Proactive Interference...A really useful explanation for why it can be hard to keep a story straight...
I've been running into a funny problem while reflecting on the edits for my second Lucy Campion mystery (From the Charred Remains, out in April 2014!).
It's the same problem I encountered when talking to a book group tonight...
I'm having some trouble keeping the details of my stories straight.
Crazy, right? How can I not know my own stories? I spent YEARS writing them (at least A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.) But still, I have notes and charts and timelines and figures (yes, figures!) detailing subplots, tracking character motivations, etc. And yet, I'm still a bit confused sometimes. How is this possible?
So I raised the question of my faulty memory with my chief psychological consultant (literally my resident psychologist, a.k.a my alpha reader). "I wrote the darn thing!" I whined, er, lamented. "How can I not remember all these details? I shouldn't have to re-read my notes to know my own story. Do I just have the worst memory in the world?"
And, with a lift of his eyebrow and a stroke to his goatee, my cognitive psychologist replied, "Ah, well let me tell you about a little thing we in the field like to call PROACTIVE INTERFERENCE."
And here's what he explained:
"I'd imagine it's always harder for the writer to remember the details than it is for a reader. For the reader, there is one reality and it is laid out there on the page. The writer, however, has vividly imagined (and discarded) many realities. These early imaginings compete and interfere with the memories for the most recent version of the story. This proactive interference is a hallmark of human memory and, sadly, it is largely unavoidable. Be thankful that you took good notes in the first place!"
(See why I keep my alpha reader in my permanent employ? He helps me rationalize my disorderly thinking with a neat psychological construct!)
But this idea of proactive interference, and this notion of multiple imagined (and discarded) realities, really does resonate with me. I've found that even though I take notes as I write, I don't keep track of the scenes, characters events, etc. that get deleted or shuffled around. So I retain this memory of what I wrote, even though it's no longer in the manuscript, which is why I'm sometimes confused months later. I also wrote another unrelated novel in the interim, which probably doesn't help with my recall of the one currently being edited.
Perhaps I could do a better job of documenting the changes I make when I write (although, really, it's not like I EVER get rid of a draft!).
But, in a way, I sort of like the idea that underlies this confusion. Maybe it's part of the romantic image of writer as creator: the idea that one being can simultaneously hold multiple realities is strangely compelling.
Or maybe its just convenient to pull out the "proactive interference" defense. Dazzle my questioners with the multiple realities angle, and I can sidestep the missing details altogether.
But what do you think? Will that fly?
the codes in the fire poems...
There's been sort of a funny game of tag going among writers recently, called "The Next Big Thing." So crime fiction writer Holly West was kind enough to tag me, which means it's my turn to answer some writerly questions and tag some other writers.
1) What is the working title of your next book?
After A Murder at Rosamund's Gate releases April 23, 2013 (sigh, yes, I'm still awaiting this great moment), my next book featuring Lucy Campion is From the Charred Remains. That's still my working title at the moment, although I will probably change it when the book gets closer to publication (in 2014).
2) Where did the idea come from?
FTCR continues two weeks after A Murder at Rosamund's Gate leaves off; that is, directly after the Great Fire of London in 1666. So many people, including Lucy, were pressed into service to assist in the great clean-up after the Fire. I thought for sure secrets would have to emerge from charred remains. Of course, plucky Lucy has to be the one to encounter an intriguing puzzle....
3) What genre does your book fall under?
FTCR is a mystery, and within that historical fiction and traditional. I'm not quite sure if readers at Danna's awesome cozy mystery blog would call it a cozy or not, but like Anne Perry's books, it has elements of a cozy.
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I don't want to give away my thinking completely (since I prefer readers to imagine characters for themselves) but I wouldn't be adverse to the compelling Michael Kitchen (Foyle's War) portraying my kindly magistrate.
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Ack! The dreaded one-sentence synopsis. Torture to the writer! Here goes...
Lucy Campion, a chambermaid turned printer's apprentice, discovers in the aftermath of the Great Fire the body of a murdered man; on his corpse, she finds a poem which she publishes, little realizing that this act would bring her once again into direct confrontation with a murderer.
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I am represented by the amazing David Hale Smith of Inkwell Management. Both books will be released by Minotaur Books (St. Martin's Press).
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Given that A Murder at Rosamund's Gate took me about ten years to write (seriously!) I'm amazed to say that I wrote FTCR in just a few months.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I've been inspired by both Anne Perry and Rhys Bowen.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I've been inspired to write these stories ever since I was a doctoral student of history. My husband and kids inspire me every day to keep pursuing my dream...
10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
If you like puzzles and codes, this one is for you...
Maybe the trick is to think like a monkey?
So I'm thinking about starting a new novel, since I'm still in the revision phase of From the Charred Remains. Even though I'm super excited to start book 3 in my Lucy Campion series, it could be problematic to do so. Especially if my beta readers or my editors tell me I need to rewrite the ending of book 2. That hasn't happened, but who knows?
So here are the questions I'm pondering as I procrastinate, er, reflect on this new novel. Most are questions I wished I had asked myself--but of course, didn't--when I began my other novels. There's a bit of choose-your-own adventure quality to this novel-writing business, I find.
1. Do I have an idea that can be developed over 85,000 words? Do I want to spend years with this idea, draft after draft? If yes, I'll continue. If I don't, then I'll stop now. If its not compelling enough to me, than why bother?
2. Where am I going to set this story? Since I like to set my stories in the past, I've been spending some time mulling over backdrop and scenery. While I expect to research details, I find it easier to frame my novel during a time period for which I already have a basic understanding of larger political, social, economic and gender developments and trends. Paging through history texts help me envision specific aspects of the setting. However, I do of course need to find ways to make the "real" world my own.
3. Do I have a point-of-view character? Is this a character I enjoy writing about? Have I thought about what motivates, scares, excites, infuriates this character? Where does this character fit--or not fit--into society? Do I have a sense of her voice? Do I have the image of this character in my mind? Only after I get a semblance of the main character do I feel I can move on.
(Here's where I cheat. I usually find a celebrity who looks something like the character I have in my mind; this helps me remember what I think this person is supposed to look like).
4. Do I have a main problem at the heart of my story? If it's a mystery, that's easy. Whodunnit? But I'm writing a different kind of story this time, so I need to think through the central problem. Until I've worked out why this is even a problem, I find I can't proceed effectively.
5. Do I have a general sense of what the other characters want in life? What kinds of quests, problems, motivations do they possess? Are the goals of my minor characters aligned with--or at odds with--those of my point-of-view character? I do figure this out along the way but I find it helpful to have some starting ideas.
6. Do I have a sense of the ending, and perhaps more importantly, a sense of the middle? I think most writers--and perhaps most readers--would agree sagging middles can really ruin a novel. So I like to think through the middle a bit before I start floundering. I've been in that morass before, and I don't like it. Jump in with a line to the other end, is how I like to think about it! (Yet, I've messed this up twice. Note to self: IN MYSTERIES, FIGURE OUT WHO THE KILLER IS BEFORE STARTING WRITING!).
7. And one last question...How will I ever string together another 85,000 words in a meaningful way? (There's a related question here: Why am I doing this crazy thing?) While I've thought about hiring 1000 monkeys to type for a 1000 years, I'm going to try the best approach I know: After figuring out the shape of my story, I will just take one scene at a time. If necessary, one paragraph at a time. And if really necessary, I will just-peck-one-word-at-a-time-until-the-first-draft-is-done. And that's it!
What about you? What questions would you (do you) ask, when you sit down to create a new novel from scratch? And how many bananas will you need to feed the monkeys?
After Newgate burned down, then what?
When I wrote the first draft of From the Charred Remains, I focused mainly on getting the story worked out--finding the heart and shape of my tale.
I didn't stress too much over language, description, and dialogue on the first go-round--I figured I could elevate my prose later. As for historical details, I frequently had to make my best educated guess about what might have been true in those first weeks after the Great Fire of London (September 1666)...and move on.
Now as I work through draft two, I'm doing the hard--I mean fun--part: Fixing and double-checking all the historical details.
I've already mentioned two of my recent questions (How plausible was the stated death toll of the Great Fire of London?) and (How far could a horse travel in the seventeenth-century anyway?), but here are a few other things that I've pondered:
Since my heroine is now a printer's apprentice (yes, unusually so!) I had to figure out a lot of specifics about the early booksellers and their trade. So I wondered, for example, how did a seventeenth-century printing press operate? As it turns out, the press operated in a remarkably gendered way--parts of the machine were referred to as "female blocks," which had to connect with "male blocks." The interconnected parts were supposed to work together harmoniously, but on occasion--usually when the female "leaked"--the whole press might stop working. (Naturally, the female part was to blame!)
And another question: Since three of the largest prisons--Newgate, Fleet, and Bridewell--were all destroyed in the Great Fire, where were criminals held? I had to make my best guess on this one. There were other prisons of course: Gatehouse prison in Westminster, the White Lion prison, the Tower, and my favorite, the Clink in Southwark. But I decided to invent my own makeshift jail--after all, in those chaotic days after the Great Fire, order had to be regained quickly, and it stands to reason that royal and civil authorities might have wanted lawless behavior contained as quickly as possible. I couldn't find evidence to the contrary, so an old chandler's shop became a temporary jail.
And were criminals still being hanged at the Tyburn tree immediately after the Fire? Executions resumed quickly after the Fire, conducted as they had been since the twelfth century, in the village of Tyburn (now Marble Arch in London). Prisoners were progressed by cart, from jail to the "hanging" tree, parading through the streets--often praying, preaching, repenting or depending on their personality, even swapping jokes with the spectators. Usually they stopped at a tavern for one last drink along the way, before being forced to do the "Tyburn jig," as Londoners cheerfully called execution by hanging.
Of course, I also looked up countless other details...Who used acrostics and anagrams to convey messages? What secrets might be conveyed in a family emblem? And most significantly of all: What happened when the first pineapple arrived in London?
Ah-h-h, but I can't tell you about these answers....I'd be giving too much away about Book 2!!! I don't really have a question for you to answer, so I'll just end with a maniacal laugh...
MWAH HA HA HA HA....!!!
The backdrop of my second novel, From the Charred Remains, begins where The Murder at Rosamund's Gate left off...at one of the most traumatic moments in London's history: The Great Fire of 1666.
Yet as I researched the extent of the devastation, looking at a wide range of sources, I became increasingly perplexed by how few people were alleged to have perished during the conflagration. Over and over, I'd see repeated the same impossibly low numbers--nine, ten, a dozen people.
How could that be?
You see, the Fire--which started in early September 1666 when a baker failed to bank his coals properly--raged out of control for several days before the winds mercifully shifted. In that time, the Fire destroyed thousands and thousands of homes and businesses, and a hundred thousand people were left homeless.
Just imagine--as I've tried to do--the mayhem, the panic, the crush of humanity. Could the elderly, the infirm, the drunk have fled so easily? And what about the inmates of Newgate prison? It's unlikely the wardens of that dreadful place would have thought through a systematic evacuation plan.
And yet, historians have long pointed out (very reasonably, I might add) that the death toll could not have been very high. Someone would have noticed. Surely, someone would have written about death on a massive scale.
But, such written accounts don't exist.
Contemporaries (such as Pepys or other chroniclers from this time period) only noted a handful of deaths. Two elderly women found huddled by St. Paul's. A young serving girl afraid to jump from the third story of a building in flames. Such tales are scattered about, but they are notable in their rarity. More significantly, the Bills of Mortality, which carefully documented all deaths from the plague and other misfortunes in the 1660s, did not describe any great numbers after the Fire.
Cover up? hmmmm....
As it turns out, I'm not the only one who has pondered this very question. Neil Hanson, author of The Dreadful Judgment, has made a compelling argument that thousands may have perished in this blaze--in direct opposition to the commonly accepted view.
Hanson raised two important questions: Why were these deaths not recorded, and what happened to their bodies? (You can read his fascinating address to the Museum of London here).
Sadly, Hanson's conclusion is deeply troubling but may well be accurate--the bodies of the missing had simply disappeared into the flame. Everyone had missing neighbors who never returned....numbering in the thousands.
So, this is one of those odd cases where the silence of evidence could be evidence in itself.
But what do you think?
As I work on From the Charred Remains, the second book in my Lucy Campion series, I keep getting plagued by this question: How long would it take a horse and carriage to travel from London to Oxford in the mid-seventeenth century?
Check out my post at the Bloody Good Read on this topic! Let me know what you think!
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.