Saturday, September 16, 2017

Switching Gears

It's been two years since I posted on this blog, and it's been a very busy two years. Although I am still painting (updates on that soon), I've also launched a new creative endeavor: writing fiction.

When I was six years old and was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I declared that I wanted to make pictures and stories. Somewhere I still have a copy of my first effort at an illustrated book about a blue jay, started when I was six. Now, nearly forty years later, I'm making another effort at a book.

I've made several false starts at fiction over the years, mostly during my teens and twenties. I've been successfully writing nonfiction for decades, and I feel very comfortable with it. Two years ago, I decided to try fiction again, this time using my nonfiction experience to help me make the creative leap. In some ways, I felt like my writing style was as constrained as my painting style: very literal, unable to depict the world of imagination or fantasy or emotion. Rather than bemoan this as a weakness, I chose to use it as a strength.

I excel at doing historical research and, thanks to my grandmother, I have an interest in genealogy. So in order to find a topic to write about, I perused the family tree and found a pair of brothers whose exploits during the Revolutionary War would make for a good story. But when the historian in me asked about their background, I discovered an even more compelling, and ultimately tragic, story about German immigrants in Maryland during the mid 1700s. I decided to write two stories: the first about the family's first two decades in Maryland; and the second about the two brothers during the Revolutionary War.

After more than a year of exhaustive research, including a wonderful research trip to western Pennsylvania and Maryland, I finally set about building a narrative around historical facts. Developing a loose outline was easy--it's the sort of thing I do very every writing project. I have an enormous "timeline" spreadsheet to guide me and to help me make sure I don't get the history mixed up.

Character development was a new exercise for me. Developing the protagonist was simple, as he appears frequently in historical records, allowing me to draw conclusions about his ambitions and values. His wife, however, was a mystery. She appears only once in the many records I found, signing off on her deceased husband's probate inventory. Similarly, other family members appear only once in the historical record, if at all (a newspaper article in the 1750s referenced eight children, but genealogists have identified no more than five possibilities). Fortunately, thanks to the gaming community, I found tremendously useful character charts online which helped me turn centuries-old names into fully realized fictional characters.

Two weeks ago, I was finally ready to start writing the first chapter. I had no idea what to expect, but what I've experienced is marvelous.

The biggest challenge is finding the time to write. I work more than full time, often getting home around 7:30. Even when I get home early, around 5, my brain is worn out. I had hoped to be able to write after work, but so far that hasn't happened. I'm not a morning person, so getting up early to write will never happen. That just leaves weekends, which lacks the frequency I had hoped for, but it does give me time to puzzle out what to do when I'm not sure which direction the story should go. This happened during my first week of writing. I knew what I wanted the next scene to be, but I couldn't visualize it, and I couldn't write it. Later, while trying to fall asleep one night, I tried thinking about at it from a different angle and realized it was the wrong scene, and the right scene suddenly came to me.

The most amazing thing is discovering how my brain works when writing fiction. When I write nonfiction, it's somewhat clinical. I piece together facts, attempt to draw safe conclusions as needed, and focus on sentence structure. Writing fiction is completely different. The information whirls around inside my head until it suddenly comes together and presents itself to me like a movie. I close my eyes and I can see the scene playing out in fast forward, slowing down if I need to hear specific dialogue, then speeding back up like an old VHS. When I'm ready to start typing, I feel like all I'm doing is describing the movie playing out inside my head. It's a really remarkable experience.

Equally remarkable is the way that the characters assert themselves within the framework I established for them, and the way that new characters suddenly emerge as a scene plays out. I can see why authors often speak of their fictional characters as being real to them. It's like the characters are creating themselves.

I've managed to write 4400 words in two weeks. If I can keep up that pace, I'll have the first draft of the first book finished in one year or less. I can live with that. The first chapter is now done, the second chapter is started. While I would, of course, be thrilled if the book turned out to be a best seller, I'm really writing it for myself, to prove to myself that I can do it, and to enjoy the creative process. At the end, I'll be able to say, here's a thing I did.

1 comment:

Cissi Taylor said...