Thursday, September 24, 2009

Down in the Hole

The BBC has shown all five series of The Wire, the amazing US crime drama, back to back. Sadly, the experience has now ended, leaving a void for those looking for intelligent and challenging television. In terms of thematic scope, narrative complexity and unwinking bleakness, both its ambition and its achievement were extraordinary. (No wonder its viewing figures were so disappointing). It's overly reductive, in fact, to categorise it as a crime drama - it's equally a compelling social documentary and an incisive study of the political process.

The Wire, from the outset, was an angry show, but the targets were never the obvious ones. The young black kids selling drugs on Baltimore's street corners, even the gang leaders, were portrayed with remarkable sympathy. Their worst actions were never condoned, but the environment which produced them was realised with unsparing intensity. The fourth series--for my money the best of the lot--focused on the schools' system and showed how it set the kids up to fail. The heartbreaking descent over the last two series of bright, articulate but alienated children into petty criminals and drug abusers did not pull any punches. The show's ire was not aimed at an underclass which never had a chance, but at a venal political class, more concerned with outmanoeuvring rivals and extorting kickbacks. Even the best of the politicians, like Mayor Carcetti, were ground down, forced into grubby and expedient compromise--and ultimately shown to be more concerned with career advancement than solving the city's problems. Sobering stuff, but never less than gripping.

The show wasn't without its faults. The second series, about the decline of the city's shipping industry, was never really integrated with the wider narrative. And while the characterisation was almost uniformly subtle, fresh and nuanced, there was one exception (heresy follows). McNulty, the nominal star of the ensemble show, the only actor to be billed out of alphabetical order on the credits, never fully departed from the maverick cop stereotype. A hard drinker, a womaniser, a lone wolf who breaks the rules with impunity (to a barely credible extent in the last series), he's a figure we've all seen before. Dominic West plays the role with brio, but he's not given enough to work with. Clarke Peters as Detective Freamon is a quieter and more plausible maverick.

These are minor quibbles. The Wire is uncompromising, and while at the end it delivers hope for some of the characters (and to avoid spoilers I won't say which ones), it's not at the expense of soft-soaping its wider message. A powerful, intelligent critique which never patronises its audience, we may never see its like again.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Sunne in Splendour
Sharon Kay Penman, 1982

They say there is no creature in nature, however seemingly malign, which doesn't have a benign impact somewhere (the ichneumon wasp would seem to come close). Even Ken Follett, whose truly appalling novel World Without End befouled my mind for a fortnight, can been seen to have a positive effect; when I was reading some reviews to see if anyone else thought it as bad as I did, I came across a couple of approbatory references to Sharon Kay Penman, along the lines of "this is how it should be done".

So it was that I tracked down her best-known work, The Sunne in Splendour, a vast saga covering the Wars of the Roses from 1459 to the Battle of Bosworth a quarter of a century later. Although it deploys, very skilfully, multiple viewpoints, it is really the story of Richard, Duke of Gloucester--later Richard III. Penman takes the increasingly fashionable view that Richard's reputation was the result of propaganda designed to obscure the Tudors' tenuous right to the throne, and instead presents him in a highly positive (but still nuanced) light.

All but one of the main characters are drawn from history, so anyone familiar with the period or Shakespeare's history plays will have their own sense of who they are - which can only make Penman's task more difficult, but they are all realised with crispness, freshness and vigour: Edward IV, a man for a crisis but rudderless without one; Elizabeth Woodville, his calculating and ambitious parvenu Queen; John Neville, destroyed by his split loyalties; his brother Richard, 'the Kingmaker', at once charming, manipulative and egostistical. Penman is accomplished in drawing subtle characters, and while she is clearly sympathetic to the Yorkist cause, the Lancastrians are not uniformly reviled.

I'm not giving anything away in saying there is no happy ending, and Penman is at her best when she touches on grief and loss. This is a book with real emotional power, and doesn't attempt to sugar-coat just how grim the period really was.

The book is not faultless: the extended courtship between Richard and Anne Neville is far too long, and the dialogue occasionally jars in its archaism (although at least the reader never cringes at excess modernity). Taken as a whole, though, it's magnificent, capturing the otherness of the 15th century in a world peopled with rich and believable characters. This is just about as good as historical fiction gets.

How will it influence me?

The first influence, strangely, is a negative one. Any thoughts I might have had of writing a Shakespearan wide-screen epic on the Wars of Roses are effectively scuppered, since The Sunne in Splendour does it so well. While I remain keen to tackle the Wars of the Roses, I'll need to find a different approach.

Nonetheless The Sunne in Splendour does show that the period lends itself to the epic tale. In that sense, it is more inspiration than encouragement.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Historical fiction is set in the past (doh!), so don't try to modernise the diction or the mindset
  • You can write a successful historical novel using primarily historical figures
  • Just because Shakespeare's already done it doesn't mean you can't
  • There are better choices than the Tudors for your historical novel
  • You don't have to give 'em a happy ending
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Friday, September 11, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part VIII

Feasibility Study

One of way of thinking about preparing an outline is to think of it as a feasibility study. The outlining process forces a focus and concision upon what is originally a nebulous idea. By refining the original idea it's possible to see what works and what doesn't and–perhaps more pertinently–whether what's coming out fits in with your interests and strengths as a writer.

This is perhaps more the case with historical fiction than fantasy: in the latter, if a key ingredient is missing, you can make it up, but in a historical there are those pesky facts... these can be either a framework, or a constraint, depending on how you view it.

Let's look at this in terms of my own outline-in-progress, The Inheritance Powders, which as you'll remember treats a poisoning scandal at the court of Louis XIV. After a couple of months of research I feel well-informed on the events and the wider period, although perhaps not well enough to start writing yet (this may be a displacement mechanism, of course).

The main elements of what such a story would look like are clear: we have the political intrigue between the various court figures, a claustrophobic thriller/mystery, filtered through the etiquette and manners of the period. Even without knowing whose story this is, the bare bones of the outline are visible at this point. They're all things which interest me and which, with some more research, I can turn into fiction. What is even more helpful about "outlining the outline" in this way, though, is that it shows what's not there. This gives me the opportunity either to shoe-horn it in at this relatively early stage, or acknowledge that the outline simply doesn't work for what the purpose I'm intending it–hence its value as a feasibility study.

What's missing from The Inheritance Powders (not in any objective sense, but in terms of what I do and don't want to do in fiction) is the sense of the epic. This was one of the aspects of The Dog of the North I thought worked best, and its absence weakened The Last Free City. The court of Louis XIV simply doesn't have this–a long and stable reign, with life at Versailles dominated by triviality. Warfare is largely an afterthought–Louis took his mistresses on most of his campaigns, which suggests that we are not in total warfare territory here. The Affair of the Poisons itself is claustrophobic, overheated–essentially small-scale magnified by hysteria. Those are the constraints that I need to accept if I want to write about those events. (In fantasy, it would be less of a problem, because I could more easily create a contrasting environment to sit alongside it).

There are many strands of historical fiction, and not all of them can be explored in a single novel. The Inheritance Powders does not readily lend itself to what we might call the 'Bernard Cornwell' slice of the market - the grand sweep of battle, the thunder of nation-changing affairs. If I want to write that kind of novel, then I'm drawn more towards one of my earlier ideas - the Wars of the Roses.

Luckily I'm now off on holiday for a week (with a couple of Sun King books stashed in my luggage) so I've got plenty of time to mull this over without too much self-imposed pressure. A novel is for life (or at any rate, a couple of years), not just for Christmas; so it pays to make the right choice.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Serendipitous Discovery

...or why Amazon needs the High Street bookshop

I spent some time browsing round Waterstones in Guildford yesterday, knowing I had a couple of hours or so to kill. It's an entirely different experience to trying to cram a visit into a lunch hour you didn't really have time to take in the first place. Mooching around the shelves gives the kind of opportunity to discover new writers in a way that Amazon, for all its "customers who shopped for Seven Habits of Highly Effective People also bought Who Moved My Cheese?" can never fully replicate.

So let's say you were writing a noir detective novel, you know the kind of thing - a former cop with battered integrity, a beautiful but dangerous woman, the police as corrupt as the criminals. Where would you set something like that? First answer, because you know the cliches and you read Chandler, Hammett, Ellroy, is Los Angeles. Unless you love to be derivative, you'll probably move beyond that. How about, instead, 1930s Berlin? Perfect, no? That's where Philip Kerr has set March Violets, the first of a series of novels about Bernhard Gunther, a private investigator trying to make a living as the Nazis consolidate their grip on Germany. As Gunther wryly observes, there's no shortage of missing persons cases, as long as you take commissions from Jews.

As the subject matter suggests, this may tread a well-worn thriller path but the setting means it's hardly light entertainment. In the 60 pages I've read so far, Kerr has got inside the mind of the Reich, and particularly the ordinary Germans, in that peculiarly intimate way which novels can do better than straight history books. He has a nice way with the one-liner and brings the tawdriness of the period into sharp focus. This is a writer whose stories I want to read.

But here's my morally grubby compromise, my own noir moment. Having spent an hour reading the book on the soft seats at Waterstones, I didn't buy it. Seventeen quid for a paperback! (Admittedly a trilogy). Instead, I went home and bought it on Amazon for a tenner. (In my defence I should say I did buy three other books, rather more reasonably priced, in the shop instead). In this instance, Waterstones did OK - if every browser bought three books they'd be laughing - Amazon prospered too, as did four writers. And Penguin, the publisher, badged the trilogy as "Berlin Noir", an obvious title but one that got me take it off the shelf, so full marks to their marketing people.

If I were Waterstones I'd be worried that price-sensitive customers will always buy their books elsewhere (hence the ubiquity of the 3-f0r-2 table) but Amazon, equally, will surely realise that without bookshops acting as their physical showroom, their own commercial prospects will be damaged. Shoppers in Waterstones will buy books they didn't know they wanted, but on Amazon most purchases will still be consumers looking for a particular title. They may be in competition, but their markets are subtly different.

Meanwhile, as a I wait the "2 to 3 business days" for SuperSaver shipping (you didn't think I'd pay postage, did you?), I can reflect on my ethics as an "Amazon Tart".
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