Sunday, 19 December 2010

Stormy Weather

Outside it’s minus seven and the pipes are frozen. Inside, I’m editing Sleepwell and Fly, and wondering how many other ways there are that I can get this novel wrong. Today it occurred to me: there’s almost no mention of the weather in it anywhere, and in a week where the country’s been brought to a dramatic standstill on its account, this looks – to say the least – odd.
So what function does the weather serve, exactly, in a fictional world? Writers rarely deal in realism when it comes to this matter, for sure. If it’s lashing it down in a Bronte novel, your plot antennae are up. Likewise, we’re wincing when the newlywed says to his blushing bride, “Happiness is surely ours!” as a distant storm breaks over the mountains. What we get when we read fiction is an agreed hyperbole. We leave behind the changeable, meaning-free weather events of the real world, and enter a parallel universe where every breath of wind brings with it a bunch of pre-programmed meaning that readers are highly attuned to.
That’s where it becomes difficult for a writer. What if you go for:
“Dan Sugarbaker watched the late August sun descend over the forest from his hotel balcony. Distant birds trilled and warbled. The early evening air was clean and clear. He gave a satisfied sigh and sipped again from his glass of champagne. In the gardens below, a gentle breeze spun a single leaf in lazy eddies...”
Whether you like it or not, your readers picked up this:
“late August” = dog days of summer. Dying of the light, onset of Autumn, drawing down of blinds – loss. Possible death. Bad stuff coming, and Dan doesn’t know it.  
“sun descend” = inevitability of the passing of all things. Lack of control, incessance of cycle of seasons. Darkness, coldness. Forests at night. Blair Witch. Dan’s going to get eaten alive by a monster in the woods, his shattered champagne flute the only reminder of his empty hopes for a better life.
“early evening” = see above.
“distant birds” = elusive freedom Dan can never achieve? Trilling and warbling of youth? Idle babble of carefree university days, now lost in the “forest” of time?
“a single leaf” = DEATH!
 I remember my English Lit teacher pointing out, very gently and patiently when we reached Chapter Nine of Wuthering Heights that the brutal lightning of the thunderstorm splitting a tree in two might just be a metaphor. Talk about a lightbulb moment. The weather’s never been the same since.
Perhaps that’s why there isn’t any in my story – I’m hyper-sensitive to it. It can’t rain because there’s a band of low pressure pushing over my imaginary city - it’s got to rain because our hopes and dreams are ultimately futile.
It's a tough one. Maybe my characters should spend the duration of the novel indoors, in a magnolia-coloured room...

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Lost Property

I’m at the very early stages of planning a book. Some people seem to be able to do this in a blink, their planning walls teeming with post-its after a morning’s work - their arc developing, characters coming to life, set-pieces emerging effortlessly. But I’m finding it really hard. Here’s a case in point, for which you’ll need just a little context. It’s a period piece – late 1700s, the age of duelling pistol and the Cornish smuggler.
OK. So it’s midnight, and there’s a man, caught up in a street skirmish in a distant war-torn town.  It’s a brutal battle, and it’s all he can do to shelter in stunned fear for his life, as pistols crack, horses clatter, etc etc. Two opposing families are fighting for control of the streets in this particular place, and our man is a member of neither; a blundering innocent – the classic wrong-place-wrong-time protagonist of many a persecution thriller. The conflict draws closer. He plays dead, splayed face down amongst the victims of the fighting.
The night is freezing; his fingers are numbed stiff by the time he dares look up. The streets are a sea of dead and injured. The roar of battle has thinned to the cries and moans of the dying. And here’s the thing:  a small band of armed men in the royal blue of the victorious house carry lamps above their heads, and are shooting each of the prone bodies dressed in the scarlet livery of the opposing family. They make steady, brutal progress, reloading, picking their way through the heaps of bodies. Our man’s clothes will immediately identify him as an outsider. He will surely be shot if he stays where he is. But he is too close to get up and run. He needs a royal blue jacket. Still prone, he hauls one off the shoulders of the dead man next to him. The murderers approach. In time, he drags the jacket on and lies immobile, heart hammering, as the men pass by, their pistol shots echoing. He escapes.
Right, so there we are; traumatised bloke in stolen jacket fleeing civil war. The thing is – he’s stolen the jacket of someone important, someone senior. You guessed it, folks; in the pocket of the jacket is something vital to the enemy. Something they will do anything to get back.
And here’s where it gets difficult. What is this lost property, exactly? I’ve been turning this one over for days and days. The problem here is the sheer weight of previous narratives that deal with important objects or artefacts. In desperation, I spent a sleepless night writing everything down. I did it in circles; an inner circle for the first ideas that occurred, a larger one enclosing it for the next, another larger circle for the next, and so on. It makes interesting reading and surfaces a very obvious conclusion. Your first ideas are never your best.
To illustrate – in circle one, I have ‘ring’(*facepalm*), ‘bangle’, ‘choker’, (I must have just been writing down circular things of growing size and proportion. I’m surprised I didn’t add ‘belt’, ‘tyre’, ‘garden hose’) ‘clock’, ‘compass’, ‘precious stone’, ‘diary’, ‘ledger’, ‘pipe’. There were more, but so far, so uninspiring.
In circle two – ‘paperweight’, ‘snuffbox’, ‘candle-holder’ (?!), ‘lamp’, ‘glass-eye’, ‘eye-patch’, ‘watch and chain’, ‘walking stick’, ‘scarab’, ‘playing cards’, ‘knife’. And others. Better, but not setting me on fire.
In circle three – ‘triptych’ (whaat?!), ‘mirror’, ‘pocketbottle’ (I was tired. I’d lost the word ‘hipflask’), ‘locket’, ‘pistol’, ‘telescope’, ‘coins’, ‘reading lens’, ‘microscope’, ‘letter’, ‘birth certificate’, ‘key’. Strange it took me so long to arrive at key, but there you go.
Conclusion: circle three might be better than circle one. Am I any closer to taking this forward? Not yet. But if anyone’s got any comments, suggestions about 'property'... I’d be happy to steal ‘em from you. You’ll never notice they’re gone, I swear.