Monday, May 21, 2018

Technology in Stories

Did I really opt to talk about that? Was I crazy? Moi?

Well, part of my DNA is mechanically inclined. The Dutch part. If you have the chutzpah to push the North Sea back for a little extra farmland, you better be technologically astute lest you wake up some night, six feet under water. Maybe the spirit of my one great-grandfather, who was a stone mason, will help me with this subject? Nah, all that does is explain my fondness for rocks—especially those that sit, one on top of another and form something architectural.

OK. Let’s try this again.

I write about the medieval period, and, contrary to a few opinions, there really was technology. That trebuchet was pretty impressive. Having watched some TV program where moderns tried to recreate one and badly botched their shattering of a stone wall, I concluded that successful use of the weapon required more knowledge of math and science than most of us have. (For me, that would be near-zilch.) And, if you have watched any of the House of Windsor marriages, you saw some great views of Westminster Abbey. Now that place required some impressive technology. Yes, a medieval cathedral or two is sinking due to bad site positioning, but few of us can quarrel with the skill required in building gothic churches, many of which were capable of surviving longer than innumerable modern structures.

For those of us who write historicals, we often run up against the modern reader assumption that all the complex stuff was done by us while our distant ancestors were pretty much mud and wattle types. That allows writers the fun of putting a few technological surprises in our stories. Remember the pyramids or Stonehenge? We may have some theories about how those structures were built, but, for all our great knowledge, we are still terribly clueless. And one of my favorite stories is that of Filippo Brunelleschi who built the cathedral in Florence during the 15th century with no concrete and only three construction deaths in sixteen years. The recipe for making concrete, by the way, was lost after the fall of Rome for several centuries. How much more have we lost or forgotten in technology that might improve on what we have? Now that is a perspective just dying for a good story!

So have I included lots of fascinating technology in my mysteries?

Now is the time to quietly slink off and do some research…

Monday, May 7, 2018

Discarded Ideas

Think about your own work. How many times have you begun a book with A Great Idea, a plot filled with Great Characters, Wonderful Setting…and several months later, the only thing you have left is the title (maybe) and a couple of characters.

For the most part, I’ve been very lucky. Most of my titles have stuck as well as the basic premise of the books. From there, however, the finished product has always varied in several degrees from the original concept.

My favorite example was the plot for Forsaken Soul. This book was originally meant to be the introduction of Sir Hugh, Prioress Eleanor’s eldest brother, who had just returned from crusade with King Edward. In that same book, I also wanted to bring back Juliana, the somewhat crazy (or maybe too sane) friend of Prioress Eleanor, who begged entrance to the priory as an anchoress in Tyrant of the Mind.

Have you ever been at a gathering where there were two people of such strong personalities that conflict was bound to happen? Same thing can be the case with characters in a book. Hugh and Juliana warred with each other to the point that the book became less a story about (spoiler deletion) than about their dislike for each other. One had to go, along with his or her subplot. At the same time I was struggling with this, I also experienced six weeks of sciatica. That gave birth to a character and her back-story which hadn’t been part of the original plot at all. By the time I finished tossing Hugh, placating Juliana, giving depth to this new person, adding a new killer with a new motive, and reworking the first half of the story, I had a very different book.

None of this is a bad thing. In fact, if you aren’t under some hellacious deadline, it can be fun. Over time I have learned to listen to my characters. In Tyrant of the Mind, I could not get the story going until I put Brother Thomas in the first chapter instead of Prioress Eleanor, a change he was demanding. In Forsaken Soul I had to choose between characters (rest assured that Hugh got his book later) and let another one in.

While listening to what your characters are telling you, don’t discard your original ideas. Record them. Muses don’t toss ideas at us without at least expecting them to become mental compost. An idea, character, setting, or phrase can be helpful later. With Sir Hugh, I was able to expand on his character in A Killing Season because I had kept notes on him and mulled them over for a couple of years.  And don’t think discarding ideas, rewriting most of the book, or even changing the focus are indications of failure. Part of craft is experimentation and learning what works. That is also what helps us keep our creativity fresh.