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Posts Tagged ‘historical novel’

Historical novelist Judith Lindbergh writes about her irrational passion for research.

The joy and burden of my literary life is research.  There is nothing more exciting to me than the 22-inch high stack of academic texts, museum exhibition catalogues, and translated ancient manuscripts sitting on the corner of my desk like an untouched burial mound waiting to be exposed.

Thralls Tale coverI approach my decidedly obscure topics with an archaeologist’s passion for minute detail.  For my first novel, The Thrall’s Tale, about women in Viking Age Greenland, I literally studied monographs on the number of lice found in household waste-pits, not because I have a particularly penchant for lice, but because if there were lice, there were itchy, uncomfortable beds made of moss and straw; there was filthy, stinking clothing; and there were animals sleeping inside the houses with the humans in winter.  I latched onto each detail not just for simple description, but to grasp a visceral awareness of what my characters endured.

With my latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes, I’m finally past the point of scrounging for details.  My characters have risen from unearthed bones, bits of tarnished arrowheads, rusty daggers, and delicate, hand-crafted beads.  There comes a moment when the facts fall into place and I sense my protagonist sitting beside me, quietly tapping a finger on my desk as if to say, “OK, that’s enough.  Let’s go!”  It’s not that I know everything, because everything is impossible to know.  But the moment comes when I feel that I am “full” – I understand my characters’ basic natures, the challenges of their lives and the beliefs that sustained them, the landscape and atmosphere that framed their lives.

It’s easy to ignore that moment, because in the end (for me, at least), research is easier than writing.  It’s seductive, and undeniably useful, to return to that deep, sweet well to sip.  The truth is that research never really stops.  Even today, if anything comes my way about Norse Greenland, I catch myself salivating like Pavlov’s dog.  The trick is in sensing that moment when I’m about to overflow.  Then I set my hands on my keyboard and begin to write.  If I’m lucky, the spirits of the long dead are whispering in my ears.

Judith Lindbergh’s debut novel, The Thrall’s Tale, was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection.  She teaches creative writing at the South Orange Maplewood Adult SchoolLearn more about her work at her website, and visit her blog, The Writers Circle: Process, practice, hope, and the business of writing.

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Author Marina Budhos writes about finishing her latest novel:

ask me no questionsMy plan this summer was to force myself to write to the end of my historical novel, a book I have been working on for a number of years while I completed other projects.  Summer is my best writing time, when I am home, puttering around my house, the children off in camp, with no teaching responsibilities fracturing my attention. My aim, then, was to bring this all to a head, especially since the end of this novel is meant to be very dramatic and also violent, a crescendo of so many parts, voices, themes.  And yet even the most thoughtful of plans have a way of upending.

Set against the crumbling backdrop of late 19th century British Empire, my novel is about the unlikely friendship between an Indian woman and English woman—a bond that is threatened when they move from India to a Caribbean sugar estate, and violence starts to sweep the plantation.  It is an ambitious book, as I am juggling multiple points of view along with foreign and historic settings, politics, even technical information about sugar growing that I must make vivid to a modern reader.

After building up this world over a number of years, I anticipated that the challenge of writing the ending would be that it was like a tidal wave that is slowly mounting, ready to curl; and yet one would still need to pay attention to the water particles.  One would still have to build scene by scene, moment by moment, even as you were aware of these huge forces compelling the narrative forward.

To my surprise, the ending, the denouement, a series of fast-paced acts, is coming swifter than I expected.  There was no deep rumble in my consciousness, no mounting wave of creativity.  Mostly I find myself sketching out plot—one bad event and bad decision leading to another, and hopefully mounting to tragedy.  This is somehow vaguely disappointing, and runs counter to my more romantic vision of the summer’s work.  But perhaps this is what I need to do—work more as an architect, more cerebrally— setting down the structure.  Then the deeper, unconscious swells will emerge.

This is what I tell myself now as I write event-driven material, pushing toward the end.  Sometimes we need to ride the waves.  And sometimes we must navigate with a plot compass, trusting that instinct and fever dreams will return.

Marina Budhos writes adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction.  Her recent novel, Ask Me No Questions, won the James Cook Teen Book Award and was an ALA Best Book.  Her prior books include House of Waiting, The Professor of Light, and Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers.  In 2010, she will publish a YA novel, Tell Us We’re Home, and Sugar Changed the World, co-authored with her husband, Marc Aronson.  She teaches creative writing, literature, and Asian Studies at William Paterson University, and can be reached at www.marinabudhos.com

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