by Cameron Alam
Once upon a time, I thought historical fiction was written the way a house is built, brick by brick, word by word, the author using her mortar of craft to adhere words together into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters as the story is formed. When I sat down to write my novel and thought I might find comfort building up a story from stacks of research, my actual experience was… uncomfortable. Those first bricks were heavy. With glistening brow I laid them down, used a level, repositioned them, made them straight, spread on mortar, added more. The work felt tedious. When I paused and stepped back to observe my early writing, what I saw was as dense as a brick wall.
I wasn’t the only one. When I handed my first chapter to a trusted friend, she returned after reading it and said, “I cried with joy, because you are writing your book!” And then she delivered the critique I had asked for. The scene felt compressed, condensed like a short story might be, as though I had bound my sentences together tight so as not to waste my readers’ time. “Waste our time!” she urged. “Allow your words to take up space.”
For a while after her observation, I soaked in hot baths in place of writing. I was intimidated by the thought of my words taking up space. During one of those contemplative baths, while I was lost in steam, I heard a voice. Not the voice of one of my children searching for me, nor my husband wondering when dinner would be ready. Another voice, just as palpable. I recognized it immediately, as though it belonged to a kindred spirit. It was the voice of my protagonist’s older brother. He wasn’t talking to me. He was simply talking…and on and on. I wondered if he had been waiting for someone all this time. Or if his words had been echoing in the ether over the past two centuries and in my meditative state I had picked up some obscure signal which allowed me to listen in. I wondered why it wasn’t her, my central character, the young woman I was aching to know, to better understand as I observed her through the obscuring mist of generations. Where was her voice? Was it as bound-up as mine? Whatever the reason for her silence, once I heard her brother’s voice, I could not unhear it. It filled me with wonder. And answers. Here was someone unapologetically willing to take up more than a little space with his own words.
When I took up my pen again and returned to writing with fervor, I knew historical fiction need not be written like a house is built. It need not begin ground-up from research, in a methodical fashion, brick by brick, cemented together for stability with no room for the author’s own voice. I felt considerably more like a sculptor or a whittler, considering a lump of clay or a piece of wood, than a builder. I could see the outline of the form hidden inside. I could hear it, thanks to my protagonist’s older brother. And once that hidden form was revealed to me, she finally revealed herself too, my protagonist, as though she had been waiting for that moment when I would push aside the sense of obligation to build brick by brick and lose all concern for wasted time. A writer’s words, my words, I learned through what she revealed to me, are the gift we are given to draw life from story.