Slowly working my way through piles of primary material (travelogues and memoirs) and secondary material (academic articles and books), I’ve realized that my work in developing the script for the performances is more like that of a historical fiction writer. I cannot use the primary material straight up. For one reason, some of the existing translations that were done by orientalists are totally worthless (in some cases blatantly censoring or altering the original), and so I have to translate myself. And, of course, every act of translation adds a layer of fiction.
I also know that in composing 6 performance scripts, I have to not only condense but create composites from different travelogues as none would be suitable for time-based performance, time and its limitation being a key consideration here. Also, inevitably, I am looking at this material not with the intention of doing the work of a historian in revealing and telling historical facts through available documents, but as an artist looking for truths that are based in but not always the same as facts.
One of those lucky coincidences (or a gift of the universe) was a series of workshops focused on writing historical fiction by Marina Endicott who is currently writer-in-residence at Toronto Reference Library. The workshops have been helpful in getting me focused and full of good tips and tools for approaching the work of telling history in a creative/imaginative context. Also, earlier this evening I attended a writers’ talk at Toronto Reference Library, Fact into Fiction: A Balancing Act, facilitated by Marina.
In point-form, highlights of my notes from tonight’s talk:
Voices, voice: do your research until you can hear the voices of your characters
As soon as you write something down it’s already fiction
Plunge in and edit later
Don’t focus on what happened but the significance of what happened
Create the atmosphere, the sense of being there
Spend time with the material until you find the back door
Inhabit the place
Use characters to pose questions
Know the audience’s assumptions and their expectations (and don’t play into them)
Using period language can get in the way and alienate the audience. Use select syntactic shifts (rather than period language) to draw the historical difference
Works of history can sometimes be less truthful than fiction because (academic) history cannot get into how people were feeling
A few points from Marina’s workshops:
The task of the writer is to get to sense memory and then write from memory. To go from memory to words, start from place.
Make a query book: What do you need to know?
Look at images to develop memory
Supplement what you know from the past with sensory details from the present