Deliberate Writer’s Block

The novel I didn’t have any intention of writing—it hit me without asking—brought all the usual wonder and baggage of such inspirations.

The wonder was an entire outline, including highly-detailed sections, crying to be put to digital paper before it was all lost to memory.

The baggage is that no matter how exciting such inspiration can be, there are always holes in the plot, nameless characters, and items that feel right for addition—but are not.

Here’s how I went about merging the blessing and the curse of the “unwanted” novel…

The Blessing

First, I let the ideas that were detailed—the sights, smells, specifics of apparel, character mannerisms—get right to work. Where these details went did not matter, as a division line separated the unfiltered bits into “add later” chunks of nearly complete content.

There was a deliberate choice to disable my inner editor. No editing after the fact, aside from basics like spelling—just get those words down!

And, as it turned out, about 20,000 words spilled out in various stages of disarray.

As the feeling of immediacy waned, I forced myself to step back, to create a writer’s block. I put as much of a curb on that desire to “write the book” as possible while the second issue was addressed—the baggage.

The Curse

Writer’s block engaged! Two months were spent immersed in period and particulars research—and more will be required, as Angel Eyes would say, to see the job through.

Each component of research could be a post unto itself. The channels and resources alone were diverse.

Phase one, an easy one that any author can do, was based on internet access—scouring the web, poring over contemporary (both time and place) images and maps, reading dozens of semi-related online articles to get a feel for the pulse of the period.

Taking a sample nugget panned in this way was finding a competition in 1874, on the Eastern seaboard, in which Americans competed with, and won, a highly-coveted prize for shooting at distance. And the tie-in for a novel focused on a former buffalo hunter?

Only this—the competition provided historical reporting and first-hand witness accounts in a formal demonstration of the accuracy, range, and overall handling of a gun that was already in the “write me down” details section of the original inspiration. Hours of research on a single rifle may yield a few thousand words, but more likely only a few, or even none.

But anything said of the firearm will be as accurate as the firearm itself.

As the “blessing” portion of the novel outline required a realistic, but unusual, hand-made doll potentially representative of ones created by the Ute tribes of the mid 1870s, it was time for creative research. Again to the web, where auction houses were a surprise find.

Auction houses that sell a historical item detail the general method of construction, the materials used, and have color pictures in moderate to high resolutions. A gold mine for a man not well-versed in Native American dolls of the 1850-1880 period.

On-site research was also conducted, and extremely necessary. The novel was always in a southern part of a mountainous region—a real location—and at some point the historical maps, contemporary images, and books on vegetation or animal life ceased to progress the goal.

Two excursions in particular are notable.

The first was a visit to the Denver Botanical Gardens. It is one thing to see a Google image of a Douglas Fir or an Apache Flame, quite another to see it in person, to lean into and sniff, to trace the leaves or bark, to capture the details of scale and texture.

What would smell like if stepped on by a horse? Stomping around in a manicured area of delicate flora wasn’t an option, but the overall the experience was very close to on-site locations, given prior research on the vegetation expected for the novel’s locale.

And because so many “possible” types of plant life get packed into one area, a hike through the real landscape of the area could miss half the possible species—nor identify a single one with helpful signs.

The second field trip of a botanic nature was one of sheer quantity.

In six hundred miles, driven leisurely over two days, an author—take a camera along—can feel the sweeping, humbling nature of the mountains. Even for a creative mind, it is nearly impossible to imagine the millions of quaking aspen, or the winding stands of cottonwoods.

Perspective is everything in such a journey, and populations require no research. The isolated examples of the species, as is found in the botanical gardens, was muted by the density of the dominant vegetation, hundreds of thousands of acres of it, with shifts visible as peaks soared from grassy meadow to deciduous, to pine, to barren scalps above timberline. The patterns of growth could write whole passages on the side of a guard rail.

Moreover, several stops allowed for additional photography of unusual rock formations, memories of the mountain-sized blankets of aspen and pine, of “old” if not contemporary buildings and mines, some abandoned, some in use.

All these must be seen to be fully appreciated, and only with understanding on a grand scale can such glory be conveyed to a future reader.

With a long parting sigh, for the beauty of the less-traveled country is a siren song, it was back to civilization and the tame round-ups of domesticated resources.

Additional searches included visits to local libraries, where soft words and endearing respect can put your paws on rare books, delicate yellow maps, biographies out of print for a hundred years, and primary source materials for nearly any given place and period of note—however small the note—all of which can be reviewed, often without a time limit beyond the patience of the attendants for the most precious of the materials in hidden alcoves and restricted floors and basements.

Not everything was hidden where one might think to look. As a random example, a geological map of the primary metals and minerals, with dates of highest extraction and activity, was found hiding in plain site, a copy of 13 packaged maps near the “Minerals and Gemstones” section of the Natural History Museum’s traditionally low-grade gift shop.

Throw onto the specifics a few solid overviews of history, and the end is in sight. Whether checked-out from libraries or—to go higher tech—on a Kindle or Fire or via PDF on an Android or PC, or even—gasp—real books purchased from stores, the “big books” placed the many details into a framework of the contemporary world.

A solid refresher of area history could take years to delve into completely, but an example hitting the quick of the research “curse” for this novel was the excellent Blood and Thunder, which offered a nearly immersive glance into the general situations, thoughts, perspectives—and of course, actions and words—of the contemporaries to the book’s primary movers and “typical” mindset of a long-gone population.

The curse is lifted, the block is gone. While research is never-ending, it’s time now to revisit the blessing and greet it with full force and fast keys.

Update 6 years later—this finished novel will be published as Sevenfold.

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W. Sheridan Bradford writes horror (All Hallows, The Buzzkill) the old west (Rimfires, Sevenfold), contemporary western fiction (Born Again), science fiction (The Wreck of the Molon Labe), and is the author of numerous short stories and poems. Usually found in: Colorado, New Mexico, or Texas.

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  • Elias V. Little July 1, 2013, 9:15 pm Link Reply

    You can also research these other worlds. I spent a year and a half reading about ancient Egypt, going to museums, and visiting Egypt, so that my novel would be as true to history as possible. Or you can study medieval weapons and armour, and learn about the behaviour of real dangerous beasts like lions and crocodiles, to write about your knight fighting the dragon. All these true to life details will make your story come alive, and make it more original.

    • Sheridan July 3, 2013, 4:48 pm Link

      If there is a happier tourist than the well-prepared visitor, I have not been or met them. To imagine, research, view photos, and after much work and thought, to finally put a hand and eye on the reality of a place—what a wonderful sensation that is.

      The second example is equally fascinating. There was a large-scale reenactment at Gettysburg for its 150th anniversary recently, and it underscores the understanding that while one can attempt with great elaboration to imagine or recreate worlds, and indeed can glean fantastic amounts of information from visiting those that can still be visited, it is left to the imagination to work with extinct or unreal species and periods of time.

      It’s a very different sensation than arriving as witness to a pyramid or castle, but it is a thrilling one. Perhaps the greatest Coliseum is the creative mind, which can overcome a lack of first-hand, primary research, constructing the world it can be sure of, and then also—gently, intelligently, build-out with fact and feeling, reconstructing fallen parapets and draping every inch of imaginary beasts in lifelike rendition.

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