Photo: The “backroom”–the excitement isn’t immediately obvious.
Recently, someone asked why I enjoy being an archivist. I could have said that I enjoy order, that I savor finding stories in the collections I’m processing, uncovering them layer by layer and arranging them in a way that future researchers will find them, too. Those are all true. But I said that I enjoy it because of the backroom (not the official name). This is where the archival stacks are kept in a humidity and temperature controlled space, placed on shelves in acid free folders and acid free boxes. In this space, amidst these nondescript boxes, treasures are held that no one but the archivist is privy to. A researcher may come and request access to bits of the treasure relevant to her work, but she’ll never be allowed into the back. There is no feeling that compares to standing alone in that space, to having the knowledge that extending one’s hands will elicit a brush against a box that contains a document over one thousand years old or another that holds a scrap of paper with Abraham Lincoln’s handwriting on it. These are the secrets that lie in the archives.
The concept is similar for a writer. The reader is presented with bits of a character, enough to tell a story, but the writer stands in the backroom of the character’s space. The writer knows all the character’s treasures that don’t fit into the story. The favorite color, the name of the childhood pet, the first, awkward kiss, the second one, and the less considered thirty-fourth one, when the technique is down pat and no longer remarkable. It’s not a kiss that needs to go in the story, not one the character thinks about much, but for the writer it could be the kiss that starts the character along the search for wanting more, for challenging that complacency.
I wrote a historical short story recently which involved hours at the library researching World War One uniforms, guns, the organization of the U.S. Army, battles, life as an American soldier. Almost none of it made it into the story, which was about a single night spent in Paris by an off-duty officer, but I needed to have that knowledge in my head because it would be in my character’s head. The adage is “write what you know”, but I say, “write what you can learn.” If it wasn’t, I’d write a lot about organizing.
I wonder sometimes if readers stop to think about how much the writer knows about her characters. I admit, I don’t think about it too much when I’m reading. Several years ago, I spoke to a playwright and asked her what a character was thinking. She had no answer and acted as if she shouldn’t need one. That was a major disappointment to me. Even if the motivation isn’t on the page, it needs to exist in the writer’s mind.
In my indie novel “Building Arcadia: Blueprints Not Included”, I created a polyamory romance out of three best friends, two of whom were already married. Without knowing what each character was thinking and why they made the choices they made, I wouldn’t have been able to do that in a way that was believable. As a result of hashing out the motivation, I’ve been told by many people who said they don’t normally like or believe polyamory that they believed this relationship and, just as important, were cheering for the characters to get together.
Photo: Cover for Building Arcadia:
So, I stand in the archives both in real life and in my mind, which I share with my characters. I only open the door to the latter archive a crack to let the secrets out, just as I only carry out one box at a time to share with researchers. I can only hope that they are the right secrets, the ones that will hold attention and tell the story they are supposed to tell.
Thank you all for allowing me to share my thoughts with you on Victoria’s blog. This is my first time doing a guest blog, so I hope I did all right!
Links to stories mentioned in this post:
Jean-Paul (part of Uniform Appeal anthology) e-book $6.99/paperback $17.99
Ryan Loveless is a farmer’s daughter. She has a B.A. in English from a private college in Illinois and is pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science with an archival certificate from a university in New York. She has been writing since she could read and has always drifted toward M/M because she enjoyed the relationship dynamics between men, even before she understood what sexuality was. She has several stories with Dreamspinner Press, an upcoming novel with Silver Publishing, and one independently released novel. Visit her blog for the full list.