Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Where, When ...and Who

Terry Shames here. This week we are answering the question: If you could set a book you haven’t written yet anywhere in the world, at any time in history, among societies other than your own, where would you choose and why? 

 So many places, so many times--and so little time! What comes to my mind first is to write an alternate history—sci fi of a certain kind. But honestly, although I’ve always thought it would be fun to write science fiction (the first book I ever wrote was sci-fi), I’m not sure I have the imagination for it. 

But there may be a historical novel in my future: Years ago I began doing research for a book set in the early eighteenth century, beginning just before the turn of the century in Paris, ending sometime around 1730 in Louisiana. I did exhaustive research into the time period, eventually going to Paris to do research. What I found was fascinating. I got to handle and read actual, huge leather-bound logs of names of people deported from France for a wide variety of reasons, and sent to Louisiana. In current parlance, I went down the rabbit hole and stayed there for months. 

Meanwhile, I wrote scenes for the book, worked on the timeline, the plot, and the settings. The trip to Paris changed everything. It made me stop working. Why? I’ll go back to the old adage that you should write what you know. Which has been amended often to, write what you are passionate enough about to find out. What I discovered is that I could research until I felt like I knew every detail of the Paris and the Louisiana of the early 18th century.
I have a wealth of knowledge in my head and extensive notes about everything the young Frenchwoman would have endured both in France and in America; the people she would have been surrounded by; the physical conditions she left; the physical conditions she found in America. I understood what the voyage would have been like, the kinds of challenges she would have faced when arriving. I understood the geography of early 18th Century Louisiana (I even got to sit down and study, in New Orleans, the first hand-drawn map ever produced of the area around New Orleans.)
But the research couldn’t fill the hole of not “knowing” what it would be like to be the young Frenchwoman who would be the protagonist of the book. I can imagine what it’s like to be a young woman, but don’t know how to be French. I lack the deep understanding of what it means to be a woman brought up in 18th Century Paris—her bone-deep beliefs, her fears, her expectations. I don’t know what her everyday thoughts would have been. I don’t know what would have shocked her that wouldn’t shock me. I don’t know what would shock me that she would have thought commonplace. 

Lately I keep coming back to the story, wondering if finally, after all these years, I think I was asking something of myself that isn’t necessary. After all, other people write historical fiction about times and heroines they know nothing about. Why shouldn’t I be able to do it? So I’m the clearing the decks and preparing to drag out all that old research. I even wrote a first chapter to see how that would feel. I’ll have to bone up on my French. I used to read French fairly well (including going to the law library at UC Berkeley and reading up on French law of the period—in French), and many of resources were in French, so if I need to refer to them, I’ll have to revive my skills. And I’ll have to really dig deep to try to imagine what this young woman would have been like. I see her in mind, but I have to feel her in my bones. 

It’s intriguing. And if I find after poking into again that I’m not up to the task, there’s always frontier Texas. I write books in the voice of a man, so frontier Texas should be a piece of cake, right?


Dietrich Kalteis said...

All the best with the historical novel, Terry — and Happy New Year.

Susan C Shea said...

Wow, the research you did is impressive. I agree that at some point, writing historical fiction means launching yourself from the known history into the sky of your imagination, so go for it. (I'm having the same dilemma with my own historical fiction set in the 20th century - even then, culture was different enough to inhibit me.)

James W. Ziskin said...

Excellent post, Terry! Let us know how it goes. I would love to read this.


Terry said...

Thanks everyone. I actually started writing notes this morning--including the website about searching for language usage that Jim mentioned in his essay on writing his Sherlock Holmes short story.

Jonelle Patrick said...

I hope you've had a productive day, because I'm already itching to click on that Pre-Order button for this one! And ha, I ran into the exact same conundrum when I started researching my next one, and I discovered an utterly unexpected goldmine of a source for understanding the do's and don'ts and details of society in bygone days—art books. You know those glossy, oversize tomes that everybody pages through for the pretty paintings, but nobody reads? It turns out that those gray blocks of prose are quite often written by curators and academics who are deeply knowledgeable about the period and settings of the works, and their interpretations of what's happening in the picture (not to mention their exacting knowledge about the fashions of the time) reveals a lot about how to read social status at a glance, how to interpret interactions between figures, how to "read" what they're up to by shining a light on what was typical for that time. (In my case, who knew that all those museum-worthy woodblock prints of beautiful women in kimonos were actually ads for courtesans and their brothels in samurai era Japan?) In any case, I'd be surprised if there weren't an absolute treasure trove of exposition on French art (and society) from the time you're thinking about.

Terry said...

Jonelle, this is such good info. Thank you. I’ll keep you up to date.