Sorry to neglect y’all. I hadn’t much heart to write for a bit, and then was overtaken by the usual fierce rush of events. Haven’t forgotten you, though. [g] I had in fact just been about to answer Midge’s questions about how I write, so figured I might as well resume with that:
It’s almost impossible (I know from experience) for me to describe coherently what’s going on my mind when I write–but fwiw, both sides of my brain seem to work at once.
No, I don’t plan out the structure–of a sex scene, or any other kind of scene, let alone the book. [wry g]
I start with a “kernel”–a line of dialogue, a sense of emotional ambiance, an object whose details I can “see”–anything that I can sense concretely. Then I write a line or two describing that, as best I can.
Then I sit and stare at it for awhile.
I put words in and I take them out. I divide the sentence in half and insert a new clause. Decide I don’t like that one entirely, but don’t want to throw it away, so drop it down a line or two and try something else. Move the gerund phrase from the beginning of the sentence to the middle. Etc., etc.—just trying to cast this “kernel” (whatever it is) for maximum clarity and elegance, just in terms of the craft.
OK. While this sort of mechanical work is going on, the back of my mind is busy throwing up a shower of little questions, like a dog digging in sand: Whose viewpoint is this? Where are we? What time of year is it? Are we inside or outside? How is the light falling? Is a storm coming? Am I hot? What am I wearing? Why is my foot tapping? Did someone just say something? What’s that in my hand? I see a face…
And the scene begins to take shape—slowly. Sometimes I have a specific purpose in mind for a scene—I know that William, say, is doing intelligence work, so we need to see him doing a bit of it. So I may think that’s what’s going to happen here…but not necessarily.
Having that rather vague notion in mind, I began looking for a kernel with which to start the writing (the kernel is where I start writing; this doesn’t mean it’s the beginning of the scene; sometimes the writing goes backward as well as forward from the kernel). I know where Willie starts—North Carolina—and I sort of know where he’s supposed to end up–with General Howe (if he gets there. Will he? I have no idea), but I don’t yet know where Howe was at this specific point in time—because I have no idea what the date is when this happens.
Meanwhile, however, I’ve wandered over to my giant built-in bookshelf (where I keep the five or six hundred books of my central reference collection plus the two or three dozen most important references (so far) for this book) to stare blankly at the collection of Interesting Objects scattered along the shelves (lots of crystals, mineral spheres, psychically active (supposedly) stones, a miniature cannon, a tiny crystal castle, a hand-blown medicine bottle with a glass snake wrapped around it, an antique bronze mortar (full of pens), a reproduction 18th-century inkstand with quills, a (real) powder-flask from a set of 18th-century dueling pistols, six pocket-knives, a beanbag octopus, the dried jaws of a small shark…and I happen to spot one of the books, titled THE FABULOUS HISTORY OF THE DISMAL SWAMP COMPANY.
Well, I read this book some time ago, and frankly, it’s not all that good—not well organized, and the writing is tedious—but just the name “The Great Dismal Swamp”…well, there’s a thing to conjure with.
And I have my kernel—almost. OK. Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp. I have no idea why, mind you, but we can figure that out as we go. What I need now, though, is a concrete image that I can write down in a sentence or two.
Rather than read the tedious book again (at least not yet), I go and google “Great Dismal Swamp natural history”—and pop up an entertaining article with a lot of detail regarding the flora and fauna of the swamp (and a bit of historical detail concerning Lake Drummond, which is dramatic, so I tuck that away in a spare cerebral recess for future reference)…from which I choose the image of swarms of “tiny yellow horseflies, whose eyes reflect rainbows when you get close to them.”
Now, I do recollect from the tedious book—and check it to be sure—that during one or more of the attempts to drain the swamp, a road was built. Excellent. And so…
“ William marveled at the road. True, there were only a few miles of it, but the miracle of being able to ride straight into the Great Dismal, through a place where he vividly recalled having had to swim his horse on a previous visit, all the while dodging snapping-turtles and venomous snakes–the convenience of it was astonishing. The horse seemed of similar mind, picking up its feet in a light-hearted way, outpacing the clouds of tiny yellow horseflies that tried to swarm them, the insects’ eyes glinting like tiny rainbows when they drew close. “
Now, mind, this is what the paragraph looks like now. It took me probably fifteen or twenty minutes of fiddling before it got this way—and I may yet mess with it more later, but for now, it’s the best I can do.
What happens next? Well, it’s 4:15 AM, so right now, I’m going to bed. [g] Tomorrow, though, we’ll find out (maybe) why Willie’s riding into the Great Dismal Swamp, and how I discovered that.