History—and nonfiction of various types—offers a wonderful smorgasbord of events and interrelationships for writers to base stories on. Most writers—myself included—have mined nonfiction for fictional ideas. My collected history books have many pages with the words “Story here!” scrawled at the top, often with multiple exclamation points, highlighting and arrows pointing to the text that made the hair rise up on my neck and my ovaries twitch.
It’s easy to get ideas from nonfiction—books, magazine articles, TV documentaries, etc. My first published novel, THE MERI, occasioned me to read three fat and varied histories of Scotland upon whose progression of kings and system of governance I chose to base my fictional government. It was a lot of work, and I think sometimes that the tech revolution has had a deleterious effect on how some writers do research. I’ve had several experiences lately that make me suspect that the abridged nature of the information we take in makes some of us forget the mathematics of writing.
The visual media—TV documentaries and Youtube videos—have taken the place of the in-depth sort of research and thought that writing a novel on a subject requires. I encountered a situation recently in which a writer I was working with gathered a basket full of ideas from documentaries and wikipedia entries and wanted to write them into his book. What resulted was interesting … in a Vulcan sort of way.
It manifested like this:
The documentary on the creation of the King James Bible noted that good King James was disgusted with the crude language used in the Vulgate Bibles that had been turned out by various printers. He wanted English-speaking Christians to be unified in the use of a text that was beautiful and that reflected the doctrines of the Church of England. The writer was thoroughly jazzed by the history of the text and the political considerations (such as ridding it of the Puritan influence, etc.) and wanted to write a book about the subject.
Therefore, in the first chapter of the book, there was to be a scene in which the King enters the royal library, tosses a copy of the Great Bible created during the reign of Henry VIII onto the escritoire of his head librarian and states: “I am disgusted by the crude language used in this and other Bibles! I feel it necessary for English speaking Christians to be unified in the reading of a text that is beautiful and that reflects the doctrines of the English Church.” And there the dialogue faltered … because it wasn’t a dialogue at all, it was a line of narration from a TV documentary. The writer had the two characters talking to each other for a while after that, but it was basically chit-chat because the important point had already been stated straight out. He was at a loss to know where to go from there.
There is a reason for that—which is something that I learned very early in my writing career. Historical documentaries and magazine articles are an extreme compression of time, events, and emotions. They fly at 30,000 feet. That one line of narration, or one sentence or even paragraph in a wiki entry or magazine article must be multiplied, added to, subtracted from and divided in order to be more than a bald retelling of the result
of a vast number of interactions. It is up to the writer to enlarge upon, broaden and deepen what she finds in her source material.
A book can’t fly at 30k or be written in broad strokes else it would be a magazine article or a wiki entry. It has to delve into the lives of the actors—eavesdrop on their private conversations and pry out their intimate thoughts. If the documentary says, for example, that King James felt the Great Bible was an affront to the doctrines of the Church, the writer has to make James’ disgust seem like a logical extension of what happens to cause it and demonstrate how it affects the present and the future of the intimate and larger world in which James operates.
And that is the mathematics of writing: One line in a documentary or article or even in a scholarly volume becomes pages and pages of action, dialogue, and thought in a novel. You can’t just have King James proclaim, “I am disgusted by the crude language used in this Bible!” THE END. You have to show the organic progression of his unease and his dislike of the doctrines he felt were reflected by that earlier version of scripture. You have to show—not tell—not just the what, but the how and why of King James’ decision to dedicate time, money, and royal authority to the creation of the Bible that would bear his name. (Quite a coup, I must say, since he didn’t personally write a word of it.)
The writer of non-fiction has to stick to facts, and while she may speculate on this or that idea or social trend, her goal and mandate are not to bring readers into the private recesses of a character’s mind to get at the guts of historical events as much as to show how those events affected the world we live in—all at a fairly high level. Fiction writers do have this goal and this mandate.
I think sometimes we forget that the big picture historical events that we read about in books or watch in documentaries—even the historical events that are unfolding as we live and breathe—are driven by the private thoughts and personal desires and fears of individuals. The facts of a world provide a backdrop, a canvas, a framework in which a fictional story takes place, but the backdrop is not the story. That’s up to us, as writers, to people and bring to life.