Words and the Lonely Writer III – Setting the Mood
Would you prepare for a romantic dinner at home by turning off the lights and lighting candles, maybe putting a vase of flowers in the center of the table and putting on your skimpiest dress? (Unless you’re a guy. Though if you want to put on a skimpy dress, who am I to judge?)
Or would you prepare for that romantic dinner by scrubbing every piece of furniture with pinesol, spraying it with disinfectant, turning on every light, turning a spotlight on the table, and wearing a coveralls? (Yes, I know there are times that– Keep it to yourself, okay? This is generic you.)
But keep in mind that “circumstances alter cases.” We’ll revisit this in a moment.
Normally, there is an “expected” mode for romantic books, or romantic dinners, or …. You get it right?
For instance, apropos nothing (eh) if you’re writing an historical book involving — of all people — William Shakespeare, you don’t want to have your language plain, terse and blah. (Yes, again circumstances, but not in most cases.)
In my case, for instance when I sold Ill Met By Moonlight (then called Down The Rushy Glen because I’d been reading Allingham to the kids till my eyes bled. It was younger son’s favorite. The publisher changed the title, but — inexplicably — not the titles of the sequels.) it was a highly targeted book.
It didn’t start that way. It started because at the time I was on an history kick — mostly an ALTERNATE history kick — and was at a workshop where they’d cut off our access to internet, there was no bookstore handy and the library was small and miles away — and was given the assignment of writing a brand new novel proposal. I had just been reading on Shakespeare for “But like a man he died” which is yeah, just a short story. So I had his bio firmly enough in my mind for three chapters and an outline.
The elves were provided — unwittingly — by Rebecca Lickiss who was sleeping across the hall from me and whose muttering was audible in my room. At one point while coming up with her own proposal (what would become the novel Eccentric Circles) she shouted “Ahah, it’s the elves.”
And suddenly there was Titania and Oberon and they’d stolen away Shakespeare’s wife and daughter.
When I presented it to the editor who was a guest lecturer, together with a mil sf novel I was shocked that she immediately pounced on the proposal (mostly because I knew so little of the field I didn’t realize mil sf had no chance, and well… never mind) and said “I envision this having the same feel as Shakespeare in Love with all the allusions and wording.” Um… It was my first chance at a novel sale, and yeah, I was going to do what I needed to do to sell.
I hated the movie, btw. Having spent a year studying Shakespeare and Elizabethan England for my degree that movie GRATED. I spent so much time sighing and exclaiming (without realizing it) that I was invited to leave the theater if I didn’t shut up. My husband STILL thinks this is funny.
But I knew exactly what the editor wanted. She wanted the pretty-pretty and the feel, overlaid on a fairly accessible story. Again, I’d never sold anything and back when the only option was traditional, we’d sell our soul for a sale, or the next sale, or whatever. Trust me if you never experienced it: traditional, all traditional is bad for your soul. You trade pieces of it away to write what will be bought. Even if it’s not political (it mostly wasn’t for me, one series excepted) it’s not what you want to create. You’re pouring the best of yourself on things that you don’t particularly want to do. (BTW, those aren’t BAD books. They are however boutique tastes.)
Anyway, back on the topic: what does this mean for language?
Well, what she’d seen was a proposal, no chapters. She kept telling me she’d be interested “if it is that feel.” If I’d turned in a story that sounded like Darkship Thieves, no matter how accurate my description, I wouldn’t have got back a contract in less than a day.
So, this is what Ill Met By Moonlight sounds like (And yes, I do know it needs new covers. Working on it):
Will stopped at the entrance to the garden, his hand on the rickety wooden gate. A feeling of doom came over him, like a presage of some evil thing.
A young man of nineteen, with overlong dark locks that curled on the collar of his cheap russet wool suit, Will felt as if he were about to walk into a trap. He looked around, anxiously for what the trap might be, but saw nothing amiss. The green garden ahead of him lay undisturbed. A few bees, from the hives next door, buzzed amid the flowers. The reddish rays of the setting sun burnished the flowers and made the vegetables a deep green. A fat brown chicken walked along the garden path, pecking at the ground.
Will shook his head at his fear, yet his fear remained. With his feet, in their worn ankle boots, solidly planted on the mud of the alley behind his parents’ property, he looked into the sprawling garden for a hint of the great unnamed calamity that he knew awaited him just around the corner.
Half of him wanted to run in through the garden and the other half wished to hide, with animal cunning, behind the wall and spy… spy, he knew not on whom nor for what.
Compare with the opening of Darkship Thieves:
I never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in discovering the truth about the darkships. You always get what you don’t ask for.
Which was why I woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in my father’s space cruiser.
Before full consciousness, I knew there was an intruder in my cabin. Once awake, I couldn’t figure out how I knew it. The air smelled as it always did on shipboard, as it had for the week I’d spent here – stale, with the odd tang given by the recycling.
The first book has much more convoluted, archaic-like language, which if you download the sample from kindle, you’ll see gets even more complicated and … leisurely than that.
The second book has almost-choppy sentences and although I DO realize I’m an insufferable blue stocking and my language never gets incredibly simple (forgive me. Dad read Virgil to me in my cradle and — not a mean poet himself — continued to instill in me a love of words and a vocabulary that scares most people. Even if that vocabulary was in Portuguese, the habits translate.) it’s simpler and more accessible. It’s also easier for me to write, but that’s something else. (The Shakespeare books have their own fandom, and after years of saying ‘never’ I’m not even averse to writing the two sequels I’d planned originally. But it would require a gofundme both for the research and because I’m useless for everything else for about six months, while I rinse this out of my head.)
So, yeah sometimes being transparent is fitting the millieu and creating the atmosphere you want. Noir often starts with a description of the mean city, and fantasy with a poetic description of landscape.
Someone who is an ardent fan of Tolkien (no, I’m not. I enjoy him if in the right mood, but I first tripped on him at 22, which I think was too late. Also, maybe I don’t have a poetic soul, malgre dad. I know he’s good, it’s just not what I normally do for fun) once told me he was superior to Heinlein because Tolkien has “gorgeous” descriptions.
But if Heinlein had the same type of descriptions (he did have some beautiful ones but usually relatively short) in the middle of his space operas, it would slow down the action and break the mood.
So, horses for courses. If you’re writing an historical I actually recommend reading stuff from that time period. Maybe not, you know, till your two year old talks like a Shakespearean character (yeah. It lasted years too. Made him a weird little nerd in pre-school.) and you can’t say anything in less than 300 words, including but not limited to “have you fed the cat?” but enough to give you a feel and flavor for what you want your book to sound like.
And if it doesn’t come to you naturally, then by gum, fix it in post. One of the great advantages we have as writers is that no one needs to know what our wretched first draft looked like, or that it took us ten till we had the right tone (eight for the Shakespeare series, and I discarded double the scenes and story I kept.)
Just like I have the theory that you can always compensate for lack of talent with sufficient work and effort and ignoring your own health, you can always compensate for lack of language talent with much rewriting and attention to detail.
So, to return to that spotlight and coveralls for a romantic dinner… well, if your sweetie has fantasies of being a prisoner being interrogated, that’s fine.
And if the feel you want for your novel is say modern gumshoe, it doesn’t matter if you set it in Shakespeare’s time, or if there are elves, you still want to strike that note. And sometimes the interest comes precisely from a contrast of tone and place.
IF I were going to write a modern (well early twentieth) gumshoe in Elizabethan England and base it on Will Shakespeare, it would be something like (and pardon the lameness, I have a blinding headache. I’ve started getting those when the weather is turning. Stupid weather and stupid head.)
Will knew something was wrong when he saw the dame. She was tall and lean, and silvery eyed, and didn’t belong in this neighborhood, which was his neighborhood.
She loitered by the back door of the cottage that Will and Nan shared, and there was a nimbus and a sparkle around her that set his senses off. Alarms rang in his head, as he came out of the shadow of the trees. She saw him, and looked at him, and he could feel the glamour rolling over him like a fog.
Something wicked this way came.
Okay, so, you see, that’s how it is.
And now I’m going to take a bunch of aspirin and do my own blog.
Next week “Habits of speech and dialect and how to fake it.”