Friday, March 4, 2011

Knowledge, Or the Lack Thereof

I have lately been experiencing the above conundrum in two of my current works, and it's difficult to work my way out of these states.

First, Knowledge.

I like to research. I am that nerdy girl at school who practically clapped when a research paper was announced. I do super in-depth dramaturgical work when I'm in a play... sometimes for every character or situation presented. Sometimes, my research goes horribly awry, like when I was collecting facts for my 2009 NaNo novel, Remembrance. I sent it away to be edited by a friend, and when it came back, she had noted that most of my research was incorrect. All of my hard work was for nothing, and now I had a very mistaken point of view of English history. Other times, I simply know too much-I research to the point where what I know about the subject can't possibly be worked into the manuscript, especially in a natural, non-info barf-y way. This is an issue I came across recently, when I decided to write my analytical essay for class on my favorite play and its film adaptation, which I also love. I re-read the play, watched the film, collected sources, and wrote ten pages of notes. The essay was only allowed to be 2,500 words wrong and by about 2,000, I had only talked about three of my points and hadn't needed to use a single source because I had so much to say on the subject in the first place.

This latter problem is what is going on for one piece, in a way. When I began writing my Peter Pan play, I waffled about whether to send my main character, Mary, to an insane asylum. As I started doing more research in about February of last year, I came to learn that in Victorian England, seeing things and talking too much about things that people don't want to hear merits you a one-way ticket to a nice padded cell.
I worried that this might be too dramatic and waffled for about six months as to whether to put it in or not. In the end, I decided that she would be sent to the asylum but skipped over the actual asylum part. leaving off when she found out she was being sent away and picking up when he returns. When I presented my semi-finished script to my playwrighting class around November of last year, my teacher specifically requested that I write a scene in the mental institution.
All through this, I had been thinking of doing so, if only for myself, and had been doing research. I learned a lot. A lot, a lot. My entire perception of the medical world in the Victorian era was changed because of the methods they used to cure women of the disease my character was thought to be suffering from (hysteria, the catch-all diagnosis for all inconvenient behavior in the 19th century.) I wrote the scene. I turned it in. I was happy with it.
Then I came to England and started a class called Madness and Medicine in Modern Britain. The class specialised in the examination of asylums in the Victorian era, with a unit devoted to hysteria. I read a dozen articles on it, covering them in highlighter. I took detailed notes during class. I gave my own presentation on hysteria. Then I went back to my script, armed with my new knowledge. Then I realised something.

I knew too much. There was no possible way I could go deep enough into the subject in two or three scenes without making it unnatural and/or confusing a potential audience. I needed to, not dumb it down, but keep it simple, on the surface. Let the audience know what the disease was and the milder ways it was treated (some of the more serious treatments not only shocked me and would be hard for me to write about, but there's no way my fourteen year old character would have been subjected to that... I hope.) However, it's been difficult for me to pull back and see just how much is too much to be dumping on the audience.

Then there's the problem at the other end of the spectrum: too little knowledge. This problem came in when I was working on my NaNo '10 novel, which I've been editing since December.
See, in the novel, my character has a boyfriend. The first time they get together in a romantic way, they kiss pretty seriously to the point where my main character gets uncomfortable and leaves. However, she does let herself get carried away before realising what she's doing.
Yeah... like I know what that's like. Besides not being great at writing kissing scenes- I've only ever written one, and it was more of a very chaste kissing moment- I have little personal experience with the act myself. I've never gotten to the point that Lyddie does in that scene.
I wrote it early in the process and when I shared it nearly a year later, people seemed to think it was realistic. But reading it over this week, I realised that it wasn't serious enough. While the reader knew that she was getting uncomfortable... there were really no details and so they just had to take my word for it, and I don't think that would satisfy many people. That's the problem with this being a novel and not a screenplay. I've written screenplay/play kisses and it looks like this:

(They kiss.)

I can do that (unless I'm the actor carrying out the direction, which I have been. Then I'm just as inept.)
In a novel, especially one being told in first person present like mine... you need more than "he kisses me" (well, at least for this scene. I do in fact have a few more, no-details-given kisses in the book.)
I wanted to add more but what? I didn't know what would go on in a situation like that. So I spent some time on the romance boards of, consulted my favorite book series, and added a bit to the scene.
I'm happy with how it stands right now, but I honestly don't know if it's realistic, and unless I find a lovely English boy who will love and care about me, I don't anticipate getting any real-life experience in the near future that would help me confirm it.


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