Decisions, decisions! As I have commented before in this blog, trying to figure out what to include and not include in Dr. Blaine’s biography is a constant source of frustration. My mind gets overloaded with so many details that I can’t see the forest for the trees–and the bushes, leaves, sticks, mud puddles, flies, gnats…. Well, you get the drift. Too much information is almost worse than not enough. How do I control this deluge?
In desperation I turned to my file folder labeled “Writing Tips,” bulging with words of wisdom collected over many years from Writers Digest, websites, books on writing, presenters at various writing conferences, and I read through every page. Surprisingly, all of it boiled down to a few simple guidelines: (1) Tell the truth; (2) Include only details that establish the setting, advance the plot, or shed light on the characters; and (3) Explain only as much as you need to. The reader will fill in the rest.
Whew! There is a way through this forest if I just follow the path these guidelines create. Even as I tackle those parts of the doctor’s life that are more exposition than story, I can test each detail that floats into my consciousness by asking these questions: Will it give the reader a sense of the setting? Is it relevant to the story I am telling? And/or will it help the reader understand one of the characters better?
Following these guidelines, I can see now that the story about how Dr. Blaine helped the town marshal capture a shoe thief, although not of cosmic importance, does reveal his impulsiveness and his deep respect for the law.
On the other hand, the menu for a January 1904 Knights of Pythias banquet probably does not belong in the book since it adds only a very small bit of information about the setting. But in case you are a true history buff (and I am too!), I’ll share the menu here. The appetizer was cut oranges and bananas. The main course included cold ham, escalloped oysters, olives, mixed pickles, cheese, biscuit, butter, and potato chips–all cold food except possibly for the oysters. How different from our present-day banquet fare of hot chicken, beef, or fish with all the fixings! Dessert was more what we would call traditional fare: cake, ice cream, and wafers. The differences are fascinating. But you also need to remember that oranges and bananas in the middle of a Midwestern winter in the days before the mass movement of perishables were no doubt a real treat! And not many venues were equipped with kitchens large enough to serve hot food to a large crowd of people.
And so the book takes shape one detail, one story at a time. How all of it will eventually fit together is anyone’s guess. But what sustains me is the “aha” moment described by the contemporary short story writer George Saunders when writing an entire book for the first time: “Of course, I can make a mansion with a series of linked yurts!” And I plod on, writing those yurts with as much finesse as I can and hoping that a mansion will result.
For those of you who also write biography, how do you decide what to include and not include? Feel free to share your words of wisdom by responding to this blog.