Guest Post on Read Between The Lines
A little about the research that is going into the Newirth Trilogy.
(visit Read Between the Lines, click here)
What research went into writing the Newirth Mythology Trilogy?
THANKFULLY, Mark Twain issued the foundational dictum giving we fiction scribblers at least one starting scenario when faced with a blank page: “Write what you know.” At least we’ve got that. Of course, the imagination has a lot to say about what goes on the page also, and its content is rooted in mainly lies—all of that wonderful made-up stuff. And there’s the magic trick—one must incant a tale with some plausible believability (and reveal some human truth), while lying one’s ass off. Simple, right? Thus, we research.
As the The Newirth Mythology plot began to unfold and the pages piled up, I started a list of the story’s subject matter: mythology, poetry, the lifestyle of a portrait painter and his craft, the day-to-day of a clinical psychologist, medieval Europe, overseas travel, the 70’s rock scene, good scotch, fatherhood, writing, and of course, sword fighting. I wasn’t too terribly surprised to see that the list closely resembled a menu of my personal obsessions and pursuits. So, sure, I am a rock musician and I’ve toured all over the world, I’m a lyricist, I’ve published some poetry, I’m a painter, I know a little about psychology, I’m a dad, and a writer that loves the occasional dram, and yes, I co-founded a sword fighting consortium. Write what you know, indeed. A few chapters into Part One, The Invasion of Heaven, however, I discovered that I wasn’t writing what I know, but rather, I was writing what I wanted to learn more about, which makes research my favorite part of the scribbling process.
Of course there are volumes written on research method—qualitative craft and strategic procedure—and I’m certain that my humble approach is nothing new. But the best pieces of advice I received on research were collected at different times in my life. My dad said Ask, my uncle said Read and my dearest friends say Do.
1. ASK. My dad always says, “If you don’t know, ask someone and talk about it.”
When I didn’t know how to work out a particular problem in school, Dad encouraged me to ask my teacher. A teacher himself, Dad had a lot of experience assisting with the how to questions. The advice stuck with me. Working through Part One, The Invasion of Heaven, I engaged in daily conversations on mythology, medieval history, science and psychology with college professors, professionals, artists and friends. For what conversations are better over breakfast or a glass of scotch than those examining the relationship between art and psychology, or the possible existence of an afterlife, or the strides toward immortality through genetics? Talking it over and keeping good notes has provided me a working vocabulary, a wider point of view and some relatively provocative story ideas. What’s more, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with amazingly talented and smart people. The best part, I think, is that this research hasn’t yielded as many answers as it has questions. Thankfully, there will always be more to ask about.
My uncle Stan encouraged a healthy diet of books. Another habit built in childhood. Through the influence of my college professors I was exposed to the books that would become the stepping stones for my own work. Classical mythology, medieval literature, and poetry both old and new, seduced and transported me. Because the Newirth Mythology’s plot parallels historical events, I also delved into the history books.
The wonder of the internet, too, was extremely helpful in learning specifics I could not find in texts, as well as allowing me to keep up with the latest scientific advances. Sections in Leaves of Fire are dedicated to genetic engineering and DNA research.
Most importantly, I let the style and expertise of my favorite authors wash over me. Like listening and watching my favorite musicians, reading the books of the authors I admire always teaches craft, voice and structure. Their story telling magic is just outside the scope of research. The old suspension of disbelief bit. Magic a little difficult to catch if you’re trying, and seemingly simple if you forget you’re holding a book. That telling the truth while lying thing they do so well.
3. DO. If you don’t know, go do. Friends are the best instigators. (However, do the stuff that won’t get you into trouble–or at least, not too much trouble.)
The five senses—the best research.
When my dear friend Monte brought two swept hilt rapiers to my house one winter afternoon, long ago, he made this introduction, “I’ve never fenced with these before—I thought it would be fun if we gave it try together.” So my study of fencing began. Since I was a kid with a branch for a sword and trashcan lid shield, I’ve loved the idea of swords and sword fighting. I had not entertained pursuing it in adulthood until Monte’s gift.
It’s one thing to discuss the idea of being caught up in a sword fight—yet another to read about characters in a famous duel. But to actually feel the sword hilt in your hand, the weight of the heavy armor, the ache of your legs and the burning in your lungs as you struggle to keep your opponent’s blade from stabbing into your body—well, there’s nothing quite like it. The real research. Sure, everyone loves a good sword fight, but until the point of a blade is thrusting toward your eye, all of that talk and all those books are mere shadows. Several times while writing a particular sword fight I would choreograph the exchange with another fencer. Not only fun, but it’s incredibly informative, and it reveals a view into true-to-life duelist movements.
The Newirth Mythology challenged me to do a lot of things well out of my comfort zone. To understand more about the story’s portrait artist, Basil Fenn, I’ve took up oil painting after years as a watercolor artist. I’ve traveled to countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea as the ghosts in the stones and ancient temples appeared in the narrative. Main character Loche Newirth, at the beginning of the tale, falls fifty feet into ice cold waters. I made myself try that, too. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite fifty feet (and it was summer), but still, it was a little scary. The notes I scribbled about the experience made it into the book. The icy waters and the terrible height was where the lying came in.
Then there’s the return to my personal day-to-day. My experiences as a rock musician informed the 1972 backstage, rock concert scenes in Part Two, Leaves of Fire. Watching my son grow from a toddler to a little boy defined the characters of young William of Leaves and Edwin Newirth. Relationships, stories from friends, things people say, and more—I try to catch as much of it as possible.
I like to think that Mark Twain’s write what you know really means share the things you learn.
It’s an invitation to we scribblers to go out and know something. Ask questions, read about it—to get in there and experience it for yourself. And then, we get to do what we love to do, write it down. Ultimately, the research going into The Newirth Mythology serves a higher goal. A goal not surrounded by facts or figures, but rather, the infused magic of fiction. The thing our favorite authors conjure for us—how they transport us—deliver us. Through all of the conversations, books and experiences we use as a foundation, we scribblers are really working toward knowing how to write magic into our tales, and become better liars.
MBK, July, 2015