When the Curtain Rises the Scene Must Be Set…
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. (Why I Write by George Orwell)
That’s often how I feel, more so in the last weeks. I am in a place in my novel (The Ultimate Patient) where I describe the childhood of one of my main protagonists, in a small town in Northern Romania called Câmpulung, and the need to explain the geography and history of the place is instinctively obvious to me. Yet when I do it, my writing is tedious.
Recently, I submitted 15 pages of my novel, a complete scene, to my workshop group for review. At least one person questioned my use of the word “comrade”. ‘Did people really speak like that?’ this person asked. ‘Why? How did all people agree to use the word?’ The questions surprised me. As unfamiliar as Romania might be, I had expected, based on the attention that I see Americans pay to Russia and communism, that they would be familiar with the use of this word. ‘In A Gentleman in Moscow, the author extensively describes the many uses of the word “comrade.” Read it,’ I suggested. But the exchange reinforced my conviction that I needed to provide historical context for my novel. Otherwise my readers would get lost.
‘I know where the problem is,’ I tell myself. ‘I cannot be like Balzac, and get mired in descriptions that are accurate, yet too elaborate, and depict in fine detail the quaint streets of a small town, or explain the post war political upheaval of the time. I need to personalize it, dramatize it, mix backdrop with action, and keep things moving. Work in scenes. Readers are smart and will get their clues from the characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions, and not from being lectured in history and geography, which is how I feel that am writing right now.’
I felt good about my novel and my progress until recently. I finished Part 1 in a reasonable time and during a short trip to Key West where I visited Hemingway’s House, I learned that he was writing 500 to 700 words a day. That piece of information gave me hope. It was a quantity I thought I could manage, and if that rate was OK for Hemingway, it certainly would be OK for me. And now I stumbled into this mess.
My wife and I spent the last three days in Denver, visiting with our daughter and her newborn baby. It was a happy occasion, tiring and emotional. Yet all the time I kept thinking about the crisis in my writing. On the flight home I started reading Empire Falls by Richard Russo. What surprised me was that the novel begins with a prologue that provides background information — well written and necessary, but background nevertheless. It didn’t bother me, although reading it required more concentration than the next chapters where things started happening and moving along. Background is possible, and necessary; the big writers are doing it.
Hemingway used to say that a story is like an iceberg — there is more to it under the surface than above, but even he provided background from time to time. His long fishing descriptions in Fiesta have little to do with the main story, and everything to do with the atmosphere of the piece.
Russo does it as well. Of course, Russo has an easier time than I have. He writes about Maine, or Upstate New York, places that his American audience understands, and the background descriptions are needed only in a small measure.
I try to describe a world that is removed in time and place; a world that is strange and unfamiliar to the American audience, and in order to give the action meaning, the background has to be presented and understood. And I have to make it worth exploring because otherwise no reader has any reason to stick with it. I have to make it understandable, and relatable, bizarre to the point of fascination — maybe.
So what is my next step?