Tonight I’m Gonna Pencil Like It’s 1799

Or, You’re Welcome for the Prince Song Now Stuck in Your Head

I spent some time this morning working on my 1930s house party story. I would have had a great deal more time to work on the writing if I didn’t keep having to stop and do some research on what things are supposed to look like.

I know, I know, as a writer you’re supposed to forget all the pieces that need to be researched–write a note to look it up and move on–so you can focus on getting down the words, but I don’t work that way.  For some reason it feels like defeat to just put brackets like [DESCRIBE THE DRESS HERE] and move on, knowing that what I just wrote is inadequate. I don’t do a lot of whole cloth revisioning unless I am changing the story, and while I do have to go back in and add a lot of “grounding” details, I find it easiest to pick out where to insert them when I’ve already at least sketched in the narrative break.

The problem, you see, is that I write like Jane Austen.  I don’t care what people look like, or what rooms look like, or what dresses look like; when I take the time do more than a brushstroke on something, it’s because it’s important.  I could probably get away with this better if I were writing contemporary stories, where I can assume the time and place are being auto-filled by my readers’ minds.  But I’m not. I’m writing historical fiction, which needs to be anchored in historical details, and that means I actually have to stop and include sights, sounds, scents, and sensations. 

I am extremely–and I do not use that word lightly here–introverted in real life. I live in my head, probably too much so, and I am often totally oblivious to the world around me except to note that it has not disappeared or been altered when I was not looking. Otherwise, I’m focused on my head space.  Because of this, I tend to write characters who are likewise focused internally; they’re not stopping their train of thought in order to observe the ballroom. They just sort of see that it’s there, it still exists, nothing is out of place enough to jar them into noticing, and it’s just sort of vague and misty and obscure in the background of their thoughts.

That’s how Jane Austen wrote her novels.  If she described something in detail, it was because she wanted to hit you over the head with what was being presented.  This man is not merely wealthy he is LOADED.  This girl is not merely pretty she is DROP DEAD GORGEOUS.

For the most part ignoring the physical world except as it directly affects the characters is how my natural narrative flow proceeds.  (I am a highly solipsistic writer, apparently.)  The only problem is that in my head, when I picture a scene, there is a scene there.  It might be a bit vague, but I know how big the ballroom is and how crowded it is; I know whether the terrace is white or gray stone and whether it has railing.  The vague but undeniable sense of place that is there for me, the author, is not there for my readers unless I give them words for it.  So the real problem for me is finding moments to convey this information in  the narrative. 

This morning, when I was writing the scene in which our Intrepid Heroine arrives at The House where the course of her life will be Irrevocably Changed, I had to describe the house as she saw it, because arriving at the house was essentially the only thing that occurred in this segment.  That meant first the driveway and surrounding scenery.  Then the house itself from the outside.  Then the front hall.  Then the ballroom.  Then the terrace and the pool out back.  And then the view off of the patio. 

So.  Much.  Description. 

I could not have accomplished it without taking the time to find pictures that I could then work from.  I don’t always have clear enough images in my mind to be able to describe scenes quickly and easily, so for me it is helpful to find a picture of something in the real world that matches what my mind is seeing and then just talk about what I see.  Finding such an image invokes the loathesome “I’ll know it when I see it” feeling, but I really do know it when I see it and not before.  I would not have had an installment for Friday without taking some of my writing time to do that research.  Otherwise instead of the next thousand words of story, all I’d have had was 300 words of conversation in the car, and then [they reach the house – describe it].  Hardly a satisfying end to the first chapter.

I know that it’s a constraint that writers suggest using for a reason, and it probably works well for most people.  But not for me.  I will obsess over the missing information to such an extent that I waste more time fighting myself not to go look it up and figure it out right then than if I just looked it up in the moment and moved on.  If I have to write description, I will waste three times the amount of time trying to painstakingly picture it in my mind than I would if I just do a few strategic Google Image searches for what I need. 

Hm.  I think what I’m saying is, I don’t know how I ever finished a story before I had the internet.



Filed under Research, Writing

2 responses to “Tonight I’m Gonna Pencil Like It’s 1799

  1. hannahkarena

    I write historical fiction and, like you, stop to do massive amounts of research before continuing to write. I think it’s ridiculous that people advise to do otherwise. I think that historical artifacts, architecture, and clothing help shape the whole story, the plot–at the very least the particular scene–so you need those details before you start writing. Having those minor details will often change “what happens next.” Though it sounds like my research is a little clunkier and more impractical than yours–I read a whole book on women’s experience during the Middle Ages, another about children’s experience during the Middle Ages, and then a whole bunch of articles in French I had to get translated by a professor to understand what my character’s real house really looked like. And this was all before I even started writing the first sentence of my book! [deep sigh]

    I’m sure your historical fiction is beautiful and more realistic than people who don’t bother to do the research until later, trying to cram those little details into the holes they left for them rather than weaving them into the whole prose.

  2. hi hannahkarena! hm, well, as to being more beautiful and realistic than others, I will let readers judge. but compared to what my writing would be if I left all the research for later–yes, it is DEFINITELY better this way!

    And I think I might have an advantage in my time period, since it’s one that I am somewhat familiar with from movies and early 20th century lit classes in college…enough so, at least, that all I tend to need are specific details rather than sweeping minutiae of lifestyle, culture, everyday existence, etc. But having that much information at your disposal just means a richer and more textured world for you to build!

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