Sunday, February 27, 2011

Imaginative Research and Styling in Fantasy

My work in progress, Shadow Puppet, represents a new challenge for me.  My previous novels have all been set in worlds recognisably drawn from the European Renaissance (Dragonchaser, The Dog of the North, The Last Free City) or the far future (The Zael Inheritance).  Shadow Puppet creates a world much closer to our own, with trams, aircraft, high explosives--and kedgeree.  This throws up a different, if enjoyable, set of problems in styling the novel.
Not on Beauceron's breakfast plate
It's relatively easy for me to kick off a traditional fantasy story, with swords, chain-mail and castles.  The reader knows what to expect, and that's largely conditioned by what they've read or seen on TV.  Few, if any, of my readers will have direct personal recollections of the Renaissance.

Shadow Puppet, on the other hand, draws much of its styling from 1930/40s Europe, where readers will have much firmer ideas.  They are likely to have more detailed expectations about the technologies and fashions such a story will have, and while I might want to confound those expectations, I'd rather do so deliberately than by incompetence.  It doesn't mean, for example, that I can't give a character a mobile phone--but I would need to find some way of making it convincing. 

What I'm trying to achieve is for the reader to flesh out the narrative from their own imaginative experience of the period, without it looking like I'm writing a novel set in the 1940s.

Let's look at a concrete example.  The backdrop to the novel is a war between two enemy powers, Lauchenland and Beruzil, and our protagonist is a bomber pilot.  The opening scene is a bombing raid.  Already the reader will have filled in some of the gaps - you'll have a mental picture of the aircraft, the cockpit, the tracer bullets maybe.  So far, so good, but I need to write it up in a way that implies all of these things without suggesting that this is just World War II retold (which isn't the point of the book at all). 

Language is key here: I'll need to describe anti-aircraft fire, but I can't call it "ack ack", which is far too culturally specific, and even "flak" is probably too precise.  I'll need instead to devise a term of my own, which is at once intelligible and evocative.
Aiming for the right word
And that's before we even get on to writing about the aircraft.  In Dragonchaser I had extensive descriptions of galley-racing, which was much easier than it sounds. 

Aerial warfare is much more difficult, because the technology involved is more complicated.  There are things you can make an aircraft do, and things you can't, and the relatively realistic style of fantasy I'm writing here requires me to understand that. 

What does "feathering" a propeller mean?  When would you do it?  Is that term too specific to use in what I'm writing?  (I now know the answer to all three questions, but I didn't a week ago).

This is setting me a series of problems I've never had to tackle before.  If it's daunting--and it is--it's energising at the same time.


C. N. Nevets said...

Sounds like a heck of an intellectual writing rush, Tim!

Tim Stretton said...

Next up - more on the challenges of writing about planes...

Alis said...

Sounds great, Tim! Let's hear more!

Elfy said...

You've got me intrigued, Tim.

Frances Garrood said...

Tim, inside your head sounds like an amazing place to be at the moment! I'm intrigued, too!