Thursday, August 07, 2008

If in doubt...make a list
I have various strategies for kick-starting a story when my imagination is flagging. Putting in a swordfight is one of my favourites, and almost a cliche, but having done this once in The Last Free City I'm reluctant to do so again. The swordfight in question is, for now at least, my opening scene and gets what was already quite a dark book off to a bloody start. There needs to be another one at the end, and my secondary plot has quite a martial theme, so for now we have enough swordplay.

In a previous post I mentioned the role of photos and maps as stimulation too. I have another kick-start strategy which I probably use more frequently than either maps or swordfights, and that's lists. These lists will usually only ever be background to the story, but they provide a framework on which to build the softer art of characterisation.

On Tuesday, then, I spent some time writing lists. Normally 70,000-odd words into a draft is a bit late to do that, but now that I am working on a second narrative strand, I need to deepen and enrich some of the background. In my conception of Taratanallos, the city is ruled by an oligarchy drawn from a group of noble families, and I had already created the ones I was intending to focus on, without detailing all the others; but now I am telling a second story from 25 years earlier, I need to make that structure more robust. So I made a list of all the twenty-four 'Houses of the Specchio', and made sure I wrote down which characters were in which house before I forgot.

What is the point of doing all this? Nowhere in the novel will I list out all of the Houses and, unlike some fantasy writers, I see little point in documenting everything meticulously for its own sake. I've got two real reasons. The first is entirely logistical. Having two time-separated narratives, with some characters appearing in both, makes the sheer management of the information more complicated. (How old is Dravadan in the first section? Which House was Sulinka in before she married Jarodin?). In my original story, where all the action takes place over a few weeks, this kind of "longitudinal dimension" is far less important: Dravadan is the same age all the way through, and Sulinka's past is a thing of hints and allusions. Once a story takes on temporal drift, the management of information becomes much more significant.

While this is true enough, it's essentially book-keeping. It's necessary, fairly enjoyable, but mechanical. The second reason for generating lists is that they create possibilities. Words have a shape, a sound, a texture. When they are proper nouns that you have just minted, those possibilities are fresh and unique. How can a House called Tantestro be anything other than haughty, proud of its lineage, evoking the jealousy of a score of rivals? House Zano, on the other hand, will wear its distinction with restraint, but react furiously if crossed. The point here is not that these words should evoke the same responses in you, but that they take on specificity for me. Once a person or an institution has a name, that name starts to create resonances in my mind, and then I can write about it. House Zano may barely feature in the novel, but I have sense of what it means, and hence how the characters in the novel will react to it. I know how the heiress of that House will carry herself, and why the dreamy young man from tatty old House Carmaggio is deluding himself if he believes he has the faintest chance of marrying her.

And that is why I write lists. Every item on the list is a tiny piece of grit; some will remain dirt forever, but others will slowly accrete imaginative deposits until one day, if I am lucky, they become pearls.


Alis said...

Hi Tim - this is really interesting, I did a similar thing for each of the colleges in Salster because although the action is centred on Kineton and Dacre college, I felt it was necessary for the feel of the city to know what character the other colleges had, how old and/or presitgious they were etc. It made very little difference on the page (apart, perhaps, from the Fairings scene) but it contributed hugely to my understanding of the city I had created.

Tim Stretton said...

It's important, isn't it, to make sure your world has more depth in your mind than you put directly on the page. (And then resisting the temptation to dump it all in the text).

Although we're working in different genres, your Salster/Oxbridge relationship feels very similar to my Taratanallos/medieval Ragusa one.

David Isaak said...

I agree that the iceberg should be at least 4/5ths submerged. Maybe even 9/10ths.

I always write at least one scene I donlt plan to include. Makes me feel like an insider.