Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Historian vs. Story-Teller

I listen to a podcast while I work out called "The Writing Show," which is immensely helpful. The moderator reads aloud first chapters that listeners send in -- first chapters of their own unpublished work -- and then she comments (glowingly) on what works and (gently) on what does not. The first of these today was the first chapter to a very creepy, disturbing story, with exceptional world-building. It was a fantasy thing, so we were truly entering a new world This writer knew what s/he was doing -- just enough detail to set you where you needed to be, to paint a picture and to engage your senses -- but not too much to overwhelm. This was in contrast to the next offering, which deluged us in too much detail all at once.

Now, I'm a historian by training. Devotion to picky detail is in the blood. And since I am setting my story in a lost place -- 17th-century England -- I am "world-building." I am currently immersing myself in books about Stuart England, and in fact will be paying cold cash soon to get borrowing privileges at Northwestern University so I can get at their tomes.

And I can see myself just never coming up for air and doing research til I die. Or, if I do at last set pen to paper, I can easily see myself deluging my readers with everything I know about Stuart England. But instead, I have to tell a story. My subject is a true event, and I am determined to make it as historically accurate as I can. But the story has to take precedence to the masses of information that I'm storing up. When I write, I will have to have the whole scene accurately displayed in my imagination, and give to the reader just enough to get his bearings, paint the picture, engage the senses -- and that's it, let's get on with the story.

To be honest, I'm not sure that I have the capability of striking that balance.


  1. You are a very fine writer, Joyce! I'd read you.

  2. Joyce, I'm jealous. You have a specific yet unknown adventure ahead of you. You have places to grab handholds on this thing, but its compass is still un-revealed. With patience and many re-reads and tweaks, I am confident you'll approach your goal. But it's kind of amazing that you're trying something that you are not sure you can do. Wow.