Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part IV

Before the football season starts, players engage in pre-season training. Before they actually play any football, they have to get themselves into the right physical condition. It doesn't feel like playing football, and it may be weeks before a ball is involved, but without that preparation the season is destined to fail.

At the moment, I'm doing the equivalent of pre-season training for writing my outline: that stage where I'm not doing anything approximating writing, but getting myself into condition to do so. That means putting in some legwork to learn more about my chosen period--in this case, France in the time of Louis XIV. At this stage, I'm not even narrowing my researches down to 1679-82, the timeframe for the Affair of the Poisons. I need to have a better sense of the period before I focus in so tightly.

I've now read my first biography of Louis XIV, and as a primer it couldn't have been better. Written by Vincent Cronin in 1960, it's pleasantly dated: Cronin is quite happy to moralise throughout in a way that really isn't fashionable today. He'll infer character from handwriting and physiognomy in a manner that fell out of favour in the 19th century, and his approbation of the Sun King is so excessive as to constitute hagiography. For me, it's absolutely perfect: it presents Louis as he may have liked to see himself, and gives vivid, if tendentious, pictures of some of the key figures of the Grand Siecle. In this way it gives me an overview plus an imagined construct of character - the kind of broad strokes that are highly useful in coming to grips with the period. And if sometimes he irritates me so much that I form exactly the opposite view of a character than he intended, so much the better. From such grit are pearls formed.

Nonetheless I need a corrective to Cronin's adulation, so next on my list is Antonia Fraser's The Loves of Louis XIV, which I suspect may take a different perspective. These contrasting reflections on historical figures are the starting point for creating nuanced characters.

My reading at this stage is primarily about milieu: getting a sense of the time I'm writing about, as well as constructing the superstructure of facts within which I will work. I'm also, as a secondary benefit, beginning to feel my way into some of the characters, such as Madame de Montespan, an important figure however little she may end up on stage. What I haven't done yet is start to excavate the plot (an apt metaphor, because ultimately I will need to trim away extraneous detail to leave the shape of the story I want to tell) or to create any characters outside of the historical record.

For now, that's absolutely fine: we're still in pre-season.

1 comment:

Alis said...

I find, at the same stage, that it's important to have some idea of the shape my story is going to take then, when I read something that captures my imagination, I know how I'm going to use it to highlight or underscore the story I'm trying to tell. I find the 'pre-season' action a lot more exciting that way!