I first heard about “Book hunters” in Lisa Jardine’s book Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. I’d been learning about Renaissance and medieval history for years and yet I can’t recall ever hearing about the Italian Humanists who would venture into the dark and hidden parts of monasteries to return great books to the light of day. Books that had been hidden away, slowly rotting, their words soon to be lost forever. These men often didn’t know that a particular book even existed any more! They had read references to authors or texts in books that had stayed in the light and they hoped. Of course, many of the retrievals were happenstance: they weren’t looking for that particular book. Their genius sprang from the fact they could recognize what they found when others, such as the monks themselves, had no idea what treasures had been overlooked.
Stephen Greenblatt wrote the story of how one particularly important book was rediscovered and the world of the book hunters more generally in The Swerve: How the World Became Mordern. By the time I discovered this book, I already knew that my medieval mystery was going to have a book hunter as the main character. Reading this book gave me fascinating details into the personalities of the Humanists who searched for lost or hidden books and the type of world into which these books returned.
I’ve spent the last two years choosing my setting and learning all I could about the area. Two years of reading about Medieval France, only to learn at one point that I’m not talking about “France” per se, or at least, not France alone. In the time in which the story is set, France, Provence, and the Papal States built their castles and defended their walls, glaring across the Rhône at one another. I traveled to the area in spring of 2018 to learn all I could about the landscape, both cities and countryside and took many many pictures. I brought back about 30 pounds of books, most in French. Two years of research and it comes down to this:
There is too much.
An interesting sort of analysis paralysis has set in. I have so much information that my characters are drowning beneath the waves of facts. My plot is getting buried beneath the particulars of place and time. And yet? I recognize that there is still so much that I haven’t discovered, so many aspects of time and place that, like the book hunters before me, I can’t even be sure exist to be found but that hasn’t stopped me from looking.
I need to get writing! It’s time to choose what goes in now and what can wait. What will tell my story and what will distract from it. Whose voices need to be heard and who needs to shut the hell up. Time to write what I know and note what I don’t and plan to get the specifics later. Time to start making choices that will shape the novel, at least the first one (I’m hoping to get at least three out of all of this time spent researching).
I decided last spring that I would use NaNoWriMo as the deadline to start writing and NaNo begins November 1st. This will be my third NaNo and I’ve won (meaning, I completed writing over 50,000 words in the month) the previous two times. First in 2007 with the novel that became A Call of Moonhart which I published in 2017. I won again in 2014 with the novel I now call Harmony in Three Voices and that story is now complete and looking for beta readers.
NaNoWriMo has been a good way for me to bypass the internal editor and just write, damnit. Especially in this case, with so much material to choose from, I’m hopeful that a push, get the best thing down and move on approach will get me on track. As a mystery, this book should not be more than 90,000 words by the time I’m done, which means if I win NaNo, I’ll be halfway there (winning NaNo with Harmony meant I was only 1/5 done with the initial writing and wasn’t that a surprise!). I know I won’t be able to keep up November’s writing pace but with any luck, the momentum should see me finishing the first draft by spring.
I have a whole lot to do in the next two weeks to prepare for NaNo. This will be the first novel that I don’t think I can write as a “pantser” but will have to actually outline. Mysteries have a much tighter plot structure than I’m used to and I’ll need to give myself the best framework possible before I start writing. Two more weekends and I’m off.
Wish me luck. Check back in with this post for updates.