Friday, February 26, 2016

Head Hopping

“Head hopping,” strictly speaking, refers to the habit some authors have of skipping from one character’s point of view to another’s within a single scene. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most narrators were omniscient, head hopping was normal. Almost all of us encountered it in the books we read, or were assigned to read, in high school. The rise of movies has made it more common again, because the camera routinely shifts to show a given scene from varying angles. But for a while, head hopping was considered a no-no of the writing craft, and the advice is still handed out. Unless handled right, the shifting perspective can confuse readers, and the exposition needed to reintroduce clarity emphasizes the role of the narrator, destroying the illusion that one is experiencing the story through the viewpoint character’s senses.

Before I fell into writing fiction, I never noticed head hopping and so was never bothered by it. That was simply part of reading. Then I learned that head hopping was considered bad form, and now it drives me nuts. It’s like editing. Since I started working as a copy editor, I see typos everywhere. Very annoying, but what can one do?

The head hopping I’m writing about today, however, has nothing to do with switching points of view within scenes or even between chapters. As I get ready to release The Swan Princess into the world, I also have to prepare to reorient myself to new leads for The Vermilion Bird. I know from experience with Legends 2 and 3 that this will take longer than I would like. I need to find ways to understand the new hero and heroine: what they want, what they fear—and especially why they carry such huge chips on their shoulders and what might make them lower their guard enough to embrace the future I have planned for them. One of the basic rules of story is that protagonists change, for better (comedy) or worse (tragedy).

This rule does not always hold. In some cases, most notably in adventure stories and detective novels, the protagonist resists intense pressure to change in negative ways. But in my books, so far, protagonists grow. And boy, do these two need to grow. If they don’t, no one will want to read about them. Moreover, they’re going to kick and scream every step of the way. I can see that already.

It will, I admit, be fun to make them sweat, not least because both of them badly need to grow up. But until I’m certain that The Swan Princess is finished, I don’t dare start putting them through their paces. I have to stay in touch with Nasan and Daniil—who will, no doubt, appear in the new book as well.

Now, if you have never written a novel, you may think, “What is this woman on about? Authors create their characters. They can make them do whatever they want.” Well, no, not exactly. Characters may be fake people, but once the basic traits of their personalities are set, they can respond only in certain ways. If a person who has been established as a career woman announces for no reason in chapter 10 that she’s decided to pack in her high-stakes profession as a criminal defense lawyer for an apron and two cats, readers will reject her as inconsistent—and so they should. She may make that choice by the end of the book, but not unless it’s 100 percent obvious what has been missing in her life that cooking and cats can supply. I know from experience that if as a novelist I am in touch with that character, I will not be able to write the dialogue for such an inconsistent decision. To me, that’s what writers’ block is.

If you have heard writers complain about their characters taking over the story, however, you would be justified in thinking that there is no problem. Don’t characters come into the world full-blown, ready to rip? No, that’s not exactly true either. Characters—especially series characters—may be created initially to serve a limited purpose. The heroine needs someone to bounce ideas off or to get in her way and make life less comfortable. The hero can’t strap on his own armor unless he becomes double-jointed, so he has to have a manservant do it for him. The story requires a marriage or a birth, and the author creates a new character to fit the bill. That criminal defense lawyer can’t do much without accused criminals to defend. In that sense, writers do create their characters and determine their fates.

But once created, characters don’t always stay within their boxes. Protagonists grow, but so do secondary characters. One of the problems in writing a book is to keep the secondary characters from developing to the point where they become more interesting than the hero/heroine and thus take over the story. When this happens in a series, it’s time for a sequel. Hence The Golden Lynx focused on Nasan and Daniil, but I found Ogodai so appealing that I gave him his own book, The Winged Horse. He needed an opponent, whom I originally intended to kill off—until I realized that the opponent had in fact had been quite hard done to. And that the opponent was the perfect match for another difficult secondary character who also pushed at the bars of her cage and might have a story to tell. But I didn’t want to forget Nasan and Daniil, not least because I had of necessity left their relationship unfinished. So I set the opponent aside (with considerable regret) to bring the other two back in The Swan Princess. It took months to reconnect with them, and throughout that time I pushed the other pair onto the back burner of my brain. With luck, it will not take another six months to restart the fire.

But that’s the writing life—at least, my writing life. And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Image © DVARG/Shutterstock no. 87962452.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lord of the Dance

If you’ve ever read my bio, either here or on my website or at the back of one of my novels, you’ll know that I love to dance. I took classical ballet classes for more than 25 years, and I still practice on my own at least five times a week (my skills are no better than fair, but it’s a form of exercise I enjoy, so who cares?). So when I learned that Anjali Mitter Duva’s debut novel was not just about a dancer but about the evolution of Indian classical dance in response to the Mughal invasion from Central Asia, I knew I had to interview her. You can hear the results for free on the New Books Network site.

I was not disappointed. Duva talks at length about kathak dance, its history and practice, and the spiritual and physical experience of engaging in it. She also talks about her wonderful characters, struggling to find their place in a world changing before their eyes while living in a desert climate so harsh that children can reach adolescence without ever seeing rain. This is a book about family and culture, so richly described that you will smell the spices and hear the beat of heels drumming against the floors. It is also a book about contradictions: the brides of Lord Krishna, who dance to worship him, are sold off to the highest bidder among the local elite, who then becomes their patron and uses them as he pleases. Yet despite the odds against her, Duva’s heroine, Adhira, manages to find a way out.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction, which now has a brand-new URL as the result of an upgrade to the network’s Web presence. For a while, the old addresses will redirect, but you can find a complete list of interviews at this link.

In 1526, Babur the Tiger, the self-proclaimed ruler of Afghanistan, moved south and conquered the northwest section of what was then known as Hindustan. Babur, although accepted as padishah and emperor, never much cared for India, but his descendants flourished there until the British moved in more than three centuries later.

Faint Promise of Rain explores the early part of this transition. Two years before the death of Babur’s son Humayun, a girl child is born to the temple dance master near Jaisalmer, a citadel in present-day Rajasthan. Adhira’s birth is considered auspicious, because it takes place during one of this desert area’s rare rainstorms. To Adhira’s father, the divine blessing placed on his child means that she will finally be the one to carry on the kathak dance tradition that has defined his life. Adhira’s mother worries that no little girl should carry the burden of such great expectations. And Adhira’s older brother Mahendra cannot sustain his own service to the temple in the face of the increasing strength and influence wielded by the armies of Emperor Akbar, Babur’s grandson. Mahendra, although a dancer by instinct and by training, becomes convinced that his duty to protect his family requires him to fight.

Against this backdrop of religious, cultural, and military conflict, Anjali Mitter Duva paints a richly colored, exquisitely detailed picture of a world in flux. At the heart of the painting stands Adhira, who through her love for Krishna and the dance slowly finds a pathway to a future that is all her own.

Finally, a quick update on The Swan Princess, which has gone to typesetting and should be released on or about April 15. You can find out more about that at my website.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Love in the Collapse of Communism

Leningrad, 1937: Roman, an artist who needs to eat, has become an expert in air-brushing “enemies of the people” out of photographs. One of his earliest subjects is his own brother, an unrepentant devotee of religion in Stalin’s atheist communist state. As an act of resistance—atonement? compensation? revenge? even Roman isn’t sure—the artist paints his brother’s face into every other image he doctors. The head of a party boss added to a nineteenth-century painting, the face of an unknown worker in the background. It becomes his signature, his legacy. Then Roman is asked to air-brush out a ballerina accused of espionage for a foreign power. But the ballerina looks like his sister-in-law, and Roman can’t bear to erase his family twice …

Thus begins Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, a collection of riveting interlocked short stories that ramble from the Arctic Circle to Chechnya and from the 1930s to the present. Along the way, we get a clear sense of a world crumbling under the impact of communism and its collapse: literally crumbling, in the ruins of Grozny and the nickel mines of Kirovsk, a former prison camp where “the falling snow was tinged with color depending on what had been in the furnaces the previous day: the red of iron, the blue of cobalt, the eggy yellow of nickel” (63).

The format of the book draws from a mixtape given to Kolya, one of the recurring characters, by his younger brother. A genuine Maxell cassette, a rarity in the late years of the USSR, the tape accompanies Kolya to war in Chechnya and back to the nickel mines. Its presence sustains him in his darkest hours. The book, too, is a literary mixtape, with Sides A and B and a long Intermission at its center. It’s wonderfully complex and wonderfully complete, posing questions to which the reader suddenly perceives the answer five stories later. The language is both beautiful and stark, the characters simultaneously sympathetic and severely, even irreparably flawed.

Given my interest in Russian and Soviet history, it will hardly surprise followers of this blog that I found myself drawn to Roman and his compatriots. I requested The Tsar of Love and Techno initially for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, and I still regret that the interview never took place. It was scheduled for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and I suspect the timing doomed it. So I decided to write this blog post instead. If you have any curiosity about the last years of the USSR and the post-Soviet consensus, up to and including Vladimir Putin, this book is for you.

Expect to see more posts like this one. Despite the occasional scheduling problem, New Books in Historical Fiction—and the New Books Network in general—have been growing rapidly in popularity, and I now have more books being sent to me than I have hours available for interviews. A lovely place to be, I admit. So when a podcast interview doesn’t work out for whatever reason, I will be shifting some of the coverage here—as I did last week with Bernard Cornwell’s Warriors of the Storm. On the Friday after International Women’s Day (March 8; the Friday is March 11), for example, I will feature Fall of Poppies, a new collection of short stories by women about love and the Great War. There are so many fantastic books. It’s a privilege to have the chance to comment on as many of them as possible, and I look forward to sharing those comments with you.

That said, I must confess that I will soon be adding another book of my own to the massive piles of available reading material. One more editing pass for style and consistency, and The Swan Princess goes to typesetting. And just to whet your appetite a little, I’ve pasted in two of the early reviews below. Stay tuned for the release date!

“Lyrical and compelling, The Swan Princess draws the reader into the world of sixteenth-century Russia, a world unfamiliar to many readers, which becomes vividly real in the hands of this master storyteller. The characters of Nasan, Daniil, and the others leap off the page. Perhaps most intriguing is the portrayal of the clash between the two vibrant but alien cultures of the Russians and the Tatars—frequently at war, occasionally bound by an uneasy and watchful peace.” —Ann Swinfen, author of Voyage to Muscovy

“An action and suspense-infused historical adventure that kept me turning the pages right to the end. The characters are so well-drawn, the historical facts so cleverly woven into the narrative, time and place so brilliantly evoked, I felt I was experiencing sixteenth-century Russia firsthand.” —Liza Perrat, author of the Bone Angel Trilogy

Friday, February 5, 2016

True Confessions

I have to admit: I have a sneaking fondness for Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Saying so makes me feel like an entrant into a Twelve Steps program—Readers Anonymous, say: “I am C.P. Lesley, and I like Uhtred.”

The reason for my hesitation says nothing about the quality of the books. Rather, Uhtred and the books that have given him life are quite different from anything I normally read. In fact, had it not been for New Books in Historical Fiction, I expect that Uhtred and I would still be the most casual of acquaintances. Fortunately, NBHF exists, and my reading horizons have expanded as a result.

For those of you who don’t know about Uhtred, he is the hero of Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series (formerly known as the Saxon Tales) and the subject of a blockbuster miniseries developed by the BBC. I encountered Uhtred first when Cornwell’s publisher, HarperCollins, sent me The Pagan Lord, which is actually no. 7 in the series. I have since read five of the books; the remaining four are waiting on my tablet for me to find some free time. Warriors of the Storm, the latest book in Uhtred’s saga, came out two weeks ago.

Bernard Cornwell took part in a wonderful and informative discussion on New Books in Historical Fiction in June 2014. His alter ego is, to put it mildly, not so accommodating, although he has his own kind of charm. Uhtred is a battle-hardened warrior, a devotee of the Norse gods in a Christianized land, a Saxon raised by Danes who fights for the unification of a land that often fails to appreciate him and for the expansion of a religion that he at best tolerates, an outcast kept from the fortress of his birth by his own uncle. He is fierce and unrelenting to those he hates but steadfast in support of those he loves—especially Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great. Relentlessly—piece by piece, battle by battle, book by book—Uhtred pushes forward King Alfred’s cause: the unification of England from a collection of warring, mostly conquered parts. A century and a half before the Norman Conquest of 1066, the unification of England still hangs in the balance, but Uhtred, although by book 9 an aging warrior, is determined to see that cause succeed. Warriors of the Storm, in particular, is one battle after another, as Uhtred struggles not only against a new Danish chieftain but against the inexperience and gullibility of those on his own side.

In an interesting coincidence, my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction was with Joan Schweighardt, the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. A very different book—set five hundred years earlier and from a woman’s perspective. Yet what pulls these two novels together is the pagan mythology that infuses their characters’ worldview. Uhtred believes in a universe where the gods play with human lives to entertain themselves, where the Norns weave destinies and cut life threads on a whim, where a man can hope to spend eternity carousing in Valhalla so long as he lives bravely and dies sword in hand. Gudrun, the heroine of The Last Wife, carries a sword that lays a curse on its owner, stolen as part of a dragon’s treasure by a warrior in search of valor and glory and destined to punish (she hopes) an enemy who has destroyed her people and appears invincible. Gudrun and Uhtred would understand each other if they ever met.

So let’s hear it for Uhtred, unbowed and unrepentant. May he enjoy many more battles before, sword in hand, he joins his beloved Danes in Valhalla in perpetual carousing and song.