I don’t find it in my library so I must have relegated it to the Goodwill box. It was a sort of coffee-table book of photographs of the rooms where famous authors did their writing. I didn’t make a list, but I remember being amazed at the number of authors who wrote in bed.
I am sure that not an insignificant number of the people who purchased the book sought to emulate the bedroom style of one of the featured authors in hopes that their favorite writer’s bedtime writing habits might magically rub off onto them as they nestled into copycat featherbedded bliss.
For me, prone translates almost immediately into slumber. It takes but a few paragraphs of reading before the sandman intervenes and kicks the offending volume from my hands. The pages of any book on my nightstand would more likely yellow with age and turn brittle before I reached the final chapter from a prone position.
I do keep a notebook there, however, because I have discovered that in the twilight hours, and before I assume my slumber-inducing horizontal position, much of the busy work of my brain gets set aside and ideas lurking below the daylight surface, like vampires, burst free from their subconscious tethers to float to the surface in the dim light. Were I not to grab them, as I sit on the edge of my bed, they would, I am convinced, sink back into the neurological depths of my cranium, there to become wedged in some dark corner near my foramen magnum, never to surface again.
I am equally sure that many writers who try to emulate the writing discipline of their favorite authors do so for the same reason they might take up writing in bed by candlelight—that the literary magic of their favorite author’s techniques will enhance the quality of their own writing. It can be a fool’s errand, for I suspect that many of those who suffer from it are the same people who attend weekend writers’ workshops in search of the magic formula to effortless creativity. Their time would be better spent creating their own literary disciplined habits.
Talent lies well beyond the reach of home decorating techniques and the choice of typewriters, pens, and posture. If you want to live like Hemingway you’re welcome to it, but don’t rely on it to magically translate into assimilating his writing style. And why would you want to? The roadsides of Hemingway’s African outback are littered with the corpses of writers who sought to bag his style.
Still there is much one can learn by studying the histories of writers who came before us. And, since most of us qualify for inclusion in the Homindae family, we naturally tend to try to glean as much information as possible from such sources historic in the hope that the effort will render onto us improved writing skills from analyzing how our predecessors worked and wrote and thought. But history is a dangerous mentor to a writer. All things rust, oxidize, and accumulate a patina over time. Only recently, through the efforts of such talented historians as Doris Kearns Godwin and David Beschloss, has there been a serious effort to “de-patina-ize” history generally and find the real truths hidden beneath. Writers would do well to adopt this approach when they explore the sources of writing advice and guidance. They don’t need to be negatively skeptical but certainly more demanding about the accuracy of what’s presented.
Famous people, then as now, seek to present themselves in the best possible light, and in part, because of our love of lists and platitudes and idioms, we try to reduce history to its barest essentials and in such truncated forms as lists and checklists. It’s this historical surface mining that is dangerous to the writer. He or she needs to know what resides behind the alleged facts—the emotions and psychological factors that made some writer the writer he or she was. That is where the useful wisdom and usable insights reside and hide.
So as a writer, you must be aware of this element of danger—to accept the surface presentation of history as the ultimate truth—when in search of literary wisdom from popular histories. And you need to keep in mind that the patina that coats writers’ histories is sometimes applied by the writers themselves—not in an effort to outright lie, but certainly to conceal it or put a better spin on it. Shine it up a bit.
Some people stretch the truth, others manufacture it. What writer doesn’t want to project an image of genius and perfection when in fact he or she had to struggle—perhaps embarrassingly so—to come up with what they finally got down on paper. And, truth even gets fuzzier over time, like the parlor game that starts with one person relating a story to the next person and she to the next, and so on until by the time the story comes full-circle around the room it bears little resemblance to the original tale.
To the mix we also have to add the human tendency to forget, especially items of embarrassment or discomfort. It’s a natural process to not want to report the personally unpleasant. Ever come up with a whiz-bang idea and work it into some satisfying product, and then, when you thought about the process, found yourself unable to remember just how the original idea came about? The fact of the matter is you were too busy writing to take notes on the sources and processes that lay behind your creativity. So you forget and/or don’t remember the details. When that happens, it’s also human nature to come up with, i.e., manufacture, some explanation. As a result, the explanation of how fiction writers wrote their fiction turns out to be fiction. That’s why so many of the “magic formulas” in all those writer’s magazine articles tend not to work.
Despite knowing this, writers still suffer from the tendency to seize upon a speech or essay about how some past writer wrote and treat it as Holy writ to glom onto and light candles in its honor. (Hopefully, you’re not into human sacrifice.) Then when it doesn’t work for them they get frustrated and start to believe it’s their fault and that they aren’t up to the task. Writers are a sensitive and touchy lot by their nature and could do well without such self-inflicted wounds from trying to live up to “truths” and “standards” that never existed in the first place.
I’m willing to bet some great writers didn’t become great writers because they gave up, seeing a bump in the road as a mountain instead of the molehill it actually was or failing to duplicate some perceived goal or result. This process resides on the flipside of the concept of repeating the same experiment over and over expecting a different result. If you bang your head against a brick wall and the wall does not move, the lesson should be learned on the first effort. And if you had carefully assessed the situation in the first place, you probably would not have needed to bang your head against the wall in the first place. Blow it up instead! Writers need to do the same thing in assessing whether they can replicate the past efforts of other writers or, more importantly, follow some perceived rules to success—without assessing the veracity of the rules. Does snake oil come to mind?
An important thing for every young writer to understand is that there are no overnight sensations; let alone elixirs for success. The Beatles didn’t spring to life as the leading edge of the British Invasion of the 1960s. They labored hard for years traveling to and performing in the night spots of Hamburg; thus their song, “Eight Days a Week.” We tend to look to the effort of others in order to gain lessons for ourselves and hopefully reduce the extent of our own efforts. It’s this desire to short-circuit the normal processes that gets writers into trouble, and when the lessons themselves are not based in reality the trouble is doubled. Success is rarely duplicated through copying, especially after the complexity of the original effort has been simplified and distilled into a checklist of six rules.
To a writer, history has two prongs—the facts and the lessons gleaned from the facts. It’s dangerous for writers to assume that any presented history is factually correct. It’s best to start with the opposite assumption. The search for the truth—reliable facts—from which to learn needs to have both breadth and depth. Any lessons gleaned or learned need to be founded on the true facts, not those coated in the patina of evolved (truncated) history and legend.
It’s Halloween time so lets take the story of Frankenstein as our example. Our image of him is based mostly on movies and Boris Karloff playing the monster. In truth, Frankenstein was not the monster but the monster’s creator. In the original story, the monster is never named. Anyway, we probably know that Frankenstein, the story, was the creation of Mary Godwin, who would later marry Lord Byron’s poetic friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. The story is that Ms. Godwin penned her tale over a weekend and the rest, as they say, is history—another overnight success story we all wish to emulate.
Ms. Godwin started her scary story at Lord (George Gordon) Byron’s rented manor, Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva back in 1816. Byron had recently attained fame and fortune with the publication his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812. History has it that Lord Byron suggested that the collected group, which included John Polidori, Bryon’s personal physician, write their own scary stories after the group shared several scary tales, no doubt in the front of a warm fire on a dark and stormy night.
In reality, it took several days for Ms. Godwin’s story to jell. And it took further encouragement from her thereafter husband Percy before she expanded it into a novel. It wasn’t until 1818 that Frankenstein’s monster came to life in the publishing world, and then it was initially published anonymously. The second edition waited until 1822, and the first popular single volume version didn’t arrive until 1831. So much for overnight sensations.
The same goes for Dracula, whose embryonic story was created during the same stormy gathering. Byron came up with the concept, but Diodati subsequently relied (“plagiarized” might be a more accurate description) on Byron’s discarded eight pages of notes for a story entitled The Vampyre. Ultimately, it took Braum Stoker’s hand to craft that tale into a hit considerably later in literary history (1897). So Polidori “stole” it from Byron and Stoker stole it from Polidori? Actually, Polidori likely stole it from Rumanian folklore and the tales of Vlad Tepes and his perverted behaviors around 1428.
But back to Frankenstein. A review of history’s finer details also discloses other interesting and relevant facts about the novel. It and Dracula, were written in the epistolary style—based on correspondence between the primary characters. In the epistolary style, the various main characters tell their versions of the story rather than being told by a single narrator. The style offers greater intimacy by letting the reader share the horrors of a story from several first-person perspectives. The technique has fallen out of favor, perhaps not rightly so, but it sheds insights into the creative talents of the group.
Beyond the circumstances of the group’s gathering at Diodati, however, is the literary environment of the times. Scientific inquiry was expanding and likely extrapolations of its boundaries were a common source of dinnertime conversations and great fuel for a fiction-writer’s mind. As Mary Godwin later described her resulting dream (and inspiration):
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life . . . His success would terrify the artists; he would rush away . . . hope that . . . this thing . . . would subside into dead matter . . . he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains . . .”
Today we have accumulated a vast scientific history that allows us to freely extrapolate future developments, but likely with greater difficulty as the boundaries between reality and science fiction continue to blur.
Back then, science was more akin to magic and mystery, of which you can find plenty in the story and the characters of Frankenstein. Light was still measured in candlepower, not wattage. Exploration into the properties of electricity was in its infancy, including the idea of human reanimation—Galvanism—generated by the reaction of frog legs when zapped with an electrical charge. Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, was well connected with the intellectuals of the time and certainly Mary, then but 19, was exposed to a range of scientific discussions about the then hot topics, including the use of dead bodies in medical studies. You can see how discussions among these intellectuals might have given rise to the births of Frankenstein and Dracula.
Plied with fine wine, and stormy weather—itself the product of the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia the year previous—the group saw the usually beautiful weather turn to what one writer described as “melodramatically tempestuous,” including thunder and lightening storms. Armed with these realities, the collective imagination of such a literary group could easily have traveled down many alternative avenues to give rise to enumerable horror plots, and obviously nightmares.
I won’t belabor all the details of the issues that seem to have tentacles attached to the Godwin’s (Shelly’s) story of the reanimated monster, but if you want to delve into the birth of Frankenstein’s monster, you might to read Andrew McConnell Stott’s new book The Poet and the Vampyre – The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters (Pegasus, 2014).
What is important in this short walk through history, is the value of pursuing the road less taken and walking the untraveled trail into the realities and truths of history. So much can happen if you invest in the search for details based on truth rather than the patina of legend. Reality, it turns out, is more fascinating than some legend distilled from long-ago facts. The time spent retracing the realities behind some story or concept or author might well lead to the uncovering and the discovery of some new and unique approach for a story idea of your own. That’s the bonus! This is why as a writer, your approach to history becomes not only a search for accurate details but also a source of inspiration.
Let’s see . . . Someone discovers a body that ultimately is determined to be the Frankenstein monster in the basement of some ancient New York tenement (inherited so you can have fun with the family’s Rumanian history) only to discover that the monster is not dead but can’t live on modern Alternating Current (AC). Quite by accident, your character discovers that car batteries can supply the monster’s need for Direct Current (DC). This monster isn’t initially on a murderous rampage but inflicts copious property damage in search of those delectable electrical morsels under the hoods of modern day motor vehicles. Dozens of cars with dead batteries could lead to such interesting, and terrifying, discoveries. That’s how history delivers the big payoff. When you dig a little deeper, something may well prick your creative and inquisitive mind and story ideas emerges. That’s why history to a writer isn’t the same as history to others. But be careful in all that digging not to nick Dracula. That might really piss him off. Then we’d discover what’s in the box in the corner of the musty basement. The original buddy system!