this is what going mad felt like

The Historical Novel Project(TM) is creating a number of writing challenges that are above my pay grade, but it’s not the believable characterization, compression/abbreviation of real historical events or the need for creating an accurate world that intimidates me.

I think the hardest thing I’m going to have to describe is the mental state of a character who is slowly developing visual/auditory hallucinations through a combination of stress and overwork. I need to sell his slow decline to a modern reading audience while:

  • limiting myself to 16th century vernacular, as they didn’t have a vocabulary for mental illness the way we do
  • convincing the reader that the character does not realize he’s going mad – he thinks these visions are real
  • making it clear that there is no “voice of sanity” – everyone around him believes his visions are real too, and some actively encourage them
  • that in the context of the time/place this assumption makes sense.

This requires a huge amount of research. Not that I mind, but it’s hard to find sources for exactly the situation I’m trying to convey.

At the suggestion of my new historian acquaintance, I got a copy of highlights from The Anatomy of Melancholy, to get some idea of what language 16th/17th century people used to describe mental/emotional distress. I’ve also picked up Carl Jung’s Red Book, because though he does use modern psychiatric language it’s the only documentation I can find by someone who realized he was having a psychotic break but chose to interact with his hallucinations.

It’s also revealing the need for a lot of context about the mindset of the late Renaissance, when the scientific method was just being developed and a lot of superstition (such as the belief that it was possible and expected to talk to spirits) was still accepted as fact.

I’ve got my narrative work cut out for me.

writing by the seat of my pants

Last night was my first class in a 3-week workshop on character development. As in, a real, live, in person class, with a classroom and everything.

I was iffy about signing up for it at first; I prefer online instruction because it gives me time to think about my answers, and I’m always cagey about adding another non-moveable item to my cluttered calendar, but I am ultimately glad I did it.

Turns out the instant back and forth is something I need, because it short-circuits my tendency to over think. On my own I’ll constantly refer to notes (would they be in this room? What are they wearing? What time did X take place chronologically?), but the exercises were timed and specific: Take a news headline and expand on it in 3 minutes; Look at a picture and describe the character’s mindset in the same amount of time; generate a fake name from the phone book and write a first-person paragraph.

I expected these to be nerve-wrackingly difficult but they weren’t simply because I didn’t have time to second guess myself. I think perhaps the most useful exercises were how to base a character on your own experiences without it becoming a Mary Sue (use a different name, write 3rd person, and change the situation slightly to build emotional distance) and how to build a character around an object (who owns this? How did they get it? Why is this important to them?). The latter in particular I’m going to use to build a character in world I tentatively built years ago but couldn’t populate.

My classmates are few but enthusiastic; one of the things I love about adult continuing education is that everyone in the room wants to be there. Everyone also got there by different side doors: one is a teacher who wants to write for kids, another is a journalist who wants to write fiction, yet another has her own historical fiction thing going on.

Also, the teacher is clearly excited about stories and storytelling, and with the small class size there’s a lot of good back and forth.

This week was “building characters from personal experience”, next week is using psychological insights, which is why I signed up in the first place. Keep ya posted.

not so fast

Per yesterday’s post, the story I’m playing with is based on historical figures/events (with some significant changes). So for giggles I’m checking out other fiction written about these folks.

…only to discover that another author already seems to have been playing with the same themes I am considering.

I only beat myself up briefly because I think I’m still taking a different tack, but is it a mistake to see what else has already been said? I worry about unconscious plagiarizing or editing myself before I write a word just to make sure I’m not.

Teeming masses:

If other describe in the comments.

huh

Very much to my surprise, I find myself writing something original.

Well, not completely, but this time it’s historically inspired. No real plot as yet, but 3 potential characters are stumbling out of the mist.

I’m doing a lot of reading about the world these characters inhabit. So far it looks like there’s plenty of room for conflict, confusion, fear, adventure, and sex.

As I read on I realize that to do any historic fiction justice will require a lot of research. The fact that I find this exciting rather than daunting tells me that I’m on the right track.

characterization

I’m looking at the local community college’s Character Workshop for Fiction Writers for this fall, as I think it would help me with what I consider to be my biggest weakness – I can’t design a character to save my life.

Full disclosure: in a past RPG I did have a couple of original characters, but I don’t think they were very good – introductory descriptions felt like I was ticking off check boxes just to get it out of the way, and then I wrote whatever fit the plot/my whims. I just couldn’t get in their heads (“what would x do in y situation based on z personality characteristics?”), and I don’t think I developed them well.

I confess this is why I’ve tended to lean on fan fiction as my writing outlet: characters are already established, and I’ve read/seen them in action so I can better imagine what they might say or do. Additionally, fan fiction audiences are already familiar with them/the property to which they belong, so I can be lazy and forego introductions/”establishing shots”.

I don’t mean that as a criticism of other fanfic writers (it’s fun to play with characters in worlds you already know and love), just noticing that I happen to use it as a crutch to avoid improving the things I’m bad at.

Truth: I’m more comfortable inventing worlds, but then I don’t know how to populate them. Which bugs me because I tend to find that characters and dialog are what make or break a story for me, and if I’m going to bother with this at all I want to write stuff I’d actually want to read, dammit!

tighten up

I’ve been writing again for the last few months. Nothing original and nothing great, but I’ve been enjoying it and getting decent feedback.

So I’m thinking it might be worthwhile to get some instruction with an eye towards creating something original instead of playing in others’ sandboxes.

To this end, I’m doing some basic reading on fiction writing and looking for an online creative writing course once Nationals is over.

I don’t have anything I particularly want to share outside it’s relevant ‘verse, but if you’re genuinely curious PM me. I mostly leave this note here so y’all will hold me to account (like bug me at the end of July to make sure I’ve found a class)!