Writing a Novel

Writing a Novel is Ninety Per Cent Research Work
February 27, 2005
Philippine Panorama

In a previous article, I emphasized the importance of research in the writing of fiction. Indeed, it might be said that creating a novel involves 90 per cent research work and ten percent actual creative writing. For, if the novels materials are not solidly based on historical truth, the atmosphere of verisimilitude will not be achieved and the story will appear to be false.

I too had to do considerable research when I was working on my first Tagalog novel entitled Galaw ng Asoge. The research focused on creating a true picture of the 1960s in the Philippines, particulary November 1965, the actual setting of the story. The presidential election had just ended, and the inauguration of the winner in December was a much awaited event. This would be the background of my narrative. So, to create credibility in both atmosphere and characters, I had to familiarize myself with the important cultural, political, physical, and social realities of that period. For this, I did library research. I went over the relevant newspapers, magazines and books for information I would need. I found out, among many things, that during that period, men favored Banlon T-shirts and double-knit pants; that they smoked Salem, Benson and Hedges, Camel, Lucky Strike, Newport, Pall Mall, and Marlboro; that Mercedez-Benz190 was the ultimate car, advertised as "a radiant image of perfection in every measure"; that you could buy from Arcega's Department Store in Cubao, Quezon City, an imported frying pan, ten-inch diameter, of finest mirror-polished steel for P4.99; that President Diosdado Macapagal ordered the sale of government rice by the Rice and Corn Administration at P1 a ganta; that the fighting in Viet Name was escalating, that 1965 was the centennial death of Abraham Lincoln and of the birth of Sun Yat Sen; that the space race between the US and Russia was getting more heated; that the economy moved forward to register new highs in production and service, but economists saw a disturbing trend - the rate of growth suffered a sizeable decline, and money remained tight; that the Philippines celebrated the fourth centennial of her Christianization; and that Taal Volcano woke up after 54 years of dormancy to erupt on September 28, 1965.

I noted the last item particularly as a promising material for my plot. I wrote a reminder to myself - "Can be of use to the novel, Taal Volcano through a character." By that I meant I could situate a character in the Taal eruption and work him into the plot concerning the Ortiz family, the main characters in the story. So I made additional researches into the eruption itself. I went over old issues of the Manila Times, The Fookien Times Yearbook, and the Philippines Free Press, and xeroxed the related articles. Around 1,500 persons perished in the eruption while 55,000 were evacuated from the stricken towns. President Macapagal ordered the release of P500,000 from his calamity fund and P20,000 from the Sweepstakes fund. The PC, PACD, SWA, PNRC, Namarco, RCA and other government agencies were mobilized to help in the relief and rehabilitation of activities. I mentally processed all of these materials and determined how I could make use of them in my novel. Ultimately, I created the character of Cornelio, a victim of the eruption, and made him relate, in Chapter 18 of the novel, his struggle with the volcano which killed his wife, his children and his brother. This is one of the most satisfying parts of opf the novel for me, for I think I succeeded in using the research materials in shaping a believable character and situation. Cornelio's narration is one of the most dramatic parts of the novel. It was like that for the rest of the novel - I had to be sure through research work that historical truth and imaginative truth were blendend harmoniously.

Thus, while preparing the preliminary draft of the novel, I had part of my consciousness constantly focused on the historical accuracy of my materials. I knew that just one inaccuracy in that regard would rob the novel of its truthfuless, so I was very mindful of verifying, of checking and cross-checking the story's factuality. After I was satisfied in that matter, the writing of the final draft of the novel was no longer a crucial problem. The artistic configuration of the plot and characters came more easily because I had already prepared for it with sufficient research work. My imagination functioned more freely because it was not hindered anymore by questions of verisimilitude or historical truthfulness.