The outline for my next novel is complete. I know the beginning and ending, the main plot and some of the subplots. I have my protagonist’s name, I know her features, and her voice is entirely too clear to me, more like a memory than conjecture. What I don’t have are the details. There can be no writing without the details.
To me, the truth of any story is in the casual minutiae: the trees that stretch above her, dietary staples, the influence of her surrounding geographical features, and, most important, the customs that define her culture. All of this will reveal what motivates her true self, then I simply need to introduce a conflict and her nature will decide how she reacts.
So I need to study her life. For the past two years, I’ve done some peripheral research, but now I’m devoting every spare moment to it. I’ve been to the museum, ordered books and videos, and emailed experts in the field. Without a doubt, interviewing the experts is the best part of research. Always they offer some nugget not found in a textbook. They share personal accounts that are inevitably woven into the narrative, giving it authenticity and depth. They can tell me what the setting looks, sounds, feels, tastes, smells like, and often they offer to take me along to show me themselves.
This interlude can be a strange time in a writers’ group because research takes weeks and often months to complete. Afterward, I’ll need to sift through what it is I have (e.g. hands are bound with banana leaves, not tree bark), settle into my protagonist’s life for a few weeks more, get comfortable with the details. It means that I won’t have 20 pages to offer the next time it’s my turn to be critiqued. Probably not the time after that either. They understand.
For me, the difference between a book that lives on in my heart and those forgotten among the detritus of everyday life are those stories told with the steady confidence of one who understands the most elemental composition of a character’s life. Think Memoirs of a Geisha, Cold Mountain, A Sudden Country, all of which have a home on my bookcase and in my heart.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007