[This blog written for VENTURE GALLERIES, where I will be posting a couple of times a month as part of their AUTHORS COLLECTION–DRS]
So, I decided to write a novel. This might not sound like that big of a deal for a writer, but it turned out to be a major moment in my life. Really.
You see, not only had I not ever written fiction before—I rarely read it.
Why, then, did I decide to write a novel? It was because I had this idea for a story buzzing around in my head for a few years. But also, I had noticed something while writing my first book, The Shooting Salvationist, a true narrative nonfiction story from the 1920s.
I really enjoyed writing the parts of that book where I had to use my imagination to fill in a few blanks to carry the story forward. I never invented dialogue. Everything in quotes in that work comes directly from a newspaper, archived record, published work, etc. In other words, the book is a true story—David McCullough’s kind of narrative history. But as with the works of McCullough and other narrative nonfiction writers such as Erik Larson or Howard Blum (not to mention the late Truman Capote, who pretty much started the genre), a certain measure of creative color is permissible, within narrow and confining limits.
One day in late 2011, I started to write what became Camelot’s Cousin. I wrote about 5,000 words and then put it aside. A few months later, I revisited it and began to move it forward (eventually it reached 105,000 words). And along the way, I discovered some things.
First, I was amazed at the level of research required. I confess to being a research geek—I simply love it. Few things are more fun to me than digging through archival collections, finding obscure old news items on the Internet, or capturing a factoid from a book. The aforementioned Erik Larson calls this process, “hunting detail.”
But, as a recovering “nonfiction only” addict, I admit to a bias—okay, call it a prejudice. I always thought fiction writers just made stuff up off the top of their heads via a sort of stream of consciousness process. “Real” writers are those who deal in facts and truth, with a passion for accuracy and detail and attribution—or so I thought. But frankly, I found the research elements for Camelot’s Cousin every bit as involved as the process for any nonfiction project I have started or completed.
Of course, my novel is set against the backdrop of actual history, and many of the characters are real, so some historical research was necessary. I actually have a bibliography in the back of the book. But the most demanding research was for the creative/fictional side of things—the things I made up.
For example, several chapters in the book involve the main character spending time in Oxford, England. After I finished the first draft of that section, I ran the pages by a friend in New York—and old editor (he actually discovered Steven King—I mention him in the acknowledgements). He called me one day and asked, “David, have you actually ever been to Oxford?” I told him that I had been to London, but never Oxford (dumb answer).
“Thought so,” he replied. “Okay, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to rewrite that entire section. But first, I want to acquire every episode of the old BBC series, Inspector Morse, about a fictional detective investigating murders in Oxford. Don’t write another word until you’ve watched every episode.”
Sounded like a fun assignment. It was certainly better than “wax on, wax off.” I not only watched all the Inspector Morse episodes, but I decided to watch the entire sequel series, Inspector Lewis, for extra credit –Ah grasshopper (pardon the mixed television metaphor).
My wife was annoyed that I wasn’t spending much time at my desk or computer. Instead, I was in a comfortable chair, watching people with funny accents solve mysteries. “It’s research, Honey—I promise. I’m working here. Really.” That was fun.
When I finally rewrote the Oxford section, I had a database of imagery and dialogue to tap. And I must confess—it was more fun than hanging out in the collections section of a university library, having to wear gloves and never being allowed to write in ink or speak above a whisper—just saying.
Oh—one more thing I discovered via writing my first novel is that I have a new view of fiction. I not only respect it more—I actually read more of it. A lot more.
This old dog learned some new tricks.