heroes & their problems

Robyn, clever woman that she is, has pointed me to Doris Egan‘s essays. Doris writes science fiction, which of course I must now read because anybody who would write this particular essay: Why I Like Heroes With Unsolvable Problems is someone whose fiction I suspect I will like. Here’s a paragraph:

“Dramatic structure most often asks the question, “How will they solve this problem?” Character asks, “How will they adapt to this problem?” And it’s watching them attempt B while having to do A that evokes the flash of empathy in the audience — that in fact makes “A” worthwhile. Because, after all, a mere court case or a murder is not enough — we want to know how Sherlock Holmes will deal with this. Or Peter Wimsey or Fox Mulder or our boy Miles or Ally McBeal. We want the specifics, the style of this particular dance, the scent of the rose and not merely the dried petals.
We want a little bit of mess in the perfection of structure, and the hint that we have here a life that will go on after we close the book or turn off the television.

And that’s why I like heroes with unsolvable problems. “

newspapers in research

I have a collection of old newspapers that were published in the places where my stories are set. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy (for example) an issue of an Albany or a Boston paper from the year 1814, and they are almost always in very good shape — pages intact, if somewhat fragile.

My favorites are the advertisments, for the hundred different kinds of information they provide. The beginning of Lake in the Clouds uses my recasting of a couple dozen such ads in an attempt to set the stage for various storylines in that novel.

New Brunswick adThis is an ad from a Canadian paper dated 1786 (there was slavery all over the continent, something many people don’t realize) offering a reward for the return of a runaway. The details of clothing the young man was wearing are very useful to me when I’m trying to get a feel for a place and time. Such ads also make the facts of slavery much more vivid and undeniable.

One thing I like to do is to set up little mini-plots that span all the novels, and exist solely within newspaper references. The Mathers brothers and their marital woes are one such plot. This mention from Lake in the Clouds:

HEREBY BE IT KNOWN that Meg Mather, lawful wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her husband in the company of a Frenchman known as Andre Seville. She took with her the subscriber’s infant son, a French Negro slave girl called Marie, and a mantel clock. A reward will be paid for return of the boy, the slave, and the clock, but a husband so maligned by such shameless and sinful behavior is glad to be free, and will give no reward, nor will he allow the wanton back into his home. He therefore warns all persons from trusting her on his account. He will pay no debts of her contracting. Jonah Mathers, Butcher. Boston Post Road.

And from Into the Wilderness:

“Lydia Mathers,” Elizabeth read,

the wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her lawful husband in the company of one Harrison Beauchamp, known gadabout and suspected thief, taking with her a good pewter jug, twenty pound in coin, three silver spoons, a snuff box, the slave girl Eliza and her husband’s good underclothes. By this notice her much injured husband thinks it prudent to forewarn all persons from trusting her on his account, being determined, after such flagrant proof of her bad behavior, to pay no debts of her contracting. I treated her well.
Thy-Will-Be-Done Mathers of Canajoharee.

The Mathers continue in the same vein in Thunder at Twilight. I keep wondering if one of them will show himself more directly, but so far neither Thy-Will-Be-Done nor Jonah has come around a corner to surprise me in mid scene.

Queen of Swords: research

L'Île de LamantinesL’Île de Lamantines

Working on the setting for the first three chapters of the new novel, along with bits of dialog and description and an overall plan. Coming together slowly. When a lot of action is dependent on geography I usually do some close sketches to keep myself oriented as I write. This is the rough sketch for the fictional island in the Antilles that I’ve been working with. It’s called L’Île de Lamantines, or Island of the Manatees (click to expand, but be warned, the full sized graphic is big).

I add to the notes on the sheet as I come across details in my reading. When I’m finally finished with this it will be quite crowded with text.