Monday, August 24, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VII

Water Sculptures

Every day you probably pour yourself a glass of water without even thinking about it. What could be more prosaic? It's unlikely that you'd describe it as art.

In the right hands, though, water clearly is art: look at these two amazing images from

All three pictures are essentially the same thing: H2O in different contexts. What makes the latter two art is the craft and the creativity the artist has applied.

There are analogies here to outlining a historical novel. I've spent the past fortnight doing some pretty immersive research into the life and times of Louis XIV and the specifics of the Affair of the Poisons. I'd now say that I'm fairly well-informed on the subject, but I'm still a huge leap away from having a story. What I've been doing so far is filling the glass with water: a necessary step in creating anything more ambitious, but not in itself art.

I need now to arrange the water in a way which gives it pattern and meaning, rather than simply presence. However much I know about the Affair of the Poisons, I don't have a novel--and knowing more won't put me any closer to it. I could write down now a detailed timeline (indeed, I've already done so and no, Aliya, it isn't on a spreadsheet...) of sudden deaths, interrogations and executions, but if I used that to construct a prose narrative I'd do nothing but confuse the reader.

The most difficult part of the writing process for me--and this seems even more the case for historical fiction than fantasy--is moving from the mass of background information to a dramatically satisfying organisation of the material. In other words, the part where we find a story. How many viewpoints will I have? Who will they be - La Reynie, the dogged detective who is investigator, judge and jury? Louvois, his boss, motivated more by a desire to outflank his hated rival Colbert than a quest for justice? Lesage, alchemist, conman, fantasist who finds himself in more trouble than he realises? Madame de Montespan, fading mistress of the king; her life would be so much easier if the beautiful young Mademoiselle de Fontanges was off the scene? Primo Visconti, waspish Italian observer of the court scene who enjoys playing the fortune-teller? The Marquis de Termes, his fortune lost in an earlier scandal who kidnaps an alchemist to make him a new one? Or characters entirely of my own devising?

These are the decisions which will make our story: when our glass of water will take on the outline of sculpture.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VI

A Sense of Entitlement

At some stage in the outlining process you will want to think about titles. This can come at any point. The Dog of the North as a title existed long before the story it told; The Last Free City lagged some way behind; ; Dragonchaser was cropped from Dragonchaser and Lady Iseult's Delight at a late stage.

Ryan David Jahn blogs about this very question over at Guns and Verbs. In general I don't feel happy starting a story without having a title, even if that remains provisional until the book is finished. A title gives a reassuring solidity, a sense of something concrete behind it. It also, as Will Atkins pointed out to me this week, focuses the writer on what the story is about: Betrayal in the Boudoir would be a rather different take on the court of Louis XIV than Colbert's Conspiracy. (Neither sounds much cop: The Man in the Iron Mask is much better but I'm 150 years too late on that one).

For the time being, my story remains The Inheritance Powders: allusive without being obvious, with the focus on the central mystery, the poisonings. I stumbled across it in my reading, the internet supplying me with a link to the introduction to Strange Revelations by Lynn Mollenauer. This included the marvellous summary:

...magical remedies, love charms, and poisons known as “inheritance powders.” The inheritance powders, usually made from powdered toads steeped in arsenic, lent the Affair of the Poisons its name...
Naturally I filed this away for future use.

The obvious title would have been The Affair of the Poisons, but this risked confusion with Anne Somerset's factual account of the same name - and is any event more suitable for history than a novel.

My initial choice settled upon Hall of Mirrors, a perfectly serviceable choice. Ostensibly it refers to the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, but of course there are overtones of illusion, chicanery and deceit, all of which are likely to feature in the novel. There are counter-arguments, though. The phrase "hall of mirrors" is perhaps too much of a commonplace to be an ideal title for a novel; and the Hall at Versailles was not completed and opened for court functions until 1684 - after the conclusion of the Affair of the Poisons. There are ways around this latter point, but it's probably not a good idea to try to fit the story around the title at such an early stage.

So The Inheritance Powders it is, for now at least.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part V

You're now at the stage of being deep into your research. You should be feeling ever more enthralled about the period you've chosen, with characters becoming more solid in your head, and little details filed away for future use ("Sire, the rain at Marly is never wet", says one toady when Louis XIV apologises for making him go out in the rain). If that deepening excitement is not happening, it may be time to reconsider whether you've chosen the right period.

This might also be the time when you want to discuss your ideas with someone else, although this part is strictly optional. I mention it only because I had lunch with Will, my editor (or perhaps more accurately, former editor) at Macmillan earlier in the week--something that I found invaluable. If Will had felt the project had no commercial potential, better to know at an early stage; fortunately, however, he was as enthusiastic as I was about the idea. The need to articulate the idea to someone else is also a helpful discipline, and gave me a better idea of what the story is likely to be about. Because Will knows and likes my work, we were able to draw out together which aspects of the scenario are likely to be a good fit with my writing and fictional interests. I came away from the meeting not only with my excitement intact, but also with a much clearer idea of the themes and shape of the story. Will also suggested ideas for a framing story and a narrative device which I wouldn't necessarily have evolved myself.

We also discussed titles, and it was only after this conversation that I realised that what I had thought was my second-favourite was in fact my favourite: The Inheritance Powders, this being a term used at the time for poisons used to hasten the death of an inconvenient person.

* * *

Meanwhile, I'm making excellent progress with Love and Louis XIV. Antonia Fraser predictably portrays the female characters in a more sympathetic--and generally more credible--light than Vincent Cronin. She's even making me reappraise my initial dislike of Madame de Maintenon. (Having two contradictory views of her in my head is an encouraging development--the result on the page is much more likely to be rounded and interesting to the reader). Fraser is much more interested in the relationships between the main players than she is in the wider political dimensions--which is why you need to read widely around the subject. No one source will give you everything you need.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part IV

Before the football season starts, players engage in pre-season training. Before they actually play any football, they have to get themselves into the right physical condition. It doesn't feel like playing football, and it may be weeks before a ball is involved, but without that preparation the season is destined to fail.

At the moment, I'm doing the equivalent of pre-season training for writing my outline: that stage where I'm not doing anything approximating writing, but getting myself into condition to do so. That means putting in some legwork to learn more about my chosen period--in this case, France in the time of Louis XIV. At this stage, I'm not even narrowing my researches down to 1679-82, the timeframe for the Affair of the Poisons. I need to have a better sense of the period before I focus in so tightly.

I've now read my first biography of Louis XIV, and as a primer it couldn't have been better. Written by Vincent Cronin in 1960, it's pleasantly dated: Cronin is quite happy to moralise throughout in a way that really isn't fashionable today. He'll infer character from handwriting and physiognomy in a manner that fell out of favour in the 19th century, and his approbation of the Sun King is so excessive as to constitute hagiography. For me, it's absolutely perfect: it presents Louis as he may have liked to see himself, and gives vivid, if tendentious, pictures of some of the key figures of the Grand Siecle. In this way it gives me an overview plus an imagined construct of character - the kind of broad strokes that are highly useful in coming to grips with the period. And if sometimes he irritates me so much that I form exactly the opposite view of a character than he intended, so much the better. From such grit are pearls formed.

Nonetheless I need a corrective to Cronin's adulation, so next on my list is Antonia Fraser's The Loves of Louis XIV, which I suspect may take a different perspective. These contrasting reflections on historical figures are the starting point for creating nuanced characters.

My reading at this stage is primarily about milieu: getting a sense of the time I'm writing about, as well as constructing the superstructure of facts within which I will work. I'm also, as a secondary benefit, beginning to feel my way into some of the characters, such as Madame de Montespan, an important figure however little she may end up on stage. What I haven't done yet is start to excavate the plot (an apt metaphor, because ultimately I will need to trim away extraneous detail to leave the shape of the story I want to tell) or to create any characters outside of the historical record.

For now, that's absolutely fine: we're still in pre-season.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part III

Selection of milieu for a historical novel is only the first of many choices the author must make. In the worked example we are creating here, we have settled on the court of Louis XIV, more specifically 'The Affair of the Poisons'. In many ways, this is the easy bit.

The next, and perhaps most significant, choice is that of protagonist. The historical novelist is freighted with more options--and hence more opportunities for error--than the fantasist. The latter, to oversimplify a touch, makes up his characters and away he goes. The historical novelist has to determine the balance between 'real' historical characters and those solely the product of imagination. Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels use almost exclusively figures from the historical record; CJ Sansom's novels set in the same period mix and match, with the main characters invented. (This latter practice is known as 'ranulfism', according to this interesting if tendentious article). At the opposite end of the spectrum to Philippa Gregory, a writer like Matt Curran can use exclusively fictional characters in an historical setting.

We know enough about the Affair of the Poisons for it to be feasible to people a story about it entirely with characters from the historical record. The main players, Louis XIV, Madame de Brinvilliers, Madame de Montespan, La Reynie, are well enough documented that we can attempt to 'reconstruct' their characters as they might have been (even given differing interpretations by historians). However, this very availability of information can be an obstacle to the novelist, who after all is not aspiring to write a history textbook. The imaginative freedom of ranulfism can allow the writer to create the character the story needs, without distorting the reputation of a historical figure. Judith Merkle Riley, whose The Oracle Glass covers the same events, uses many historical characters but her protagonist is a ranulf.

There is no right answer to this question. The story the writer wants to tell will determine the best option. We should be clear, though, that even where characters in a novel are drawn from life, they will still be a fictional construct. One of the most vivid of all characters in historical fiction, Robert Graves' Claudius, may be informed by Graves' extensive reading of Plutarch and Suetonius -- but the character on the page is all Graves.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part II

For the sake of argument, we'll assume I've selected the subject of my next project (in practice it isn't quite that straightforward: I'm meeting my editor Will next week to talk through some ideas). As some of you know, because we've discussed it in person, I'm looking to work up an outline on The Affair of the Poisons:

The Affair of the Poisons was a murder scandal in France during the reign of King Louis XIV. It launched a period of hysterical pursuit of murder suspects, during which a number of prominent people and members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced for poisoning and witchcraft.

The sensational trial drew attention to a number of other mysterious deaths, starting a number of rumors. Prominent people, including Louis XIV, became alarmed that they also might be poisoned. He told Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, who, among other things, was his chief of police, to root out the poisoners. The subsequent investigation of potential poisoners led to accusations of witchcraft, murder and more.


This ticks many of my fictional boxes: court intrigue, conspiracy, murder and mayhem, a clear and distinct society with its own punctilios and protocols. It's not a period I'm immensely familiar with, but in truth whatever period I had chosen, extensive research would be necessary.

The next stage of preparing an outline is do some research. I need now to spend some time immersing myself in the period and the details of the Affair of the Poisons. Research, for me, begins with Wikipedia. This is perhaps a controversial position, but as long as iresearch doesn't also end there, I don't see a difficulty with it. Wikipedia may not be original scholarship but where it is excellent is in making links between related fields of knowledge. A free-wheeling hour on Wikipedia can be very helpful both to gain a thematic overview and to extract some telling detail. In this case, Wikipedia was very helpful in drawing my attention to the Fronde, a kind of covert nobles' coup in Louis XIV's minority--outside of the timeline of the story but clearly important in terms of how the court, and Louis, viewed themselves a generation later.

We move next to some more detailed reading, both specific and general. The starting point here is Anne Somerset's The Affair of the Poisons, the standard English-language popular history of the events. I've read this before and re-reading is now in order. I've also summoned up two biographies, Louis XIV by Vincent Cronin and The Loves of Louis XIV (Antonia Fraser). This gives me two different perspectives on king and court. Finally, I've also acquired the only English language novel I'm aware of on the subject, The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley.

Many would advise against reading other novels treating your intended subject. I take the point, but from what I know of the book, its preoccupations are rather different to mine; I hope it will illuminate rather than constrain my imagination.

Some of my more informal research included speaking to real live French people. There was a clear consensus here that if I wanted to cover this period, I needed to read Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask, and for various reasons this seems to me a worthwhile pursuit.

That's my summer reading taken care of. Note that at this stage I am not even close to knowing the plot (the Affair of the Poisons is too large to fit everything in). I don't even know the characters, or the mixture of historical and fictional ones. These are the things which will determine the flavour of the book, but at this stage in my knowledge, those decisions are premature.