How To Write A Historical Novel

Do, from within, the same work of reconstruction which the nineteenth-century archaeologists have done from without.

Only one other figure in history has tempted me with nearly the same insistence: Omar Khayyam, the poet-astronomer. But the life of Khayyam is that of the pure contemplator, and of the somber skeptic, too; the world of action meant little to him. Furthermore, I do not know Persia, nor do I know its language.

The rules of the game: learn everything, read everything, inquire into everything, while at the same time adapting to one’s ends the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, or the method of Hindu ascetics, who for years, and to the point of exhaustion, try to visualize ever more exactly the images which they create beneath their closed eyelids. Through hundreds of card notes pursue each incident to the very moment that it occurred; endeavor to restore the mobility and suppleness of life to those visages known only to us in stone. When two texts, or two assertions, or perhaps two ideas, are in contradiction, be ready to reconcile them rather than cancel one by the other; regard them as two different facets, or two successive stages, of the same reality, a reality convincingly human just because it is complex.

Reading through Marguerite Yourcenar’s notes at the end of Memoirs of Hadrian really only because I wanted to see the part where she mentions the “polar silence” of Mount Desert Island in the winter of 1950—started because I read through the notes of The Abyss, known in French as The Dark Art, where she lists a source or a reference for seemingly every thought in the book; each movement of each character’s pinky has a basis in history. These flickering eyelashes were noted by people who lived at the time to see them flicker—but here I discover, in these quotes, the overwhelming need to lose myself in research, the way one can have twenty ideas for stories each time one discovers the way clothes looked back then, the fact that wealthy Roman homes had private altars to their own individual household gods, the cameos and gewgaws Roman children wore around their necks and then gave up when they became men or women. I found these things thanks to sitting in the library at Hampshire College and going through everything I could find on ancient Rome, back when I was writing a similar vast novel about it; now I’m working on a book that partly takes place in 9th century Korea, and I have not had the same luck.

I know something about Korea, and I know something about the language, but I know almost nothing about either in the 9th century.

In embarking on the foolhardy task of trying to reconstruct this country at that time, I’ve discovered what I already knew from the very first moment I saw the Silla Dynasty mentioned in a mistranslated description erected beside a temple, grotto, or tomb: that the few texts we possess—written centuries after the period ended—are almost staggeringly dull; and that there is so little information on this time to begin with that the famous Korean TV shows that take place here in medieval Gyeongju are (probably) little better than the fantasy I find myself writing.

It is a fantasy. It cannot be anything but a fantasy. My only hope is that it will be a believable and enjoyable one—that when Ichadon’s severed head takes flight (and finds a far more satisfactory dramatic end than that mentioned by the Samguk Yusa), readers will want to keep reading.

And yet…

Having just reread the beginning of Memoirs of Hadrian, and the end of The Abyss, I found the same thoughts (the body and mind are not the same) and even the same words (“blood and lymph”). Although I have no doubt that the author did years of research for either book, what does that research matter if both a Roman Emperor and a Renaissance Alchemist both think the exact same things when they die? It’s difficult to picture Shakespeare hunched over research; a chronicle or two was enough to get his dramatic wheels rolling, and the depth of Yourcenar’s soul, combined with her remarkable ability to express that depth, is what brings me back to her writing; she is far more than a mere historian; her research and verisimilitude is layering on the cake.

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