I began preparation of the first novel. (ultimately titled The Nightrunners of Bengal) The subject must be the most powerful to my hand: the Indian Mutiny. I spent two days wondering whether I could afford to start with another, for the Mutiny was so great a subject that I really ought not to tackle it until I was better equipped to do so. But a man being charged by a tiger is wise to use his biggest gun the first time, there may not be a second. So the Mutiny it was.
. . . What was the natural second level (story behind the story) of the Mutiny? That stuck out a mile: the fact that good men on both sides were turned into beasts . . .
The next problem was research: now or later? I knew the principal events of the Mutiny, and more important, I knew roughly why it had come about, and what most British and Indians felt about it at the time. If I did a lot of research, I would dredge up more detailed information. I would find out what young ladies wore at formal balls in 1857, what was the correct way to address a deposed Rajah, the names of Havelock’s aides. But it was not certain that I would want to use any of that information, so the collection of it might be a waste of time. I also knew, from correcting Staff College papers, that once a man has done research, he has a strong tendency to make his reader swallow the fruits of it. I could see the danger. After all, it would seem a criminal waste, once I had with so much effort dug up the fact that Tippoo Sahib used to give his pet pug dog champagne for supper, not to use it. To hell with the architectural line and ornament plan of the book — stick it in.
I decided to leave research to the end. If my broad plan was not right, I had no business writing the novel in the first place. After I had done the first or second draft, I would find out whether the greased cartridges were introduced on April 1 or March 1, and I would make out a calendar for the year 1857 so that my Sundays fell on the right dates . . . important because on Sundays the British troops went to church, leaving their arms behind, until they learned better.
Research costs time, which is money, and sometimes travel, which is also money. I wrote Spirit Deer first because I could dive in with only a minimum of research. I also wrote science fiction and fantasy first, not only because they are my first love, but because I simply could not afford to write anything else. (See 208. The Cost of Research)
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Masters says that critics of a certain type, in the early fifties, believed that writers should take sides in the political problems of the day . . .
I did not. I had come to believe that the writer’s duty, as a writer, is to offer some effectively worded insight into the human condition. If anything else, a particular situation, for example, is at the center of his work — that is, if the situation and not the humans are the essentials of it — it will not last, because all situations change. It is for this reason that Of Mice and Men is a greater work than The Grapes of Wrath. The Depression has long gone; George and Lennie live forever.
I don’t fully agree (not that Masters expects me to). George and Lennie types and Depression type economic disruptions both, sadly, live forever. The Joads were stopped at the California border and undocumenteds are stopped at the Southern U. S. border. There is no essential difference.
It is certainly true that novelists who treat events through the actions of people with whom we can have sympathy, will get their point across better than propagandists. Uncle Tom’s Cabin started the Civil War by making northerners care about particular, fictional slaves. I have always had strong feelings about overpopulation, but I could not write with any effect until I wrapped the problem into the story of the colonization of Cyan, by people we could care about.
If these three posts have seemed a bit disjointed, remember that my intention has been to give bits and pieces of Masters’ advice to an audience that otherwise might never see them. The entire books is worth reading, if you have the time and patience.