Saturday, December 15, 2012

Historical Context and the Art of Exclusion

Books pile up on my bedside table, stack on the floor, spill from the confines of bookcase, jostle other house-related sundries, and in short encroach into adjacent spaces where they have no business being. Books have the trump card privilege in my cluttered home; all other items will readily be dispensed with but the books are accorded exceptional status. At the rate of current accumulation archaeologists will be excavating the bones of me from beneath a mountain of much-beloved tattered pages.

Embroiled as I am in non-fictional treatises ranging from political, social, medical, and technological histories of  mid-nineteenth American history, I am perpetually finding more books to add to my collection. Unashamedly esoteric and regionally specific as they are: The Transformation of the Medical Profession from 1815-1860,  Frontiers of Change: Early American Industrialization....books on the rise of women's suffrage, on slaves and cotton, on communication and technology, on homesteads and evangelists...the multitude of factors that may have influenced and comprised past lives of the San Franciscan coast residents.

I am increasingly of the opinion that the fine art which must be employed is that of systematic exclusion. The vast compendium of reading provides a visceral feel for a different place and time -  characters appear in my mind as stilted figures in sepia-toned photos of old: posed and staring fixedly. It is only as I become more acquainted with their time, with their cares, concerns and politics that they start to acquire the three-dimensional vitality necessary to transcend the page. With painstaking progress small elements of personality are ascribed to them, their history is incrementally fleshed out, their motivations determined. It is then that my sepia-toned figures start to move languidly within their frames: an almost imperceptible turn of head, a blink of eye, the clattering movement of street-side wagon, and then, if you have read enough, they will whisper to you. Diaries, travelogues, those indispensable first-hand accounts where unfiltered voices relate the quotidian angst and pleasures of a previous age. One begins to garner a sense of their reality, the blank slate of an unknown era becomes gradually inscribed with accumulated knowledge.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, attested that "men who wish to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details." I am a most avid collector of seemingly insignificant details: these sepia-toned photographs from the nineteenth-century were produced by adding a pigment (sepia) made from the Sepia officinalis cuttlefish found in the English Channel.  Mass production of watches in America dates from the late-1840's when Dennison and Howard established the Boston Watch Company. Of the multitude of acquired minutiae only a selective few will be utilized in the final manuscript, and even those obliquely: the large-scale manufacture of watches suggests, particularly as a corollary to burgeoning industrialization, an emerging preoccupation with timeliness.

The art of exclusion, particularly critical in historical fiction, is the process of determining which threads are utilized and which are discarded. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry declared that "perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away." And from the stacks and stacks of books perused, from the notes compiled and scrawled on paper and laptop, very little of the gathered lore makes it through the bottleneck of final edits. It is our own internal slush pile; only the particulars that directly propel storyline and characters proceed. Despite a majority-discard, this compilation of browsed knowledge is indispensable for environmental nuance. A writer's expansive understanding of a period shades the narrative, interweaving through character attitude and circumstance, and contributes to a broad believability of plot-line.  

So with eager anticipation I select another book from the shelf and wonder what insight I might glean from between the pages, how my characters (immobilized in sepia-tone within the confines of my mind) might, based on this particular work, come gradually and fluidly to life.


  1. Another eloquent post, thanks PJ - I completely agree - deciding what to keep in and what to get rid of is one of the hardest things, and an ability that I hope to master with time!!

    1. Yes indeed - it can be a challenge, particularly when many of the details themselves seem to be begging for inclusion simply because they are really interesting tidbits - but perhaps in the final analysis not adding significantly to storyline or character development.

  2. Dear PJ, your (re)search for the truth in your historical figures beyond the Sepia is most admirable. “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”
    ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

    1. Beyond the sepia - beautifully phrased Shari! Thanks so much for your visit - always lovely to see you here! :)

    2. PJ,
      So again you send me hurtling into your written, almost living world of dialogue once more. I thought I had freed myself, but your penmanship keeps pulling at my weakened fortitude for this heavier, deeper reading, and I find myself at your fireside chats once more.

      I've enjoyed stretching my reader muscles, like a gym that pulls on every one of my body parts. The exercise I'm finding is good for me, though I admit, it may not all be clear on the first reading. So I peruse it again, until the meaning comes through. Bravo!

      P.S. May I suggest you take a break from the heaviness of those other finds, and include some humor along the way of a fiction sort. You could use a bit of exercise too, and if you would like I will send you my next book to review. I tremble as I put such works into your more than capable hands. If you decide to take on this task, please be gentle. It's all in fun. Laughter is great medicine at times for what ails most of us.

      Click HERE to opt out. Ha, there is no real button of escape, :-} Cheers, Don

    3. Don - you honor me indeed, I am always eager for literary exercise! I utterly agree with you - the inclusion of lighter humor is indeed essential. In The Goodwin Agenda it was a deliberate exercise to find the lighter vein that served to provide balance,add dimensionality to character personality, not to mention (hopefully) bring light relief and a smile to the reader. So I will take your most worthy and appreciated advice and the next posting will be a humble musing of the comedic kind!