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Some Fish Are Just Too Big
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Saturday, March 26, 2011 12:14 AM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hi all,


Anyone else have a concept for a novel that's just too ambitious to sit down and write?  Something that would require so much research or other legwork that you settle for something smaller?


Mine's an alternate history novel about the great war between whales and men.  Reading about early whaling, I was always amazed by the power of sperm whales in particular to destroy our sailing ships if that's what they put their minds to.  And I'd ask myself, what if they were just a little organized about it?  What if they had a plan?  The whales would know what we were about, and they'd see us for the ocean destroying menace that we are and they'd take steps...


So I imagine terrifying sea battles between humans and whales.  Sea travel trapped in the dark ages.  Extensive alternate history of a Europe without an age of exploration--at least not of the sea.  The age of exploration postponed until Da Vinci's flying machine is perfected by some crazy inventor named Ben Franklin out of Liverpool.  Colonialism postponed, or greatly reduced.  The Spanish Armada reconceived to do battle with the cetaceans.


Meanwhile, North America never sees small pox, the Aztec and Mayan Empires never fall but expand and create advanced technology, the natives making treaties with the whale tribes, learning to speak their languages.  What happens when Europeans in rudimentary airplanes clash with untold armies of Native Americans riding pissed off whales?


Anyway, you get the idea.  Great, right?  But wait a minute!  If I'm gonna do this right, I need to know EVERY-FREAKIN'-THING there is to know about European history, at least between 1492 and the present, economics, everything about Mesoamerican culture, Native American languages, sea battles of every age, history of flight, it goes on and on and on!  Now, I have an amateur's knowledge in several of these areas and a better than amateur's knowledge in a couple, but I know it ain't enough!  I don't want to half-ass this!  lol  But I'm not ready to bury myself in the library for 5 years either!


S'wanyways, anyone else have a brilliant idea that is just too freakin' huge to actually work on (yet, of course!)?



Posted: Saturday, March 26, 2011 11:18 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 216

One rule I tend to follow is “Write what you know.” You can’t go wrong with this. If you’re a history buff, a music buff, an art buff … write about that. Otherwise, you could embark on a painfully arduous writing journey with no payout, ever – simply because you cannot assess the marketability of such a dense tale in today’s market. What sounds intriguing to you might bore readers to tears – we all had to suffer through history classes, and not too many people enjoyed it. (Well, I did, but then again, I’m not “most people,” either.)

Dan Brown’s novels worked because, hey … the Louvre, Paris and the Mona Lisa! Everyone knows the Mona Lisa, even if he/she isn’t a student of art history. This topic is very accessible and made for an interesting (if factually-flawed) book. One of the main things that Brown was raked over the coals for by those in the know. There are various interpretations of history, and you have to get the right one. Or at least, the version that most people can agree with.

I’m not saying don’t do it … I’m just saying, you better really be married to this project and make it really riveting.

I would never take on dense topic matter because I'm not sure there's a big market for it. I find it difficult enough to write about police procedure, and I come from a legal background. Even writing about the small things you think you know can be quite challenging! ☺

Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 12:42 AM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 51

I've got an idea for a novel that has been percolating at the back of my mind for well over a year now. I think of it as my magnum opus, the one work that will define all other work that I do. It's a little bit sci-fi/fantasy, a little bit literary, a little bit commercial, a little bit historical, and a little bit romance (it would probably just be classed as "literary" when it's all said and done, though).

It's high-concept as hell and it honestly scares the crap out of me. I feel like I'm just not good enough to do it justice yet. Maybe I'll get there at some point, and I'll dive into it. I made one attempt a few months ago, but it was just awful. I've since re-thought it and am going to go in a slightly different direction with it if/when I try again.

Research, in general, doesn't bother me, though. Over-researching can be just as much as under-researching in my experience, as we have a tendency to want to throw in everything we've learned, just to show we know what we're talking about. Unfortunately, readers usually don't care unless it has direct bearing on the story.
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 2:07 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 245

I'm right there with you. I have an idea for an adventure novel a la Indiana Jones (though not derivative) but the amount of research for the story is just intimidating. I mean, research is something I'm used to. I have a master's degree. But we're talking having to research everything I can think of that might come up in the course of three books (there's a bit of a trilogy idea, though each book would be its own adventure and there'd be sort of an overall character arc to span the three).

And all of that has to be done before I can even start to think about plotting the novels. Let alone writing the first one. I have all this background stuff done, there's more to do still, but I'm stalled because of the research element.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 6:28 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

Yes, I have a couple, one of them I am waiting on because the base concept is, well... cheesy. It got started as a bit of a power rangers / voltron fan fic, and evolved from there. I'm attached to the story and characters, but I know I don't have the skills to pull it off yet, so I'm saving it.

The other is my Theodore Roosevelt: Intergalatic Bounty Hunter, novel, and for the listed reason, too much research to do atm.
Ava DiGioia
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 10:46 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39

I'm going to sort of disagree. I love these kinds of stories -- both reading and writing. I love Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Tolkien, and Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, to name a few. Recently, I started a new series called Map of the World. It's this kind of epic story also.

Yes, they require a lot of world building and researching, but I enjoy doing both those things.

I think the mistake most writers make with having an ambitious story is trying to throw everything in, the proverbial kitchen sink. The huge part of the story (history, worlds, political, etc.) is really background. The trick is pinpointing a storyline to concentrate on. What pivotal event in a particular person's life is going to cause great change and challenge for them against the backdrop of the bigger picture?

In your example, I can see possibilities for a Moby Dick-style story, or maybe the anti-Ahab, where a Captain saves the life of a whale and they come to an understanding and try to create peace. Or you could focus on the idea of the Ben Franklin as an English Leonardo Da Vinci.

One piece of advice I received that helped me a lot came from a workshop with a historical fiction author. She told me to find something in the period the work is based on that completely fascinates you, and build your story from there.

Obviously, there is a market for these stories. Cause I keep finding them at the bookstores. But I think most of them do tend to be series, at least trilogies.

Posted: Saturday, April 2, 2011 1:46 AM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 3

I do have a big project in the back of my head. It will require lots of research on Roman Brittany and it feels like the story is huge, even though I haven't worked out the exact plot yet. I've written a chapter or two, but I know I don't yet have the ability to do it right. So I'm just letting it percolate and I will work on it in bits and pieces over the years.

Neil Gaiman had the original idea for the Graveyard Book back when he was in his mid-twenties, I think. But he knew he couldn't pull it off. So he let it sit. I don't think this is an uncommon thing for writers.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Saturday, April 2, 2011 2:59 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Kevin - sounds like an interesting story. One - don't forget the Japanese. Two - Everyone else is right; DON'T put all that research on the page. Do it, know about it, let it inform your story, but there is a vast difference between a history book and a novel, even an alternate history novel.

@Alexander - heck, I'd read either of those.

Honsetly, this is one of the reasons I prefer to keep epic magnum opuses in the Fantasy and Sci Fi genres - I have to know science facts, but I don't need to know every detail of a particular bit of geography or a bit of history.

With that in mind, there's a *reason* my Urban Fantasy and ParaRom are set in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Sunday, April 3, 2011 10:58 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

- I have to know science facts, but I don't need to know every detail of a particular bit of geography or a bit of history.

So, ... If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts?

:ucks and runs from the room::

Robert C Roman
Posted: Sunday, April 3, 2011 8:06 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

Actually I think you have a VERY important point. The author needs to know more than he describes to the audience, but unless it impacts what he's describing in some way, he *doesn't need to know*. Sometimes, especially in screwball comedy or particularly weird alternate universes, the details *aren't* important. Hence the need for the MST3K mantra.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, April 4, 2011 7:25 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

Heh, very true. (for those scratching their heads, there was a campy comedy show that involved shooting a guy into space on board a space station. The theme song to the show describes these events, and has a line,

If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts (lalala)
Just repeat to yourself "Its just a show. I should really just RELAX!"
Posted: Saturday, April 16, 2011 3:30 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 27

Kevin, you've got some great responses already... but that somehow never stops me from tossing in my two cents when I have 'em : )
Like you, I have a story in mind that may be too freaking huge to write -- I'm actually pondering that idea today, whether I should shelve the idea until some later date or push through. It's a tough choice. For me, I'm not sure if all I have is a great idea, but no story behind it. But you, sounds like you've got a great idea AND a story but you're struggling with the thought you need to know everything about everything in order to make it all different. I'd say, yes and no : )
I've never made a secret of the fact I despise research. Pretty sure I have a bit of envy for writers who actually enjoy tearing through history books and seeking out obscure information. But only a bit of envy. Because I've seen the flip side of that, too. The historian who can't let go of the facts to allow for fiction; the writer who has devoted so much time for research they want to make it "count" so it all goes on the page (as mentioned above); the writer who finds the history/facts utterly fascinating and believes his reader will too.
But you're not writing a historical. You're looking to create alternate history. For you I'd say, start the writing. Write the synopsis, or a detailed outline or whatever pre-writing tool you prefer. That should give you a begninning idea of what information you need. If in the preparation of those page you realize you need to know, for example, something else going on in history in 1492 - something that would have distracted the population enough that sea exploration was the last thing on anyone's mind. THEN you go to the library and do a bit of research on 15th C Spain -- and do it in the children's section *s*. History in small doses, just the facts. If you find you need more, then work your way up. I suspect you may not need to know everything -- just a series of important facts.
All of this a very long way of saying: find a way to list what you absolutely MUST know, and then tackle those points one at a time. In the same way it's easier to think of writing a book as writing one page at a time, think of your research in small pieces, too. Don't be overwhelmed by the process.
Hope any of this rambling helps ; )
Ava DiGioia
Posted: Tuesday, April 26, 2011 10:30 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39

Marilyn, thanks for your post. It's nice to know more experienced writers struggle with the frustrations of an ambitious, epic story.

I will remember that on the days when I wonder, Am I crazy for tackling a story like this?

But I love to create worlds and epic stories involving those worlds.

My novel (my great white whale), World Lines (working title), also deals with time travel (a subject I adore) and genetic experiments. It spans three worlds, a near-future Earth, a present-day museum and an alternate ancient Egypt.

Senny Dreadful
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 2:57 PM
Joined: 4/25/2011
Posts: 2

"If you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts (lalala)
Just repeat to yourself "Its just a show. I should really just RELAX!"

Ha! Love this. I think I may write it on a post-it note and stick it to the laptop when I'm editing next. I've just finished the first draft of a science-fiction/crime novel and I have recently been tearing my hair out over whether it needs to be scientifically accurate or not. In the end, it's really a crime book with very soft sci-fi trappings, so I don't think everything needs to be explained. After all, it's the story and characters I really care about, not how the jumpgate technology works (or what'ave you).

But to answer the original question, I did get 60,000 words in to a book that I realised (somewhat too late) was just too complicated for me to get my head round at that time- it also needed a buttload more research than I'd originally planned for. I'll give it a few more years and hopefully I'll get back to one day.
Ava DiGioia
Posted: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 7:20 PM
Joined: 3/7/2011
Posts: 39


Time travel is a subject I've been interested in since I was a kid. It's one of my favorite choices for choosing novels to read, and I've also been fascinated by the actual science and physics, too. I read everything I can about the subject. Michio Kaku is probably my favorite physicist. He has a knack for explaining all the complicated details in understandable ways.

In the original planning, it was going to be straight historical, but I ran across a group of scientists, physicists and engineers who have strange but interesting theories about the pyramids and life in ancient Egypt. So it became an alternate, fantastical history.
Posted: Saturday, June 18, 2011 6:36 PM
Joined: 5/12/2011
Posts: 241

I have no giant whale stories. But what I do have are about a gazillion novels just ready to pour forth if I had the time. Some are interconnected.

But for what it's worth, I love the crazy whale plot idea.
Tom Wolosz
Posted: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 8:37 AM
Joined: 5/25/2011
Posts: 122

Hello Kevin,

A bit late to the ball on this one, but I thought I'd add my thoughts anyway.  First off, you are not writing a Ph.D dissertation.  Also, you are working in an alternative world.  Both make your life a bit easier since you won't have to defend it in front of experts in the field, and even if you did, you could always say, "Yes, but that's not how it happened in the aternate world." (Okay, that's a cop-out, but by definition alternate history is a bit of a cop-out, albeit an enjoyable one.)  Also, remember that even with a basic familiarity of history you will probably know more than about 95% of your readers.  For instance, have you ever read Michael Crichton?  Many of his books were best sellers, of course, and if you speak to his fans one thing that becomes obvious is that they believe his characters are members of their professions - unless you speak to someone from that profession.  I know many people who absolutely loved "Jurassic Park", but I thought it one of the stupidest books I had ever read.  Having been trained in Geology and Paleontology, I found the entire book juvenile, and the Paleontologist - Grant - an utter moron.  Yet when I read some of his other books I found myself believing his characters - just being given enough information to buy "the cat in a bag", if you will.  

I've found the same to be true in working on my book Agony of the Gods.  In later chapters I have the MC's visit a number of worlds, each with its own characteristics.  In one I have a 19th Century photographer, in another a madman searching for perfection in music.  For these I had to do a bit of research including the design and terminology for the great opera houses of Europe (of which I knew absolutely nothing), and clothing fashions for the 19th Century.  In neither case did I become an expert, yet even then one friend thought I had gone a bit overboard in the descriptions I added in based on that research.  

I guess this can be boiled down to a basic insecurity - we want the places we describe to be real, and we as writers are unsure.  But at the same time, how much of this backround does a reader really want?  

Last thought:  If men were banned from the open ocean by whale attacks, would there even be a Spanish Armada?      

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