Friday, July 28, 2017

It Runs in Families

You may remember that in February 2017 I posted about how I read and fell in love with Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age. So I found it particularly interesting to discover during my recent interview with Beatriz for New Books in Historical Fiction that the characters and fundamental romantic plot of that book derive from an opera that Beatriz knew growing up. (You can find out which opera and how the stories intersect by listening to the interview.)

Also during the conversation, we talk quite a bit about how characters—even whole families—from one of her books pop up in other books. It’s a kind of in-group game: you read one, wonder what happened to X, and bang, there he or she is, starring in another. Or sometimes just making a cameo appearance, like Hollywood celebrities.

I have to admit that, although I wanted to hear why Beatriz recycles her fictional people in this way, I understand the urge completely. Not only do my Legends novels trace the development of a whole cast of friends and family members over the course of five years or so, but I have enough “leftover” potential heroines to people a second series of their own. Naturally, since they will still be moving forward in time, they will intersect with Nasan, Daniil, Ogodai, Firuza, Maria, Alexei, and the rest as seems appropriate. I have the sense I couldn’t stop them if I tried.

So what is the attraction of sticking with an expanding group rather than starting afresh each time as most novelists do? Again, Beatriz explains her reasons in the interview. Mine follow here.

At the most basic level, I envisioned the series that way, but in the early days of writing I failed to understand how simple novel plots need to be, so I had too many characters with too many stories for any one book. These are the “leftovers,” whose backgrounds I know and whose development I have imagined but whose stories didn’t fit into the space available.

A second reason is that known characters come with some of the prep work already done. A writer has to figure out how to grow them, both as individuals and in terms of their relationships, but developing an existing character is easier than starting from scratch. It takes a long time to build a consistent but well-rounded character, so why waste the effort?

Last, for me and for Beatriz as well, those existing characters constitute a story world, filled with the complexities that we find in the real world. They are, if you like, a reflection of a given author’s personality. And like the real world, there are always surprises waiting around the corner, questions demanding answers and people eager to reveal hidden facets of themselves.

So long as the journey entertains and enlightens, we may as well continue along the same path. Because given the way the subconscious works, when that path ceases to lead anywhere, the inspiration will dry up and a new character will force him- or herself into the writer’s mind, insisting on telling his or her story.

Then, like it or not, off we plunge into another story world filled with a different cast. With luck, they too will become friends and family by the time their saga comes to an end.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. We settled on Cocoa Beach, the latest novel, as the featured title, but in fact we talk about all  its predecessors as well.

The State of Florida might have been designed for Prohibition. Its long coastline, its proximity to the Caribbean sources of rum, and (in 1922) its vast stretches of undeveloped coastline made it a perfect target for smuggling. No wonder that lines of ships lay just outside US waters waiting for the intrepid and criminally minded to ferry each cargo of illicit liquor to land.

So Virginia Fitzwilliam discovers firsthand when she travels to the town of Cocoa Beach, then called simply Cocoa, with her two-year-old daughter, Evelyn. Virginia has received news that her estranged husband, Simon, has died in a fire and left his estate and business to her. But when she reaches Cocoa, she soon discovers that Simon's executors agree on one thing: widows should collect checks and not ask awkward questions, including what really goes on in the company warehouse after dark. Only her sister-in-law shows the slightest sympathy for Virginia and her struggle to understand not only what happened to Simon but what his legacy means for her and their daughter.

Told in overlapping narratives that contrast Virginia's past as an ambulance driver in World War I and her early history with Simon to her troubling reintroduction to the man she thought she loved, Beatriz Williams creates in Cocoa Beach what she describes as a Gothic novel in a new, more modern setting. I would call it a psychological thriller, one dominated by a rich and complex cast of characters whose all too human interactions never fail to pull the reader along.

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