Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Monday, February 6, 2012

Carping For Real

“The Alchemist” by Pieter Brueghel.  This is what the inside
my head looks like when I’m writing.
I am writing a lot at the moment, backing off of the research I’ve been at so happily for most of a year, and actually -- I almost hate to admit it -- writing a novel about Anne Bradstreet.  It is much safer to say that I am “researching the life of the poet.”  Writing a novel sounds vaguely tawdry.  And my Inner Historian agrees; she doesn’t appreciate sharing house space with my Inner Writer, and deeply resents the fact that I am currently taking more advice from my Inner Writer than from her.  She shouldn’t fret too much: I am committed to writing a historical novel that is heavy on the “historical” part.  I want to capture the spirit of a movement that at the moment (as far as I can tell) lives only in the better scholarly histories.

 But if the thing isn’t fun, and readable, and a worthwhile story -- it will never be read.  And that will mean, I now see, that sometimes the historical record will have to be monkeyed with.  EVER SO SLIGHTLY!  For instance, I just wrote a scene with a character in it who was from real life, and who did indeed visit Sempringham Manor, but who I know darn well was already dead in 1629, the year that this is taking place.  He’s a minor character but an important one; and as he is both minor and important, he’s worth violating the historical canon for.  But I couldn’t resist having him say to Anne, in response to her “how have you been:"

“Some say I should be in my grave, but I appear one more time at Sempringham.”

I am experiencing once again the alchemy of writing.  Alchemy is science plus magic; that seems to be what creates my story.  Things happen that I don’t anticipate to make the whole greater than the parts.  For instance, I wanted to write about two old men in particular (both of them real people from the past), because I liked them and because they both had something slightly unusual and winsome about them that I wanted to capture.  I don’t think I started with a Grand Plan for either of them, and if they ended up on the cutting room floor, so what.  But now that I have them down, I see that they might both be Wise Men.  They both have important things to say about the Puritan experiment, things that go past Puritanism and into other more foundational realms.  But as a writer one can’t be heavy-handed with that sort of thing or else no one will buy it.  Maybe I will find a way for them to say what they want to say that is not overpowering but is still deep enough to offer the shading I desire, to make this a three-dimensional story.

When I started with these two old men -- who knew they’d be so smart?  Not me -- and I’m the Author!  That’s the alchemy of  writing, and it is ever a wonder to me.