Monday, August 24, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VII

Water Sculptures

Every day you probably pour yourself a glass of water without even thinking about it. What could be more prosaic? It's unlikely that you'd describe it as art.

In the right hands, though, water clearly is art: look at these two amazing images from

All three pictures are essentially the same thing: H2O in different contexts. What makes the latter two art is the craft and the creativity the artist has applied.

There are analogies here to outlining a historical novel. I've spent the past fortnight doing some pretty immersive research into the life and times of Louis XIV and the specifics of the Affair of the Poisons. I'd now say that I'm fairly well-informed on the subject, but I'm still a huge leap away from having a story. What I've been doing so far is filling the glass with water: a necessary step in creating anything more ambitious, but not in itself art.

I need now to arrange the water in a way which gives it pattern and meaning, rather than simply presence. However much I know about the Affair of the Poisons, I don't have a novel--and knowing more won't put me any closer to it. I could write down now a detailed timeline (indeed, I've already done so and no, Aliya, it isn't on a spreadsheet...) of sudden deaths, interrogations and executions, but if I used that to construct a prose narrative I'd do nothing but confuse the reader.

The most difficult part of the writing process for me--and this seems even more the case for historical fiction than fantasy--is moving from the mass of background information to a dramatically satisfying organisation of the material. In other words, the part where we find a story. How many viewpoints will I have? Who will they be - La Reynie, the dogged detective who is investigator, judge and jury? Louvois, his boss, motivated more by a desire to outflank his hated rival Colbert than a quest for justice? Lesage, alchemist, conman, fantasist who finds himself in more trouble than he realises? Madame de Montespan, fading mistress of the king; her life would be so much easier if the beautiful young Mademoiselle de Fontanges was off the scene? Primo Visconti, waspish Italian observer of the court scene who enjoys playing the fortune-teller? The Marquis de Termes, his fortune lost in an earlier scandal who kidnaps an alchemist to make him a new one? Or characters entirely of my own devising?

These are the decisions which will make our story: when our glass of water will take on the outline of sculpture.


Frances Garrood said...

You seem to have done an impressive amount of research, Tim. As for the central character, I'm sure I would choose one of my own devising, because then there would be nothing about that character to get right or wrong. There are so many established facts in historical fiction - things you have to get right - that surely it must make a welcome break to get back to your own character; someone you can do what you like with?

I'm just nearing the end of Dissolution (recommended by several MNWs as good hospital reading), and Sansom's Shardlake (who I assume is invented) is a wonderful, if rather creepy, hero.

Tim Stretton said...

Excellent points, Frances. Using "your own" characters certainly does allow more flexibility, and avoids problems which seemed to be arising when I had intended to use La Reynie as a viewpoint character.

Glad you're enjoying Dissolution. There are another three published plus one in the pipeline which Will talked about in glowing terms.

Alis said...

I'm with Frances about having at least your central character as a fictional one. There's enough to get wrong already!
I found it immensely helpful to have at least an outline of my story before I started my research so that I knew roughly what might turn out to be relevant and what I needed to know.
Don't you just love research?!

Tim Stretton said...

"Don't you just love research?!"

I didn't think that I would--but yes!

Frances Garrood said...

Another advantage of creating your own character is you don't necessariy have to get rid of him or her once you've finished your novel. You can always write a sequel.

Tim Stretton said...

Interesting piece by Guy Gavriel Kay on exactly this topic...