Monday, December 14, 2015

First or Third? Reflections on the Egypt Book

Yesterday I was discussing my new book, currently titled "My Egypt Book" (this is how good I am at titles), with my family. (Digression: The War That Saved My Life was originally titled "The England Book;" Leap of Faith was "Kim's Next Book, Which Needs a Title;" (not making that up), and Halfway to the Sky got all the way to copyediting under the title The Geography of Hope, which I still love but Marketing despised.)

What's the timeline? my daughter asked.

The timeline's a bit problematic, I said, because they discover King Tut's tomb so close to the start of the last year of digging. Pacing the book is going to be tricky. It finished after Lord Canarvon dies.

Why are you still researching, not writing?

I keep finding little things. I opened a book I acquired last week--a recent translation in to English of something written by the director of antiquities in Cairo--and found not only the name but a photograph of the Arabic boy who's going to be a man character. I hadn't seen his name before.

Are you going to use his real name?

Yes. It's Hassan.

(Doesn't it get a bit dicey making up fictional characters based on real people? Yes. Yes, it does. You have to 1) tread carefully; 2) be sure readers know what bits you're making up; 3) only do it with big historical stuff. So that I'll use Hassan's name, but I fictionalized the names of Suzanne David's friends in For Freedom, even though she and I knew the actual names of her friends. They could still be alive, they were bit players in her story, and we had no easy way of contacting them.)

Is he the protagonist?

No. The protagonist--the point-of-view character--is a wholly fictional British boy. This gives me a lot more control over the novel.

What's his name?

Probably Elliot.

First person or third? my husband asked.

That's a game time decision, I said. (Note to family: I used a sports metaphor! Appropriately!)

That doesn't make sense, he said.

Sure it does, I said. Either first or third will be right for the voice, and I won't know which until I find the voice. And that might take awhile.

For the record: Jefferson's Sons--the whole, complete first draft--was originally in first person. My editor suggested I try it in third. This is not as easy as it sounds, and it doesn't sound easy. But she was right, it was better. The half-dozen false starts of The War That Saved My Life went back and forth, first person, third, first, third. We ended up with first, which now that I've finished the book seems like the only possible choice, since half the narrative tension is the difference between what Ada experiences and what she thinks about the things she experiences. But there you are: six false starts and six full drafts later, it all looks like I planned it that way.