Charty process porn

I’ve been asked twice in the last week (once over at my personal blog, once during a discussion with an Oregon book group about my most recent novel, Always) about charts: do I use them? What are they like? Are they on the wall? So I thought I’d talk a little about my process for this novel.

For my (still untitled) Hild novel, I am keeping a close eye on every single one of the sixty-six years Hild lived (614-680, according to Bede). I’m tracking the movements and changing mores of various dynasties (Deiran, Bernician, Kentish, East Anglian, Dalriadan, Pictish, and so on), doing my best to trace shifting alliances and geographies and beliefs—and building techniques and clothes and literacy and language and technology, and so on (and on and on).

I track all this stuff using the web—listservs and online journals and blogs—the library (I don’t know how I would have coped without interlibrary loan; I have no academic affiliations whatsoever), bookshops (oh, these books are expensive), and occasional personal correspondence. I’ve been doing this for years, with the most intensive phase being last year.

My notes are extremely disorganised. When I first began, for example, I used yellow legal pads and a fountain pen. I discovered that fountain pen ink will pour right off the page if you knock a cup of tea over everything. I lost a year’s worth of careful notes on jewellery and farming technology. I haven’t had the heart to redo that work. By the time I came to researching food, I got canny, and used 3×5 index cards that I could, woo hoo, sort alphabetically. (Sadly, yes, this really was an exciting discovery for me. I’m a seriously crap researcher, no technique at all: I’ve never had to learn before this.) So now my food notes are safe: written in ballpoint and in a snap-closing plastic box. Family trees, most of them highly speculative, are all over the place: Wikipedia printouts, photocopies from library books, hasty scribble in the margin of a shopping list, intensively doodled-on curlicued 3×5 cards… I stuff them in folders, then lose the folders, or misfile them, and start another. I have a pile of print-outs on names, including handwritten—again, highly speculative—names of generations on either side of known names

On my wall are two maps: Britain in the Dark Ages, north sheet and south sheet. They’re from different editions but I don’t mind. It helps me understand the way information would have been gathered piecemeal in the seventh century. The 1964 edition is cleaner and simpler, but the 1934 is prettier, and more effective aid to imagination (though stinky with mildew and someone else’s cigarette smoke).

I work from two desks. One in the corner of my office, taken up entirely by electronics—well, there’s enough space to balance a notepad, too. (The wall maps are on the right hand corner wall.) The other desk takes the centre of the room. This is where my Big Chart lives. It’s divided into 66 boxes, one for each year of Hild’s life. This is where What Is Known to Be Known is written: the births, deaths, marriages, accessions, murders, baptisms, wars and so on. As I am about to begin each new section of the book, I study my chart, then write out two or three pages of notes, this time including highly speculative possibilities: after Rædwald’s death, Hild travels to Gipswīc and encounters her first abacus, or Hild’s (fictitious) half-brother gets his first sword (which he will then use in a year or three to defend Edwin during the assassination attempt by Cwichelm’s man, Eamer). Then I write the story, trying to pull in environmental detail (when are the lambs sheared? when do the moths fly? where will the moon be? how high the tides?). It’s a slow, but joy-filled process.

I want this novel to have a kind of wild magic running through it, the magic of history and nature, of people and their triumphs and failures. I want it to be stately and inevitable. I want it to be exhilarating, heart-pounding, gut-wrenching. No doubt as I proceed I’ll to make sacrifices here and there, privileging one state for another, but right now I’m still aiming for the Platonic Ideal of a novel: thrilling, educational, thought-provoking, morally uplifting.

4 thoughts on “Charty process porn

  1. It sounds like there’s a lot of detail going into this project–which is great to see, from my academic view. I love to read historical novels where there is a deep sense of the history, in the details of every page. It doesn’t have to be an explicit history lesson, but just a minor detail in a description or even an offhand remark makes that “wild magic” (as you call it) work. That’s part of what I love about Umberto Eco’s novels.From what you’ve described, you’ve put a lot of work into establishing the spells of such magic–and I’m eager to see how those spells are conjured. The chart specially fascinates me–<>every<> year, with as many details as you can find? That sounds like a beautiful detailed chronicle! I think most Anglo-Saxonists would love to have something like that laid out in a neat chart across the entire period (c. 500-1066). I envy you for having the motivation and keeping it up!

  2. Well, it’s easier for me because I only have to track the things that will impinge upon Hild and her world. I only follow what’s going on in Gwynned, for example, to the degree that maybe Dwynai, sister of Ceredig, might have married Dunod ap Pabo Post Prydain, and so there could possibly (oh, lots of stress on the ‘might’ and ‘could’ and ‘possibly’ /grin/) have been some diplomatic repercussions from that quarter when Edwin takes Elmet–repercussions for Hild, too, daughter of Hereric, about whose death the whole harrowing of Elmet (my phrase) turns. Also it doesn’t matter too terribly much if I get things wrong. My career doesn’t hinge on accuracy (I so couldn’t do your job…) but on how well I persuade people. In that sense I’m more like a politician than a medievalist 🙂 (Though, again, no will die if I screw up.)

  3. It was fascinating to read about your writing/research process, thanks! I think it takes a long time to perfect such a method and to figure out what works for you. I KNOW I am not even almost there yet!

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