Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Iceberg Dictum with Research

For the past two weeks, I’ve posted about a novel on which I’ve worked for years. It’s now near completion. I need only to place a few telling details into scene and character descriptions. Those details will help readers visualize the setting, the clothing, the homes, and other aspects of life in first-century Palestine.

Many years ago I read a book on the craft of writing historical novels. The author insisted that writers do extensive research. Then, if they want to write riveting historical novels, they must use only about 10% of the research. That is, like an iceberg, only 10% should be obvious. From that statement, I understood that I had to steep myself in first-century CE history for the novel I was writing. Only then would it be authentic. BUT, if I used too much detail, I’d lose my readers.

Back in November 2006, having completed an early draft of the novel, I asked a friend of a friend to read it. Two weeks later, she called to tell me all the things she didn’t like about the story. Trying to find something that would help me salvage the book, I asked questions: What there anything good about the characters? No. Plot? No. Dialogue? No. Beginning? No. Ending? No.

Finally, I asked, “Was there anything you did like about the manuscript?”

She thought a long moment, then said, “Well, I could see you did a lot of research.”

She probably thought that statement made up somewhat for her harsh criticism. It didn’t because if a reader is aware of research, that research is intrusive. It sticks out. It’s not woven into the plot, the characters, the story. It becomes tedious.

Her criticisms were so subjective, based on her own bias, that they provided little help as I wrote the next draft. However, her final statement, did. The next day, I began to read through the manuscript, searching for extraneous detail. It was then I realized that in the draft I’d succumbed to the temptation to show off. By that I mean that perhaps I’d wanted readers to appreciate just how much I knew about first-century Palestine.

I spent nearly a month fine-tuning that draft, expunging details that were interesting, but not necessary to set the scene and provide the authenticity necessary. Then I put the novel aside because of a Meniere’s operation. It took eighteen months to recuperate from that.

By then—August 2008—I was working on another book. In 2014, I found myself thinking about the novel and even wrote a blog posting or two about it. I shared the first couple of paragraphs to see if they piqued any interest in my blog readers. They did, but once again, I had to put the novel aside because of health issues.

Now I’ve retrieved the novel from the computer’s innards. Lo and behold, I’ve discovered that in the intervening years I’ve forgotten what I once knew. I need additional research to round out the plot. The lesson is that in my frenzy to delete the extraneous, I nearly demolished the book!


This past week, two bloggers completed Prayer Wasn’t Enough and wrote about it. If you have the time, inclination, and interest, please read Dr. Kathy McCoy’s review here. Her introduction to the review is delightful as she shares her early thoughts about becoming a nun.

Debra Fetterly, a fellow blogger from California who believes in breathing lightly, interviewed me via e-mail. You can find her eight perceptive questions and my responses here.

Iceberg photo from Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Gift for Chapter One

Last week I shared with you the twenty-year history of my work on a novel that takes place in first-century Palestine. That is what the Roman conquerors called the area that the Jewish people referred to as Judaea, the Galilee, Samaria, and the bordering lands.

I explained that since 1997, the novel has gone through countless permutations since I first heard within myself the voice of a biblical character talking about Yeshua, whom most people now call Jesus.

In 2002, after writing a manuscript, which a biblical professor at a local college said lacked authenticity, I began to research the Jewish people, culture, and religion of the first-century of the Common Era. I used the reading list that the professor so helpfully suggested. During that year, I read all thirty-six recommended books.

The next year, I began to write. Slowly, and over several different drafts, a novel emerged. Due to health concerns, I put it aside for four years. Recently I returned to it, only to discover that it lacked a gripping first chapter and a sense of place.

For years, I’d struggled with the beginning. Two weeks ago, a friend’s comment helped me discover where to start—with a scene in which the two main characters meet again. They have not seen one another for thirteen years. The main character—Ephraim—has always felt disdain for the other man—Yeshua.

The manuscript now has them meeting at the Jordan. During this past Easter week, I added to the chapter details I’d researched about the “muddy” Jordan and the thickets that edged the river’s banks.

They meet; they argue. There’s dialogue, tension, the beginning of a plot that introduces suspense and intrigue. But something was still missing. Ephraim came off looking mean-spirited—a rigid man, holding to a grudge. Yet he’s the main character. It’s essential that readers like him. Root for him. I knew that somehow I needed to show that he was in the midst of a crisis of faith. Then readers might feel his anguish and begin to empathize with him. But how to do that in this particular scene?

I was typing along on the computer, adding a detail here, a detail there about what they both wore or the river setting—trying to help readers “be” at the Jordan with these two characters. I typed. Typed some more. Still felt a lack in the chapter.

Then suddenly—without conscious decision on my part—Hashem begins to speak to Ephraim. (Hashem is the name the Jewish people at that time used to refer to their God—the Almighty One.) I typed the words given to me. Ephraim responds. And there—THERE—is the one thing the chapter was missing: the introduction of the crisis of faith that is central to the novel. A thread that weaves the novel, helps hold it together.

I didn’t plan their conversation. Truthfully I didn’t know how to introduce it in the chapter although their combative dialogue appears throughout the rest of the novel. These words, introducing the crisis, came as pure gift.

This week two bloggers read Prayer Wasn’t Enough and wrote about it. If you have the time, inclination, and interest, please read Arkansas Patti’s review here. Her wonderfully entertaining blog is called “The New Sixty.”

Judy Grout, whose website is “Judy Grout, Author,” posted an interview with me this week. You can find her three questions and my replies here.  

Photo of Jerusalem model from Wikipedia