I’ve been working on the final chapters of the novel I’ve been writing for just over two years now. It’s taken so long not because it’s a thousand pages or extremely complicated. It’s because I am not a full-time writer and I have a day job, a family, and other pursuits in my life that also take time. Now I understand why many writers are retired and their children grown! Writing takes a lot of time and patience, if you want to do it well.
I have never read so much in my thirty-some years as when I set out to write a book myself. I read history books, sifting through pages upon pages for confirmation of a few details critical to my story. I read other novels about the same time period and geographical location for several reasons. I wanted to know what else had already been written to know how my book would compare, and so I wouldn’t accidentally copy anything too closely. I wanted to learn what to do, and what not to do, based on my feeling about these other novels as a reader. It’s boring? Why? Why does it not suck me into the story? Why don’t I care about what happens to the characters? Or alternately: Wow, this is a good story! What is the writer doing to pull me in and make me want to keep reading?
Let’s face it, today we are bombarded by slick, flashy, attention grabbing advertisements and entertainment. Everything is engineered to shock your senses and stick in your brain longer than the competition. A slow-moving, meticulously detailed novel simply won’t cut it. I’m an action junkie myself, and I can tolerate bad acting and weak plots in a movie if the fight choreography is solid. So I set out to write the kind of book I would want to read: filled with action, characters who are strong but have weaknesses, an adventurous story, and not too much detailed description to bog things down.
After I read all the books I could get my hands on about the time period I was writing in, I turned to more modern spy novels. Why? Because I’m writing about a 17th century spy, essentially. Whatever modern spies experience must have some correlation. Strip away the gadgets and modern technology, look at the human element, the goals and purpose of the main character, and try to learn something useful. For example, spies undergo a very rough and dangerous life, full of fear and anxiety, in order to fight for a cause they believe in. That cause could be to make themselves rich or to rid the world of evil, it depends on the individual.
I discovered David Morrell, Brad Thor, and Vince Flynn, so far my favorite current authors. These authors write about similar characters, though their writing styles are all different. One thing they all do well is to keep the reader feeling that they are “in the moment”. They create a sense of urgency by making it seem that the main character could fail or die at any moment. The lead character must endure many setbacks and hardships in order the accomplish his goal. Morrell, in particular, is good at putting his lead character in the fire and making your smell the smoke and feel the heat of the flames. None of these guys goes on for more than a paragraph with descriptive details about characters or environment. Any history or backstory is presented AFTER the reader is already invested and with the same immediate, here-and-now style. After reading so many books in the past two years, along with my writing, I have a better idea what makes an engaging story and interesting characters. Can I pull it off with my first attempt? I am certainly trying.
A few days ago, I was working on a scene were my main character gets caught, tied to a pole on the beach at low tide, and left to slowly drown as the tide came in. I got the idea because this was a punishment used in the time and place of my story. I did some quick research to find out the difference in water levels at high and low tide in that part of the world and discovered it was much higher than most places in the US. The challege was to put myself in that position and imagine the water slowly covering my legs, waist, torso, shoulders, over several hours. What kind of thoughts would be going through my head, knowing I would soon drown just as slowly as the water was rising? Well, it’s a futile exercise. No one knows what they would think or do until they really face the situation. But I have a story to write and it must be convincing and engaging. To force yourself to imagine being in situations like that is unnerving and mildly disturbing, to say the least, but if you can’t see it or feel it, how can you get it across to the reader?
Anyway, it has been a major education trying to write a historically accurate novel which occurs 365 years ago in another country and culture.