Monday, April 21, 2008

More on The Last Free City

I managed to put in a couple of decent shifts on TLFC over the weekend: word count now stands at 7,900 (yes, I know we should be measuring outcomes not outputs, but...). The weekend's work included one of my trademark scenes: a formal social gathering with suppressed tension, conflict concealed under a veneer of politesse and a male protagonist crushed by a more intelligent and flexible woman. Does this sound like all my stories are the same? If there are only seven basic plots (always a bit sceptical about this one), there are probably only a dozen or so basic scenes. (I just know there's going to be a swordfight at some point. And for some reason I like hangings...)

Many years ago now at university, I did an entire module on Thomas Hardy (never again, thanks). My professor, the excellent and irreverent Michael Irwin, said that all Hardy's novels used the same situation: two boys and a girl. Sometimes he'd add an extra girl for variety, but the essence never changed. If you're a Hardy reader, think about it - the Irwin Insight is spot on. It occured to me that all my stories can also be reduced in this way, although rather than two boys and a girl, it's two girls and a boy. (The Dog of the North twists this almost beyond recognition because of the way I've structured the narrative, but once you know it's there you can see it). Is it necessarily a bad thing to have a favoured structure in this way? At such a high level of summary, I don't think it really matters. There are so many riffs, and any kind of relationship triangle plot has infinite dramatic possibilities. Where there would be a problem, I think, was if the writer used the same characters every time with different names. My protagonist in TLFC is very different to anyone I've put centre stage before (at this stage, callous, lazy, selfish, egocentric and very very cocksure, he's hardly sympathetic, but that's a minor issue...).

All three of my "two girls and a boy" spent some time on stage over the weekend. One of the great things about the writing process for me is I don't really know the characters yet (or indeed whether the plot will becalm one of them). I was reminded of Stephen Koch's "find your story by writing it" dictum once again when I put the two women on stage together for the first time, I discovered--and this should have been obvious--that they hate each other. Given the way I have set up their characters, and their relationships to others, there is no way they could ever feel any different. But until I came to start writing it, I didn't realise it. And what I don't know, of course, is whether they will still hate each other at the end. Resonant narratives include character growth, and relationships never stay constant.

In the early stages of a project I quite often change the characters' names. Naming is very important, particularly in fantasy. One way of implying that you have a unified culture in your head, that you know more than the reader, is to have a consistent nomenclature. If some of your characters are called Bill, and some are called Q'zs-aan, you'd better have a good reason for it. (Actually, if any of your characters are called
Q'zs-aan, you'd better have a good reason for it...). My way around this is to use an existing language as a base, so in The Dog of the North, the characters from one of the cities all tend to have Italianate names; another culture has a strongly Gallic sound. In Dragonchaser, there was a strong Lithuanian tang. The Last Free City has names with a strong Serbo-Croat flavour, partly because I like the feel of them and partly as a homage to the original inspiration for the story, the mediaeval Republic of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik).

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I don't intend to write about the work in progress in quite this detail all the way through. The occasional update keeps me honest, though, because I don't want to admit to slackening off; and this weekend brought some useful insights. So expect a bit more of the same over the next few months...

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