Novel Writing as a Multi-Disciplinary Activity

This morning’s writing session did not begin with writing. It began with cartography.

And as I was researching the size and physical organization of NYC and the Mammoth Caves, drawing maps and calculating distances, it occurred to me how much of writing a novel is not writing at all.

This novel-writing journey has, if nothing else, taught me to dearly respect the work of novelists. To do it well, there is so much you must do and be or become good at, even beyond the usual skills you might think of. Behind every well-written scene are hundreds of nuggets of information and understanding and skills that are never explicitly mentioned in the scene.

Case in point, the novel I’m working on has so far required, among other things, a working understanding of the following:

Geography, politics, war, weaponry, anthropology, evolution, map-making, photo manipulation, geology, energy generation, plant biology, acute radiation poisoning, weapon-making, animal experimentation, history of animal rights activism, factory farming, animal husbandry, linguistics, chemistry, fruit fermentation, methane production, and military defense tactics.

Thank goodness I like to read.

You go into a story, or at least I went into this story, carrying much of what you need inside you already. But as I’ve proceeded, I’ve had to accumulate more. More knowledge, more understanding. Even though my story takes place in an imagined world of the far distant future, it still has to be grounded in an understanding of the underlying principles of this world.

Or, perhaps, *I* want to be grounded here. Perhaps if I were more “imaginative,” I could create an underground city out of my head without the need for maps of Mammoth Caves and New York City to hang the hooks of my city upon. Do other writers do this, take real things and study them and take them apart, and construct their imagined worlds from the pieces? I think probably.

So, yes. Be impressed. Be very impressed. I have mastered many arts in order to progress in becoming a novelist. Just look at my masterful cartography. This impressive map was created by printing out a cut-away of Mammoth Caves, converting it to a negative (so I could write inside the caves), and superimposing my outstanding penmanship and meticulous map-making skills over the print-out. Behold:

Be impressed. Be very impressed.

P.S. I also wrote about a thousand words, which equates in this case to one more-or-less complete scene. It is not the scene I expected to write today. It arose organically from the the situation in which I left two main characters at last writing, and was not consciously influenced by my hand-wringing post of yesterday. Are you ready for this? It’s a scene in which… a major female character meets another major female character and has a conversation. In two different languages. About something other than boys. Bechdel Test, eat it.

4 thoughts on “Novel Writing as a Multi-Disciplinary Activity

  1. Things I thought when discovering this blog yesterday: I really like the design, how clean it is. (It’s sort of like my design, isn’t it — clean — which shows how narcissist I am, or maybe just that my taste is the same.) Other thought: I’m surprised this URL was still available. It’s a good one.

    I want to estimate I am doing about 50-70 hours of reading before even arriving on the plot of my next novel. And I’m about 15 hours into it. This is not usual for me, if we’re going to call my first two novels trend-setters. But they died, so they don’t get a voice in how I do this one.

    • Ha! Jaimie, I thought of you with this design, too. I really like how clean yours is, for the topic. I think writers in general like clean lines, you know? The busy-ness of modern websites is rather disconcerting, honestly, to a lover of words.

      And yes, the URL is awesome. I bought it about three years ago, actually, as a site for my business, which took a different direction. I’ve had several people approach me about purchasing it, but I could never quite let it go, and I’m glad I didn’t. I knew somehow I would come back to it.

      I liked Anne Rice’s nod to reading as a valuable exercise in breaking through writer’s block. Makes sense. And I would think certain genres would involve lots of research before even beginning–historical novels, for instance.

      I can’t wait to see what you’re working on, when you’re ready to share snippets. :)

      • Yeah, I’m reading books called “Ancient Egypt” and “Egyptian Legends and Myths.” I found a freaking amazing 4-part documentary too — got lucky with that one. (Who knew that reading negative comments on Netflix can direct you to the actual good thing.) I’m not sure if that’s the kind of writer’s-block-breaking-reading that Anne was talking about, but I kind of want to find the most interesting place to start before I start.

        • Sounds very cool. I started a story a long time ago based on a Biblical story… I read and read while working on the opening scene, looking up topics like “menstrual practices of Biblical times” and “prostitution in first century Israel.” It was quite enlightening. I may come back to that one some day…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>