Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lately I've been...

Plotting world domination.
(Clearly, it never works. Must try harder.)

I have to admit I am mostly reading books for a conference paper and my thesis generally, tracing a line between representations of Sappho through the millennia and La Maupin over the centuries. Long bow? We'll see. Anyway, it has reinforced my belief that Margaret Reynolds should probably rule the world. Or Emma Donoghue. I can't decide.

Sulky Sappho

I'm also flicking endlessly through books about France in advance on next month's research trip. There are piles of travel guides, architectural tomes, history texts and maps and I am on the verge of tipping over into some research-based abyss. There was no clear space to eat breakfast this morning so I just stood there staring at it. (Dodgy laptop webcam shot - my house may be eccentric, but it isn't really built on that angle.)

So that's the other main thing I've been doing, besides blowing my nose and coughing...

Planning research
I have a month in France. It seems like a long time but there is so much to do I'm feeling a little anxious about it all.
But I now have a day-by-day task list so I make sure I cover everything I need to do, although of course I can't yet tell what I'll find in some of the archives, museums and libraries, so I don't know how long I'll need at each.
I have to make sure I visit each actual site mentioned in any of La Maupin's biographies (where they still exist) and understand what those places looked like at the time. For example, I don't what to describe something in the church where she threatened to blow out the Duchess of Luxembourg's brains (bless her, she was cross), if that feature or window wasn't actually there in 1701.
So I'm also making a list of a whole lot of streets and buildings that haven't changed much since 1707 so I can visit, photograph and get the feel of them.
The feel of the thing. That's probably the most important part. How did Paris feel/smell/look, what did the opera sound like, how high were the heels, how low the ceilings?
It's  the part that's impossible to plan, the serendipitous part of research, when your turn a corner and breathe and know.
I love that bit.

I've posted earlier about my experiences with Chambermade Opera's libretto writing workshop. I can't say I have suddenly turned into a librettist, but I can say that it has helped focus my mind on how I'm writing dialogue, on how to refine and distill.

In the meantime, I'm hoping to finish draft zero (that's PhD talk for the version you do before your proper full first draft) of Tragédie by the end of the year. It's mostly sketched out now, in time to go to France, so I know everything I need to fact-check on site.

Here's a little extract from the current ms:

— Are you happy, Mademoiselle de Maupin?
— At this moment? Yes.
— Other moments?
— It depends.
— On what?
— On the moment.
[there'll be a bit of fencing in here but I haven't decided on the sequence yet]
— And you, Marquise? You are married?
— I thought it would make me happy. I was misinformed.
— A pity. You’re wealthy. You could have chosen anyone.
— I have. It’s just taken me a while.

That's right. There are no personal pronouns in the dialogue. Anywhere.
The voice switches from a first person recitative to the third person, present tense, and with dialogue as brief and as pointed as I can manage, and no olde worlde ye gods wench get thee to a nunnery talk.
But now I am imagining every word sung, on stage, it helps me refine what is most essential. If I had to get it down to twenty words, or five, what is the thing that must be said? So there will a lot be redrafting and rethinking to do. For example, now I look at the dialogue above, I know I can't use any of it. Or maybe five words. The rest is headed for that cute little waste paper basket icon on my desktop.

Luckily, I still have six years left to finish the PhD. I might manage it, too, if I can stop driving myself mad with research.

Friday, September 16, 2011

On romance and friendship and Mr bloody Darcy

One of the questions asked most often about Act of Faith concerns the likelihood of romance between the characters Willem and Isabella (the heroine of the piece).

I'm not going to tell you exactly what happens in the book, nor what happens in the next one. Instead, I'm thinking about expectations of romance in historical fiction for young women. It's something I've pondered a great deal and have chosen to treat quite specifically.

But first a story.
When HarperCollins first accepted Act of Faith, we went out for The Lunch to have a chat about it. I should say right now that I was never asked to write it as a romance. Instead, I got this very sensible advice:
"It doesn't matter what you do, people will read romance into it, so you may as well make Willem worthy of Isabella, just in case."

I get that.
I have, personally, never quite recovered from Teddy marrying Amy March and Jo ending up with the boring old Professor, and it's only been about forty years since I first read Little Women. I may get over it one day. Because - and I know exactly how this feels - you can read ANYTHING and imagine romance into it. Or whatever you want into it. That's a good thing.
I hope that in my writing I leave room for readers to use their own imaginations, to wonder what they would do, how that would feel, how things might look or taste or be, without being told.

But back to the story. At that point, before the final redraft, I must admit that Willem was a pretty gormless young chap, and my sensible publishers didn't want the lovely Isabella to be projected into any kind of romance with a drip like him. So Willem got rewritten to be a bit more likeable and - I hope - actually a bit more convincing as the zealous young Protestant stuck in a changing world he doesn't really understand.

All good. Everyone liked Willem more, including me, and off we went.

Then it came to writing the blurb: "Isabella finds work with an elderly printer, Master de Aquila, and his enigmatic young assistant, Willem."

Well. Yes, Willem is a little puzzling. He does have a secret. He is mysterious. But is he enigmatic? We wavered about that. We went back and forth, wondering if we should change it. But to be honest, there really aren't too many other words for enigmatic. So enigmatic it is.

And the cover is gorgeous, glamorous, historical and there is pink on it.

Pan out a little to the broader market. People expect romance in historical fiction - perhaps in all fiction. Let's unpack that a little.
  • Is romance a critical component of every book? Must it be? Should it be?
  • Do you always want to read about romance (or if not romance, some kind of simmering tension)?
  • Is historical fiction is the same as  historical romance?
There is some very fine historical romance, and although historical and romance are not the same genre, it's easy to see how they become conflated with each other (thanks for that, Phillipa Gregory). The two also get confused in our minds with novels that we read as historical now, although at the time they were written as contemporary fiction. If there are long swishy frocks, it must be a kissing book. Right?

That expectation has changed, somehow, in my reading lifetime and with the advent of historical fiction and YA as genres - and indeed as publishing phenomena. Maybe I'm slow to catch up. One of my writing heroines is Rosemary Sutcliff (it shows, I know) whose books were always historical - sometimes there was romance and sometimes not, depending on the demands of the plot and characters. Some stories lend themselves to romance, some don't. Some require it. But not all.

So then I was sick in bed and watching Pride and Prejudice on DVD (as I usually do when I'm sick) and realised that of course there is another word for enigmatic: Mr Darcy.

Doh! Enigmatic is code for 'mysterious, handsome and romantic stranger'. For Willoughby. For Heathcliff. For Mr Rochester. For a young Colin Firth in anything but a hand-knitted Christmas pullover.

That's not what Willem is. Bless his little clogs.

He is, no matter what might happen between them in the future, Isabella's friend.  Her first ever real friend of her own age. What a miracle that is for her. She has been surrounded her whole life by older men who admired her intellect, or younger men who thought she was a freak.

Act of Faith is about friendship. It's about freedom, too, and books and ideas. But most of all, just like every other book I've written, it's about friendship and the courage you find when you and your friends are in danger.

That doesn't mean there will never be any romance in Isabella's life or in the sequel. God knows the poor thing could do with a cuddle.

Please don't get me wrong. I could read about Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester over and over - and I do. I read as much Georgette Heyer as Rosemary Sutcliff when I was 12 or so.

But in Act of Faith I wanted to do something else. After all, there are millions of books in which a young woman meets an enigmatic young man. In many - but by no means all - of them, straight romance is the thing that ends up defining both characters and the book, and as a result, other plot and character developments are subsumed into the overarching romance narrative. It often also means that the male characters can end up being less defined than we might wish.

Young women protagonists deserve lovely romances of diverse and wondrous kinds, but it doesn't have to be what makes them who they are.

Nor have I ever been convinced about the old Hermione/Ron model, in which the brilliant young woman adores the less spectacular but worthy hidden qualities of the sturdy young man.

Rubbish. She'd be bored to death within months.


Or perhaps I should have had Isabella run off into the sunset with Signora Contarini? Now that would put the cat amongst the San Marco pigeons.

Image from TripAdvisor

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On opera

This week I've been on planet opera.
It's a pretty wild place, let me tell you.

The idea was simple - gather together in one room a whole bunch of aspiring librettists, and throw at them the combined wisdom, imagination, experience, suffering, creativity, skill and humour of some of the finest minds (and voices) in the business. For a week.


I applied because my brain exploded at the idea of creating an opera as well as a novel based on the life of Mademoiselle de Maupin. And because with all my current research into Baroque and Sappho leading to Tosca and gender performance archetypes and how they play out in opera, literature and life, something big is slowly taking shape in my mind, fragments are connecting or sparking or swirling. Hopefully it's the rest of my PhD. Dunno yet.

And because, clearly, I haven't got enough going on.

Just a few of the things I learned, some of which apply to any written work, some of which we all know but it doesn't hurt to have them beaten into our skulls one more time:
  • There doesn't need to be a narrative (arguably, there should not be a formal narrative)
  • Sounds of words may matter as much as meaning
  • Leave room for the audience - and the music - to do the work
  • Distill. Write essence only. Then distill again.
So I won't tell you what happened. Just what it means for me today, knowing this will change over time.

Been thinking lately about fragments, about glimpses of lives and fragments of memory, and how to capture that in prose - specifically, in Tragédie - how to convey confusion, and memories being sometimes out of reach, sometimes conflicting. That's not a lack of narrative, just a different way of writing it and reading it, but rethinking the meaning of narrative helped that project enormously. Or will, when I have time to reflect.

I also realised, though, that the idea of squeezing La Maupin's life as a biographical narrative, into an opera was absurd. She may have died at 33 but she had more adventures than The Three Musketeers put together, and my version of her is also a recitative on guilt, sin, redemption and celebrity. So I'm left wondering what to do with that idea. And that's good.

The concept I was left with was a meditation on opera, on gender, on performance of opera and gender in life and on stage, and on celebrity. A riff on Baroque, on costume and how it defines us. On sex and sin. With a little Lully and Purcell thrown in. And swordfighting. Or the sounds of swordfighting.

Sure. Still a bit of distilling to do.

Some soundbites from various presenters over the week:
  • People aren't interested in stories. They want experiences.
  • Shakespeare's ghosts are silent for a reason.
  • Opera is slow - it's a meditation.
  • It's also a blunt instrument.
  • It's never going to be what you [the writer] imagined.
  • Write simple stories.
  • Contemporary opera done well can be very powerful in conveying the big ideas.
  • Music takes the ideas to the heart and bypasses the head.
  • Let the audience members make up their own minds.
  • If the composer isn't weeping while she writes, nobody else will feel it either.
  • Intuition is quicker than the brain at figuring things out.
  • Each scene has its own self-contained logic and idea that contribute to the overall.
  • A breath can convey as much as a word.
Also, as with most forms of writing, it's almost impossible to get work produced. But that's never stopped me before.

I could go on, but I won't.

Respect to Chambermade Opera and the VWC, the fine people at CAL who funded the workshop, the twelve bewildered composers who came to listen to our pitches, and our cast of gurus: Deborah Cheetham, Moya Henderson, Judith Rodriguez, Alison Croggan, Ida Dueland Hansen, Stephen Armstong, Margaret Cameron, David Young, Caroline Lee, and Deborah Kayser who sang our homework. (See! Read that list and weep with envy.)

Will now attempt to float back to earth.


Sunday, September 04, 2011

Every great writer is a writer of history, let him treat on almost any subject he may.  

~ Walter Savage Landor, Imaginary Conversation: Diogenes and Plato

Sage advice

That's all.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Historical fantasy?

I've wasted years of my life.

Happily I'm in good company.

A US writer - let's call her M* - whose book for younger readers is just out, has advised a group of young aspiring writers not to bother with such feeble-minded tasks as research when writing historical fiction:
M said she didn't know enough and had to write about what she didn't know. ''To write a book about the past [as she has done], there is a saying that you read only two books and then close your eyes,'' she said. That was all the research required.
(Quoted in The Age.)
Just like that. Magic.
In fact, that's what happens in M's book. Just like I, Coriander, halfway through, everything turns into magic or fairies or elves. Fantasy, as we all know, doesn't require any research or detailed planning either (just ask anyone who writes fantasy - and then take a few steps back to avoid the explosion).
It's hard to decide which aspect of M's advice is most worrying: that an author of historical fiction thinks the historical bit of it doesn't matter; or that perhaps it just doesn't matter when you're an adult author writing their first kids' book; or that an author has no duty of care to readers of any age or to the past; or that you would leave your editors to do your fact-checking ... or that you would actually say that - out loud - to young people who are looking for guidance.

Now, I'm not sure whether it's true. I suspect that M did much more than read two books, and I'm really hoping she's been misunderstood.
But I've been brooding about this all morning, in part because I read M's book in manuscript form several months ago and found in it several glaring mistakes which I assumed would have been removed in later versions. Not by the author, obviously, who apparently can't be arsed looking anything up, but by some long-suffering editor.
This is what almost any other author of historical fiction would have told that crowd: it takes months, sometimes years, of research to accurately portray the past - even just to make as few mistakes as possible. Then you only put about five percent of it into the text. Many of us will tell you that the research is the fun part. It continues up until the point the ink rolls on the presses, and even after that there are breathless moments when you rush to the nearest computer or book to check something you suddenly imagine you got wrong.

That's just as it should be. Because it matters. History matters. Truth matters, just as much as closing your eyes and imagining, and especially for young readers.
Because your publishers require you to know what you're writing about.
Because your readers trust you, and they matter - most of all.

[*Later: names deleted to provide benefit of the doubt, because surely it isn't what she really thinks. Surely.]