The Vexed Privilege Of Writing A Historical Novel, by Jane Kirkpatrick
American essayist and novelist Wendell Berry once said of parenting that it was “a vexed privilege and a blessed trial”. I think that’s also true of writing historical novels.
I feel privileged to be able to tell stories set in another place and time. I love the research and the discoveries from footnotes that might lead me along a whole new path. Historical novels especially are like maps. They tell us how to get to a new place and also reduce the fear of the unknown. What a privilege to explore these other times and places. I feel blessed beyond measure to have a husband who cooks and who has some special interests that help me with my writing (he’s a weapons expert which is great for someone who writes in the 1850s about the American West when guns were an everyday part of a character’s life; he’s a builder, plumber, electrician, photographer, cattleman, hunter, gardener… and, amazingly, he remembers what he reads, unlike me). His first-hand knowledge of horses and pack animals and diamond hitches lend authenticity to my stories and we have the privilege of doing something we both love, together.
This writing is a privilege that is also sometimes vexing. I get annoyed when I can’t seem to put a manuscript aside to just enjoy time with my family. I’m vexed by not being able to lose myself in a good book because my editing mind won’t be still. I’m vexed when a particular scene doesn’t work or when what I thought was the perfect ending to a chapter I’ve read to my husband brings out his words “I knew she was going to do that”. I want congruency in my stories but I want readers to also be surprised and get very vexed when it appears that the character has become predictable (and runs the risk of being boring). I want readers to say “I’ve never read this story before” and not put it down because they see it as a formula of some kind. That would be very vexing.
Writing historical novels is also a blessed trial when I’m in the middle of a manuscript and know it’s not working right. Is it BECAUSE it’s in the middle of the novel? (I’ve heard the middle section of a novel referred to as “that muddle in the middle”.) Or is there really something wrong that will need major fixing? Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a story, I can’t tell. So while I feel blessed to be able to write it down, it also feels like I’m on a path that is littered with boulders I’d rather just go around. The thought that I might be coming back and have to deal with these boulders again, well, that is a trial indeed. But it is also a blessing because if I can make that boulder into a bridge, then I can move forward. If I can take something terrible that has happened to a character ending the chapter with it and then and make that terrible thing become the best thing that could have happened then the story-line is deepened and I am grateful that they (and I) encountered that boulder. Maybe from the height of that boulder the character found new insights, saw something they might have otherwise missed that moved them forward toward their desire. Thus, a blessed trial.
I’m reminded then of a book I read before my husband and I took the plunge and left our regular jobs to move to our isolated ranch in Oregon some years back. It was a book about transitions and it said that when we start a new journey (put manuscript here) we feel uncomfortable. In part it’s like crossing a street. Beginning something new is like stepping off of the curb and walking and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of the road. We are not where we were (which was known if not always comfortable) but we are also not yet where we are going to be (the other side). We’re in the middle. And the worst thing we could do would be to sit down in the middle of our journey and think about it very much while cars go whizzing past us. Instead, we have to live with the discomfort and keep going until we reach our destination.
That’s a reminder to myself to get back to work. I’m in the middle of a historical novel manuscript and it doesn’t feel right. If you’re there too, then keep walking with me. It’ll be a vexed privilege and, yes, a blessed trial, but we’ll arrive. That’s what writing historical novels is all about.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s author website: www.jkbooks.com
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