Friday, September 11, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VIII

Feasibility Study

One of way of thinking about preparing an outline is to think of it as a feasibility study. The outlining process forces a focus and concision upon what is originally a nebulous idea. By refining the original idea it's possible to see what works and what doesn't and–perhaps more pertinently–whether what's coming out fits in with your interests and strengths as a writer.

This is perhaps more the case with historical fiction than fantasy: in the latter, if a key ingredient is missing, you can make it up, but in a historical there are those pesky facts... these can be either a framework, or a constraint, depending on how you view it.

Let's look at this in terms of my own outline-in-progress, The Inheritance Powders, which as you'll remember treats a poisoning scandal at the court of Louis XIV. After a couple of months of research I feel well-informed on the events and the wider period, although perhaps not well enough to start writing yet (this may be a displacement mechanism, of course).

The main elements of what such a story would look like are clear: we have the political intrigue between the various court figures, a claustrophobic thriller/mystery, filtered through the etiquette and manners of the period. Even without knowing whose story this is, the bare bones of the outline are visible at this point. They're all things which interest me and which, with some more research, I can turn into fiction. What is even more helpful about "outlining the outline" in this way, though, is that it shows what's not there. This gives me the opportunity either to shoe-horn it in at this relatively early stage, or acknowledge that the outline simply doesn't work for what the purpose I'm intending it–hence its value as a feasibility study.

What's missing from The Inheritance Powders (not in any objective sense, but in terms of what I do and don't want to do in fiction) is the sense of the epic. This was one of the aspects of The Dog of the North I thought worked best, and its absence weakened The Last Free City. The court of Louis XIV simply doesn't have this–a long and stable reign, with life at Versailles dominated by triviality. Warfare is largely an afterthought–Louis took his mistresses on most of his campaigns, which suggests that we are not in total warfare territory here. The Affair of the Poisons itself is claustrophobic, overheated–essentially small-scale magnified by hysteria. Those are the constraints that I need to accept if I want to write about those events. (In fantasy, it would be less of a problem, because I could more easily create a contrasting environment to sit alongside it).

There are many strands of historical fiction, and not all of them can be explored in a single novel. The Inheritance Powders does not readily lend itself to what we might call the 'Bernard Cornwell' slice of the market - the grand sweep of battle, the thunder of nation-changing affairs. If I want to write that kind of novel, then I'm drawn more towards one of my earlier ideas - the Wars of the Roses.

Luckily I'm now off on holiday for a week (with a couple of Sun King books stashed in my luggage) so I've got plenty of time to mull this over without too much self-imposed pressure. A novel is for life (or at any rate, a couple of years), not just for Christmas; so it pays to make the right choice.

1 comment:

Alis said...

Hi Tim - this is a really interesting post as I'm sure you're right about finding out whether what your novel is going to allow you to do is what you actually want to do. Writing with a really authentic voice must be about playing to your strengths and if the epic is your strength (witness TDoTN) and that's where you see your work at its best, then perhaps you're right to question whether the Inheritance Powders is the story for you. But I, for one, shall be just a little bit disappointed if it doesn't get written, it sounded so intriguing...