In 1993 I published a novel called The Magic Circle. Readers wrote to me with the full range of predictable questions (“Where do you get your ideas from?” “Are any of the characters based on people you know?” “How much of this is based on real events?” “What happened next?” And the question I find the most disturbing (because I believe it is founded on a societal lie): “What inspires you to write?”). But I also got some fabulous questions (as I always do on any book), the kind of question that made me wonder how I felt about a giant issue. In that book there’s a pious woman who works as a healer for the Lord and winds up being tricked by the Devil so that she has to work for evil; that is, she becomes a witch. A reader asked, “Are you a witch?”
A strange thing happens when I’m writing fiction; I start living in the world of my book. That might seem either false to you, or, alternatively and diametrically opposed, inevitable. But I don’t think it’s either.
When I used to read writers’ claims about their writing process, I often thought they were either liars or into self-delusion. A typical claim that left me flummoxed, for example, was that a character could surprise an authora character could just up and do whatever, without the author controlling the scene. This has to be false in the logical world; after all, the writer is the one whose fingers touch the keyboard. Come on, are writers claiming that someone else is controlling their fingers? But writing doesn’t have to happen in the logical worldcorny as it may sound, it can happen in the psychological world, I think. Some writers form a pact with the process, if you will; they surrender themselves to the story. And the true owners of any story are the characters. I have gaped at my characters’ behavior beforeand realized these characters aren’t, in any meaningful sense, “mine” at all. So if this particular conceit is self-delusion, I’ve been co-opted.
Which means that I now believe it’s true that characters can surprise an author (it happens all the time to me). So at the very least please believe that I believe it when I say equally illogical things about writingsuch as my opening claim that I live in the world of my books as I’m writing them.
When I was asked to write a blog for tor.com, a fantasy site, I felt like a charlatan. Me, a fantasy writer?
When people talk about fantasy, they often mean a story set in a created place and time. In that sense perhaps I never write fantasy. I set my stories in real places and times, so any magic, so to speak, is within a true historical context.
On the other hand, I didn’t live in 1169 (which is the starting date of The Wager), so I had to work from whatever I could find from that time, including written materials, songs, music, paintings, drawings. And I visited the place (Sicily), with the idea that perhaps the geography and flora and fauna in the wild and less populated areas were not so different 900 years ago from now. Still, historical research has remarkable shortcomings that I am constantly being reminded of and of which I’m constantly learning new ones. The historical novelist bathes in delusion.
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