September 5th, 2008

Open Book

I Should Practice Calling It "Research" . . .

. . . because someday, I could get school funding to do things like this! ;)

On Tuesday, I got a chance to do the most interesting thing I've ever been able to call research. This seems appropriate to mention, since I talked about research last week.

My research opportunity was a trip to Biltmore House in North Carolina. A few weeks ago, wanting to design a mansion that appears in The Dogwatchers, I searched online for mansion floor plans. Most that I found were, strangely, too practical. They had a few rooms unusual in less-expensive houses (game rooms, indoor pools, etc.), but mostly, I saw conventional rooms in larger sizes. There were certainly no corridors.

Biltmore House, finished for the Vanderbilts in 1895, has forty-three bathrooms. Towers. Twenty-one bedrooms just for servants. A bedroom with gilded walls. An entire room devoted to showcasing a model of the Biltmore House. Not to mention hundreds of paintings, prints, friezes, sculptures, fountains, figurines, ornate furniture, tapestries, and decorations that simply would not have occurred to me (see above, "gilded walls"). I even got a brochure that showed me the floor plans!

Touring the Biltmore helped me in two unexpected places. First, though I had hoped to find floor plans for a mansion in The Dogwatchers, it ended up being more applicable to a totally different mansion that appears in Rabbit and Cougar. Then, too, I found something even more exciting than floor plans: a real sense of an extravagant mansion as a home. In Rabbit and Cougar, one important character was raised in such a place. Walking through that amazing house helped me know him better. It was particularly interesting to think of how the two homes in my novels would each differ from the Biltmore based on their inhabitants, their surrounding areas, and so on.

Beyond that, I've continued to edit. One thing I've found helpful in this process is to keep a chapter-by-chapter log of events, recording in a separate document a list of chapters, each with a note for every important happening therein. It's a sort of retroactive outline. This is great to keep track of plot-related events, even small ones ("First mention of . . ."), but also because it helps me recognize things I need to cut. I keep running across things that, when I condense them to a sentence for my outline, are clearly unimportant to the story - even boring. I've never planned chapters this way in advance; with Lord of the Dark Downs, I kept track of events in this way as I wrote them, but that was to remember whose POV described each event. (That novel had a lot of POV-switching.) I don't know that I could do this in advance. I usually know, while writing, what will happen in the rest of my current chapter, but not after that.

A friend recently expressed trepidation about a class requiring the writing of a novel. (You know who you are. :) ) I suppose it isn't for everyone, but I recommend that anyone who likes writing try it out. NaNoWriMo might be a good introduction for people who don't have class deadlines; it provides an online environment of sympathetic companions to the process. It's also excellent in helping people restrain their editing impulses while working on the first draft. I enjoyed NaNo 2006, when I wrote Dragons Over London. As to the nature of novel-writing, it allows for an expansion of plot and character development that I absolutely love. It also lets you unpack slowly, if you will: for example, my funny short stories are much more laugh-a-minute than are my novels, though I consider them humorous as well. Furthermore, the structure of chapters differs a lot from that of short stories. I actually like novel-writing much more. True, I sometimes get ideas that demand short-story form, and I'm more than happy to write them, but novels are my passion. I wish my friend the best of luck, and encourage everyone who writes fiction to try at least one!