Listing Your Endless Curiosities & Writing Historical Fiction

Isn’t that one huge key to being a writer?  That curiosity which leads you down a lane to explore and discover what’s around the next turn and the next one and the next…

Returning from visiting my family in San Francisco recently, I listened with rapt attention to an interview with Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach and several other award-winning novels (The Goon Squad, The KeepLook at Me to name a few).  Two things that were notable to me were 1) she doesn’t have a pre-planned idea of the direction that her book is going to go and 2) she follows her own curiosities in developing the story.  Egan enjoys being surprised as the story develops.  Her desire to find out what happens next helps her to maintain her interest in what she is writing.

Manhattan Beach is considered historical fiction.  Although the characters are contrived, the references to place and time–the setting are based in fact.  Along her writing way, these were some of the things that Egan grew curious about, explored and incorporated into her novel:  New York City in the 40’s during World War II–specifically the Brooklyn shipping docks, diving, organized crime during the prohibition era,  caring for a disabled child.  These well-researched curiosities lent her book the substance and the respect that it has achieved.

“In historical fiction, setting is the most important literary element. Because the author is writing about a particular time in history, the information about the time period must be accurate, authentic…” from Wikipedia

In writing historical fiction, the development of your characters and the unfolding story are superimposed on a ready-made scape of time and place where and when real life events occurred.  In a sense, as the writer, you have part of the story mapped out for you.  Weaving the historical with the imagined characters, their particular circumstances and where the story goes can be an interesting adventure for the writer and later on, for their audience.

WRITING PROMPT:
Consider your own curiosities over the course of your life.  Write them down.  As others occur to you, add them to your list.  Do you have a favorite historical time period? More than one.  List those also.  Have you researched this historical period(s)? Consider how your curiosities can provide you with inspiration and entries into what to write about.

“My esthetic or my method is basically guided by
curiosity and desire…”
Jennifer Egan

Prayer3

She is curious about her universe.

Image Detail

In the film, The Bridges of Madison County, Francesca (Meryl Streep) tells Robert (Clint Eastwood), “Robert, please. You don’t understand, no one does. When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children; in one way her life begins but in another way it stops. You build a life of details…”  The thing about movies is that you see the details when watching a film.  They don’t have to be described.  However, if you’ve ever written a screenplay, you laboriously spell out every single thing from the sounds of a creaky door to “slouching in a front row torn upholstered seat in a moldy smelling theater.” Nothing is assumed…each tiny detail is duly noted.

Telling details actually means DON’T TELL ME, SHOW ME WITH YOUR WORDS!

In his book, Let the Crazy Child Write, author Clive Matson discusses in detail several ways to bring image detail into your writing. It is the details that capture our attention and imagination.  To bring the experience to a reader through our writing, we recapture the details.  It is the details that place the reader where your story occurs and it is the descriptive details that shows the reader who your characters are (along with their dialogue and actions).
Clive Matson gives a few examples of image detail: “The worn green fabric on the end of a diving board, a piece of chewed gum in the boss’s ashtray, the pearly scar on a lover’s neck.”  Recalling a detail, the entire memory returns. How many of you have had that experience with a smell, say cinnamon, which suddenly transports you back to a childhood memory–french toast with cinnamon and butter, a special treat for a Sunday morning breakfast.  Or, remember that song from the past you overheard at the supermarket the other day that returned you to a time and place in your life when you were making out with your first “love”.  When you are writing your story, include that detail; perhaps words from the song as they drift in and out of your experience.

I am going to refer you to Chapter One in Clive Matson’s book, on “Image Detail”.  He explains image detail in a precise, descriptive, engaging and educational way.

WRITING PROMPT:  What is a flashback song for you?  One that when you hear it transports you to another time and place?  Claim the song and a memory that it evokes and write about the whole experience in vivid detail. Paint the picture with words. Who were you then, who were you with, what article of clothing was a favorite?  Were you at the beach in southern California, in a windstorm on the high desert, in the back seat of a car–what kind of car?  Was there a smell that prevailed or a noise that intruded? Imagine your reader and take him/her there using sensory (of the senses) words and make the experience come alive.

Ah, time travel!