Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Historicity: Back to the Big Picture

Last week, I complained about the problem of details in writing—especially writing that involves researching obscure historical details.

Research is even important in make-believe worlds, because farming methods, by whatever name, must still make sense to readers, along with weapons, battles, climates, houses, cloth manufacturing, and cognitive development patterns.

Details are important, as any writer could tell you.

Of course, the big picture is just as important. I’m not talking about plot. Yes, it is challenging to create the goals and conflicts and overarching structure of a novel, but the plot itself needs to fit into the structure of its world.

I found this out after deciding to revisit a colonial-era novel I once wrote. It was my first novel, which I finished almost five years ago. Since then, it’s waited patiently for me to get through college, finish up my research, and start on the editing.

You could call it a learning experience.

I knew that the book needed a lot more research. For example, I had found some obscure details about the fact that New England Puritans believed in an orderly society, and that they founded towns as units, not necessarily as pioneers straggling out into the wilderness to find a homestead. For a Puritan family to pick up their household and head out alone (as the Ingalls did later on) would seem scandalous.

No one I’ve found explains much about how these town-units actually formed, but I wanted to include that detail. I figured that with a couple other details about how the settlers would pick a town site, clear the land, and build their houses, I’d be well on my way.

Things looked so promising that I picked a corner of the map for my (fictional) settlement and looked up information on some of the towns formed around there. I even found a couple towns settled close to the time I had picked. This, though, only happened after I wrote the rough draft and was ready to look at some revisions.

Then I started looking into some other details. I found out that the towns I wanted to use as models were actually splinter-groups breaking off from larger settlements that had been founded at least 50 years earlier. In other words, all of the main settling and civilizing had happened much earlier than when my novel was set.

I could fix those sorts of details with a bit of tweaking, but next I realized that my chosen region lay very close to the Mohican trail, and that this what about the time of the French and Indian War. In fact, one of the small settlements I had found was created as a barrier settlement with a fort, to defend more developed areas from Indian raids. And, this was after some of the major threats had tapered off.

Now I had the wrong area, or at least the wrong time, and the wrong story entirely. And, apparently, my original story either needs to change, or adapt to its frontier conditions.

Or, it might just get buried as a first-attempt novel no one needs to publish. Remember that learning experience I mentioned earlier?

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