I'm under the general misconception that I know what I'm doing until I actually start doing it. Even in my more detailed outlines, my plans for a novel are nebulous. They look pretty, they can expand to fill plenty of space, but there's not much substance to them.
The substance that actually fills that space ends up being much different than I imagined. Some space is left unfilled, and that's all right. Some of the finished work has grown strange new limbs, spiraled off in unexpected directions. It makes for a messy and lumpen rough draft, but I've gotten better and better at addressing that in revision.
It's worth the work. The finished substance is usually bigger and better than I would have believed at the outset. If I'm good and lucky, some of the original intent is still visible.
My current big project, Quietus, has been one of the latter. It's changed significantly in the details and the margins since I started sketching it out, but I can still recognize my goal.
Whenever I read history, I couldn't escape a feeling of futility, of partiality. For as much as I tried to understand the people I read about, their lifestyles and their values, there was too much of myself, of my lifestyle and values, getting in the way. I found, and still find, it particularly difficult to grasp their religious values. No matter where I went or how hard I squinted, I couldn't escape my own shortcomings. At best I could try to minimize them, but that didn't feel like enough.
Quietus began as an attempt to directly address this in narrative. It would be a story about the Black Death, about the people cut down by the Black Death and their survivors, but told in a modern voice, through modern sensibilities. Anthropologists from an other-dimensional Earth visit and study the Black Death to learn how to cope with a mass death event of their own. I wanted to highlight our biases and tell a story that was as much about the things we bring to history as history itself.
Of course, things mutated from there. They always do with me. The anthropologists were meant to come from a world much more like ours than the heady, multiverse-spanning, conspiracy-driven civilization of the finished draft. But Quietus continues to be a story about the ways in which we see and change history as much as it is about history itself. All of the otherworldly elements, while leading in their own new directions, continue to support that.
There is no way to understand history without bringing ourselves into it. If I visiting history, I think I would make some of the same mistakes as Quietus's anthropologists.
And I would end up regretting them just as much as they do.