - and can offer useful suggestions about how to move ahead. 

    My prized memory that I will take away from the workshop is a comment that I got from one of the other participants, who, after reading the beginning chapter of Amaline (which is full of orphan children and refers to a considerable amount of suffering), said:  "I really loved it - so much that I overcame my biology and kept on reading."

    This, folks, is someone I want to hire to blurb my book when it's finished. I'm still shooting for something more along the lines of "I came, I wept, I peed my pants," but I'll take it. I'll definitely take it.