I just got hung up on one of those writing mantras – write what you know – which is tricky when you write about demons and time-travellers. I’ve written about this before, but I’m going to do it again, because once again I wasn’t there, and it wasn’t me, leaving me writing about what I don’t know.
I have been struggling with a scene, which is such a common thing it’s barely worth mentioning. For me, it’s a big problem, but for the rest of the world, such a tiny matter that it’s beneath notice. My anti-heroine is in trouble, deep in the heart of the enemy, with no external help, lots of guards, that sort of thing. I know she gets out of it… but how? And how to do it without breaking the rest of the story.
Whilst I’m figuring it out, there’s other things to do – write about the lambs born over the month, the cat sleeping in one of the hens’ nest boxes, the abrupt transition in the weather from blazing skies and drought to endless, chilly downpour. That stuff is easy, because I’m there, seeing it, experiencing it and writing what I know. I can picture it, even down to the cat sensing what was coming and moving before I could get a photo.
You really can’t beat real life for supplying the whole package – world ready-built, characters established, plot done, humorous hen with wide-eyed look available as an optional extra.
It’s a bit more tricky imagining myself as a manufactured, gender-indeterminate assassin trapped in the palace of a mad emperor exiled to a world outside of time, trying to engineer a coup d’etat in the middle of a brewing civil war. Cornwall just isn’t like that.
The thing is, years back I wrote a scene concerning a demonically-possessed bus doing a high-speed getaway down a dangerously steep urban street called Race Hill, with high walls to either side, and sweeping oncoming vehicles into the afterlife with dual-beam hellfire. That was easy, because Cornwall really is like that (apart from the demon stuff).
I’ve driven down Race Hill in nearby Launceston, although to be honest, the really narrow sections are one-way, so there was no oncoming traffic, a Volvo estate doesn’t count as a possessed bus, my fictional Race Hill is a smidgen steeper and it heads out of town, not into the centre. Even so, I’ve been there, and it was me driving, and for the bits that weren’t quite right, I borrowed snippets from Summer Hill in Bristol where I grew up, a street that used to have hand-rails in places.
Sitting here, writing this, I can picture Race Hill in my head so easily, although it does morph into that more dangerous and possessed one.
That doesn’t answer the detailed questions over my anti-heroine assassin, but it tells me where to start – I need to be there, to see it all through her (or his – bit indeterminate there) eyes. I actually installed some mind-mapping software, which is just like having a huge whiteboard and an endless supply of post-it notes, that all fits on one laptop screen and doesn’t blow away if the summer ever comes back and I can write outside. Armed with my virtual whiteboard, I could be there, trapped in the palace of a mad emperor, looking for ways out and writing it all down, so that I can relocate it all to somewhere closer to home.
OK, so Cornwall isn’t really like that. Devon, on the other hand…
This palace of the mad emperor, in my head, is not entirely unlike Derriford hospital in Plymouth. OK, not too many exiled emperors there, or guards with orders to shoot on sight, but getting lost there the first time sticks in my mind, because even with the internal maps, those corridors just seem to go on forever, and because it is built on a hillside, the main entrance is on level six, which messed with my head from the start. The important thing is that I was there, it was me, and the experience translates so easily to a world outside of time.
When my anti-heroine finally escapes she probably won’t stop for lunch at the nice Thai Noodle place, but that’s her loss. Perhaps she would if there weren’t a war on.
My writing problem was that I wasn’t there and it wasn’t me, but now that I am there and it is me, everything works so much better, even if there aren’t any prawn crackers to look forward to.
PS My last excursion on this topic lives at https://markhuntleyjames.wordpress.com/2017/09/29/am-i-there-yet/
OMP Admin Note: Mark Huntley-James writes science fiction and fantasy on a small farm in Cornwall, where he lives with his partner and a menagerie of cats, poultry and sheep.
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