Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Writing Pains, Part I

This post moves away from the puritans and onto the process of writing. After all, the goal is to write about Anne Bradstreet as well as research her life, though (historian that I am) I could spend the rest of my sentient life researching. Research is fun.

Writing is work. I decided this week to give myself a simple task: describe the countryside of 17th-century southern Lincolnshire, where the story opens. I thought I'd start with a sunrise. Simple enough, eh? It's dark -- the sun comes up -- it reveals the countryside that I want to talk about. And since the countryside is marshy and flat, I decided on a nasty rainy day as a background.

So after another delightful hour of research (did you know that the average temperature in Lincolnshire at the height of summer is only 70? Or that polecats live in forests and not marshes?) I set about my task. And that's when I ran into trouble.

How many ways can you say, "It was dark out?"

It was dark out
Darkness covered the land
Black night ruled over all
The darkness was so thick that it . . . something something
Dark night still covered every stone and pool
It's night, d#*@it!
And on and on

OK, so there's a lot of ways to say, "It was dark out." But I want to say it in some way that is actually fun to read, does not sound like every other "It was dark out" that has been written since Gilgamesh was a pup, and doesn't sound like I'm working way too hard ("Velveteen darkness like a hand of death lay suffocatingly" blah blah).

And that's the problem with describing a sunrise. It is so common, and it is so commonly described in literature of all kinds. There are no surprises for the reader when you're on about a sunrise. Now, what the light reveals might be a surprise, but my lucky readers would be getting a swamp with a noisy moorhen, and that's about it. No body in the pool. No shifty-eyed stranger or preternaturally lovely girl.

I suppose that makes it a fairly decent writing exercise. And the purpose was to fix the setting in my own mind, not write the Great American Paragraph. But I found that it is much easier to write something like this blog than it is to write a believable, interesting sunrise.


  1. what about, as a writing exercise, you go outside before sunrise and get the way it feels?
    not that you could go all the way to Lincolnshire to do that, which would be fab!

    On a side note, my husband feels that the phrase "historical fiction" is redundant. What do you say to THAT?

  2. Susie, you've revealed to me a side benefit of my struggles with insomnia over the years -- I know all about how dawn feels. But here's an interesting note: a cloudy night in our area, near a big city, is very bright; the clouds reflect the city lights. But a cloudy night in the pre-industrial world would be black as pitch, as the only light source -- moon and stars -- are cut off.

    As far as "historical fiction" being redundant -- you tell Jeff that since he can't possibly mean that all history is more or less fiction, then he must mean that all fiction is history, which does make sense to the Trekkie side of my personality. In all seriousness, he does have a point: "history" is a construct of the past; we can never "get it right" completely, and especially with a time as distant as the 17th century, of which only an echo remains in what has survived. It's like putting together a puzzle with only 1/5 of the pieces -- all for all we know, all those pieces are of one corner, and the rest is really gone. Historians of the way-back times don't like to think like that. We fancy we've really got a handle on the past.

  3. I totally hear ya! Studying the craft of writing will help. I have a few suggestions if you want.

    Keep writing!

  4. "It's happening again... the sky lightens, slowly revealing another chapter in this life that never seems to change. And the extra treat for today is that the revelation includes mud and rain. Sigh.

    Of course, this part of the country is a marsh, after all, so perhaps one shouldn't be surprised at the mud. One could do without the rain, though."

  5. You could try outlining your story as a way to get you off the ground.

    Writing an emotionally compelling intro is very hard work that will take several drafts. It may be that you need to just start somewhere in the story and fill it in as you go along. If a scene between characters comes to mind right it down. It doesn't matter if it comes in the logical or chronological flow of things. Fortunately, with modern word processors it is easy to cut and paste. Once you get enough of the story written, you can go back smooth out the bumps and transitions, add the color, the poetic, symbolism, etc. that turns an ordinary story into a piece of literature. The important first step is that you write.