My Own Experience With Writing Historical Fiction Has Taught Me That Research Is a Doorway, But It's Imagination That Brings the Past to Life!
I love working with students who are writing historical fiction. I've written three historical novels myself, including Petersburg, which sold for $250,000 and reached the Best Sellers list in England.
The first thing I tell my students is this: To write historical fiction, follow your characters, trust them, become them, see their worlds through their eyes!
While research is fascinating and invaluable when writing historical fiction, it can become addictive to the point of controlling your story. And this happens all too easily with the internet right at our fingertips!
A common mistake many of my students have made prior to our working together is jumping into far too much research before their characters have some flesh and blood to them.
While the details of a specific time period are crucial, it's the writer's ability to immerse their readers in the historical time and place as it affects the characters' lives that is the most important element of writing historical fiction.
History is the backdrop. Remembering this is a sure-fire way to keep the balance between research and your story!
“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you're 65, or 75,
and you never got your memoir or novel written,
or you didn't go swimming
in those warm pools and oceans all those years
Because your thighs were jiggly
and you had a nice big comfortable tummy;
or you were just so strung out on perfectionism
and people-pleasing that you forgot
to have a big juicy creative life,
of imagination and radical silliness
and staring off into space like when you were a kid?
It's going to break your heart.
Don't let this happen.”
― Anne Lamott
You've heard it said, "Write what you know." How limiting! There's a cosmic world accessed through your imagination!
Write what you know? This is not only boring but contradictory to the basic core of creativity, which by definition brings into being that which has not been before. If you write from what you know, if you remain slavish to the facts of what happened you are writing out of your conscious mind and will remain stuck in the straitjacket of your conscious perception of “reality.”
That said, there is nothing wrong with using your life or any aspect of your experiences as a jumping off point or as a doorway into the unconscious. The key is not to be slavish to the known. Rather we need to have out writer’s antenna out for the doorway into the unknown and the unseen.
Gertrude Stein put it this way: “You cannot go into the womb to form the child... What will be best in it (your writing) is what your really do not know now. If you knew it all it would not be creation but dictation."
And my favorite from Lily Tomlin: "What's reality? Nothing but a collective hunch!"
Create a new reality! That's what fiction writers do! :)
The Spark of Inspiration
The initial spark of inspiration is creativity’s calling card. It can be an idea for a story, poem, novel, sculpture, dance, or concerto, a new garden, business or invention, a Halloween costume, a party or a gift; it can be a vision of you in a new relationship to others and to Self. Inspiration is non-verbal; it is the life-enhancing “Wow!” moment when the vision of what can be – of who you can be – carries you into uncharted territory and the land of possibility.
Coming Soon: The Womb of Creativity
The land of possibility is the womb of creativity; it is here that you swim on the sea of the unconscious; your spark of inspiration is thrust about by the surging waves of the chaos.
This land is not unknown to you. In fact, you visit it every night in your dreams. What sometimes makes it a nightmare is that your mind cannot make sense of this non-verbal world. Which is why mind – with its language, thought and need to analyze – should not be allowed entry into the early stages of the creative process.
The mind is also home to the Inner Critic, who will surely bully his/her way in and put your spark of creativity under the microscope of judgment! The image that made glorious sense a minute ago feels muddy, vague and stupid – just another one of your dumb ideas. Out it goes!
Next: Gestation in the Creative Process
What does writing mean in your life, beyond finishing a story or book, beyond publication?
This much I know is true: If writers wrote only or primarily to be published, very, very few of us would be writing indeed.
Then why do you write?
I ask this because Why You Write is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself.
Answering the question truthfully — from your heart and gut, not your head — isn’t as easy as it seems. And it changes as you change and grow as a writer until the truth of why you write is brilliantly evident and makes you smile every time you sit down to write.
In the meantime, there all sorts of "shoulds" and "should nots" that your mind ie, Inner Critic, bring up when you write, think about sitting down to write, reread your writing and at other unforeseen moments.
Strange as this may sound, there are no "shoulds" or "should nots" to being a writer. There is only writing, loving the process and loving that you have been gifted with the ability and imagination to write.
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