It’s time for another status update on my work-in-progress.
As I’ve mentioned before, the first draft of my new novel, LOST NOTES, has taken me into many unknown places, both in terms of subject matter and setting. I’ve never written historical fiction before. I’ve never done major research. I’ve never written a third-person novel. My other two novels were set in fictional versions of real Oregon towns. This one jumps from a tiny village in France to a transatlantic voyage to the slums of 19th century New York.
Moreover, Henri is my first male protagonist. And at the moment, he’s sleeping in the basement of an upscale brothel. (Well, it used to be upscale. Then the neighborhood went downhill.)
Despite reading books on the subject, I have no idea what a brothel looks like. Smells like. Or how the girls relate to each other. Or what they wear. Or what they call each other. I’m asking myself questions and making up the answers. If they don’t ring true, I try again. Sometimes the writing feels more like puttering and slogging than progress. But the pages are mounting. Even better, the story’s continuing to gain momentum.
Since I started this draft in October 2010, I’ve learned a few important things about writing what you don’t know.
- It’s fun to create a world as long as you give yourself enough leeway to invent and imagine. After all, none of my potential readers were alive in the 19th century. So I’m using my research as a trampoline. Not as a cage.
- If you’re stuck, look at your last few chapters and see whether those choices have lured you off-track. Are the characters acting true to nature? Do their decisions move the story forward?
- Keep your world-building details consistent. I suppose this is especially true of sci-fi and fantasy stories. If you imagine a community, whether it’s set in the future or the past, it needs to feel as real as any other setting.
- Write into the void. Fill blank pages. You can clean up any inaccuracies in later drafts, so don’t let a lack of information about a particular topic (say, the lighting devices favored in 1855 Europe) stop you from getting to the end of the chapter.
- Put your reader first. I love this quote from Clare Clark, author of THE GREAT STINK and other historical novels, and I think it applies to any novel that involves a lot of world-building: “A novel is not the place to advertise your historical scholarship but to find a place in the imagination that is as informed by fact as it possibly can be. ” A satisfying reading journey is the goal, not showing off how much you know. (The whole interview is here if you want to read more.)
Despite my publishing industry malaise a few weeks ago, I steeled myself and waded into the beginning of my novel. It was amazing to see what I’ve been doing since last October. I have characters, and scenes, and conflicts. I know where the story’s going. I’m in control of the bus, so to speak. As I reread my first seven chapters, I took the parsnip writing challenge and made some of the conflicts bigger and more intense. I have more work to do, but I’m pleased with what I have so far.
It’s still a little unsettling to be writing so far from “home,” but my whole novel is like that. I invented my protagonist’s French town out of Google map images, old postcards and writing, writing, writing, and now it feels real and vibrant. So I’ll get there with these brothel scenes, as long as I give myself permission to keep writing. And revising.
How do you approach writing about what you don’t know? What obstacle(s) are you working to overcome in your work-in-progress?