History is Not the Past

It pains me to admit it now, but I dreaded the rewrite of Refuge of Doves. Setting aside the first draft of a novel that had poured forth so naturally from mid-January to early April, I opened the drawer on a novel that was already eighteen months old. And still in need of So. Much. Work. But that kernel of there’s something there, keep going had burrowed deep, fertilized by my inherent mulishness. Finish what you started, Johnson. Take this as far as you can. 

And so I dug in.

The very week I began the rewrite, Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed Bart Ehrman, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and professor of religious studies, about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeI will forever remember that Eureka moment, walking through the woods just east of the Chinese Gardens at Fort Worden, when Professor Ehrman said “.. there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that’s miraculous …” I did a little dance right there on that forest trail. Probably scared the bejesus out of any onlooking deer.

 

Serendipity, Baby. 

 

My protagonist is a historian faced with accepting past miracles made manifest in the present. The very suspension of disbelief she faces is the same that any religion asks of its followers. It’s the same that writers ask of their readers when the story leaves the realm of historical fact and plunges into the hinterlands of “what if?” I had been been flirting with this theme from the very first word, but finally I understood how to take the story deeper, to tie the narrative set in the present with that set in the 13th century. To depart from known history and delve instead into the nebulous past. 

 

The story became something different. Not hugely, but significantly.

 

The first change was immediate, drastic, even: I switched the protagonist’s POV from first person to third. Writing this character in first person allowed me to understand her completely, but the story is greater than her character alone. Intimacy and immediacy are richer in first person POV, but third is a better fit for the style of the story. We’ll see how I feel after this week’s read-through …

A minor character was shredded, his scenes folded into others. One major character has gone through three name changes in six weeks, bless his heart. A handful of new scenes written, and one dredged up from a long-ago draft. It’s one those darlings I hated to kill, and there it sat, waiting patiently to find its place. In the end, I excised 10,000 words. And more will go, I’m sure, as I sit down with a paper copy and red pen.

Plot holes opened and scenes were reengineered. The ending changed from happy to hopeful. Love scenes went from blush-making to black-fading or dropped altogether. Dialogue tightened, personalities sharpened but characters became more ambiguous. Hopefully, you’re not entirely certain whose side you’re on. Because few things in life are black and white. Especially the truth.

In two weeks, this happy mess is off to a real, live, professional editor. It will be time. I have a couple of passes to make, an out-loud read-through to get through, but I feel it in my belly. The story is becoming what it should be—its own. Now I am ready for someone to tear it apart and work with me to rebuild. I believe in it in a way I haven’t before. I feel a smidgen of giddy. this could be something.

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But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon. Romeo and Juliet Act 2; Scene 2

 

 

8 thoughts on “History is Not the Past

  1. Those all sound like great changes — I’m very interested in your eventual feelings re: first and third, because I struggle with this *all the time*. I’m about to start a rewrite of the Icelandic story (again) changing the POV character and the POV itself, which I think is probably what I should have done all along. It’s never quite felt right, but I think I know why now.

    Great work – can’t wait to see the finished product.

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    1. Charlotte, I switched twice, n, three times during the writing! I started out in 1st with Lia, switched to 3rd, then back to 1st. And now back to 3rd. I have short stories in 1st and I didn’t even consider 3rd–but it’s such a different feeling and 1st fit the very introspective and intimate tone of those stories.1st seemed over-serious here, and as I commented to Sandra–I didn’t want Lia’s voice to overshadow the others. There’s no question she’s the principal character, but 3rd lends a tone and color that feels like a better fit for this style of narrative. It’s fascinating to play around. I even considered making one of the other characters 1st person–Jordí the priest, for example. Actually, that could work, hmmm…. 🙂

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  2. Stories do have a way of telling themselves. I too started in 1st person with the first draft of ‘Ignoring Gravity’, but realized I needed more flexibility to tell the story and switched to 3rd. It’s a big change to make. I’m so pleased you now have ‘that feeling’ that other writers will understand! SD

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    1. I think that’s exactly it, Sandra- I needed more flexibility with the story, as well as a stronger voice for the other characters- they felt diminished by a first-person protagonist.

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      1. It’s such agony! Having to go back through and correct the verbs and possessives. Search and replace can only do so much- it really effs up dialogue! Oh, the tangled webs we weave. Hey, there’s an app idea: the Point of View Switcheroo- one click and it changes your story’s POV. Could make a killing with that one. 🙂

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