Yesterday night, I worked on my Folkroots column, which is due on January 5th. I thought you might be interested in how I went about it. It’s a bit of a random process, working on a column. Not like working on a story.
For me, writing a story is a linear process. I have an idea of what the story is about, of its arc, in my head. And I start at the beginning, and go from there.
That’s not how a column happens. I’ve known what this column is going to be about for some time: vampires. I’ve also known the first line: “I don’t like sparkly vampires.” That first line gives you, in a sense, the thesis of the column. It’s going to be about bloodthirsty vampires, the kind that actually suck blood, that try to invade England and form a vampire army. The kind you decapitate. And I’ve known the basic organization of the column: first I want to talk about vampire folklore, and then I want to talk about literary vampires.
I have about 3000-4000 words to do it in. That includes notes and suggested readings.
The first thing I did was assemble my sources. I have on my desk beside me The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, the Penguin edition of Dracula, and Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, which contains a description of the Mona Lisa as a vampire. I’m going to quote from those. I also have the Bedford edition of Dracula, because I was the research assistant for that book and it contains contextual material that I want to look at. I also took another look at a website called Dracula’s Homepage, which looks appropriately lurid but is actually a reliable scholarly site created by Dr. Elizabeth Miller, who is an expert on Dracula. In addition to assembling my sources, I went to the Boston University library website and identified several reliable texts on vampire legends that I should be checking out later this week.
See, this is Folkroots. It’s not some random website. When I say something, no matter how casual my tone, it needs to be backed up by research. If you research vampires on the internet, you will find plenty of websites that tell you there have been vampires, or creatures resembling vampires, in all cultures. (And they will provide little or no documentation. Sometimes I think they’re all repeating each other.) That may be true, if you have a fairly broad definition of what a vampire is. But the vampire as we have inherited it comes from the 18th century, and it is primarily a literary creation. The vampire of folklore, which is an Eastern European phenomenon, is quite different from the literary vampire, closer in some ways to the zombie. It is most emphatically not a seductive aristocrat.
Where was I? Oh yes, describing my process. While I was doing all this, I was also identifying images that could be used for the column. I’m responsible for identifying 3-5 images for the column, which need to be out of copyright. Once I find my images, I have a better sense of what I’m going to write about.
Then I started writing. I wrote the introductory section, which should both draw you into the column and provide a basic sense of what the column is about. The drawing you in part is especially important to me. I think it’s important for the column to be scholarly and accurate, but also to appeal to the reader, to say, “Hey, here’s something you may not have thought about, but that I think you’ll fine interesting. And by the way, I have a perspective on this, which you may or may not agree with.” That perspective – it’s something columns often lack, but aren’t columns more interesting with it? I’m not just giving you information. I’m also giving you my thoughts about that information, how I relate to the material I’m presenting. You may agree or disagree with me, but at least you won’t have the illusion that you’ve simply being given a list of facts. Because that is always an illusion: behind the blandest facts is a columnist, selecting them. And that columnist has a perspective. I want to make sure that perspective comes through in my columns.
I wrote about as much of my column as I’ve written of this post, about the same number of words. I did not write it in a linear way: there are bits and pieces I will eventually connect to one another. It’s easier to write that way when you’re taking material from sources. You get down the material first, and then you work on creating a linear narrative.
I’ll be working on it again tonight, and every night until it’s all put together and sent to the editor. I hope he’ll like it – and I hope you’ll eventually like it when it comes out in Realms of Fantasy, the April dark fantasy issue.