This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Creating the Paracosm

            Psychologists say that most children at some point create an imaginary world, known in the professional literature as a paracosm, where they feel more comfortable. As they grow older, most of them eventually abandon the worlds they have created and deal exclusively with the one at hand.
            Those who don’t grow up and abandon their paracosms typically end up behind bars or writing fiction. Reasonable people can disagree over which outcome is less damaging to society.
            Having written fiction, I must confess to feeling a bit of envy for the child creating a paracosm. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense internally, the rules can change from time to time, and it doesn’t have to be shared with someone else who can criticize it. Working in a genre like mystery, where the rules are strict enough as it is, the freedom accorded the child creator is almost unimaginable.

Playing God on the Computer

            As has been often noted, a fiction writer gets to play God. The author can decide who lives, who dies, what happens and what the ramifications are. When I’m writing a book, I can decide whether a character lives to 90 in robust good health or dies in a shootout. I can move someone out of the way temporarily when it suits my purpose or throw them over a waterfall and get rid of them for good. Though, come to think of it, that last one didn’t work too well for Conan Doyle.
            Those machinations, however, don’t make sense or have emotional resonance unless they occur in a created world that feels real to the reader. Creating that world — a world drawn from our own but not quite exactly like it — is a real challenge for an adult author.
            A number of people who have read my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, have asked for instance if some of the settings are this or that real place. I typically stumble for an answer on that one, saying something like, “Well, they’re obviously drawn from real places, but they’re elements of several different ones plus some stuff I made up.”
            That applies to everything — not only the geography, but the people, the situations, the weather. To give just one example, the book takes place in September of 1993, and the dates in the book are exactly as they were for that year.

No Rain in the Forecast

On the other hand, there’s a major afternoon thunderstorm on Thursday September 9. I didn’t even bother checking weather records to see if there were thunderstorms in the High Sierra that day. I needed one to advance the story, so in the paracosm that is Summit County, California, on the east slope of the Sierra, there was one. Any connection to the real weather of that day is purely coincidental.
For me, one of the hardest things about writing fiction is getting into the zone where my imagination is, for the moment anyway, living inside the paracosm I’m creating. I typically have to work myself into that position before I actually start writing, and when I’m there, good things happen; the characters and the story take on a life of their own.
This summer The New Yorker published some excerpts from the diary of fiction writer Mavis Gallant, and one of them resonated with me. “No one is as real to me as the people in the novel. It grows like a living thing. When I realize they do not exist except in my mind I have a feeling of sadness, looking around for them as if the half-empty café were a place I had once come to with friends who had all moved away.”

Originally posted October 2012