I talked in my last blog-post about the pleasure I get from hard-working prose. Good writing comes from the choices you make with the words you commit to the page. In this blog-post I’m going to look at two scenes from my book Snakewood and explain what I was trying to achieve with them. I daresay this is of limited interest to non-writers, unless you have an interest in why an author chooses to write about certain moments in a novel and not others, out of all that’s possible to convey.
The first piece is a moment in Kigan’s back story, Kigan being one of the characters in the book. I wanted to find ways to shed some light on his past without them seeming to be clumsily tacked on, or too showy. But a generalised recollection doesn’t give the reader something specific to latch onto. I knew that he worshipped his dad, but his dad was often away as a sailor, that he lost him when he was young. His memory would then be from a boy’s perspective. Travelling fathers, in my experience, like to bring their kids gifts home from their time away, one of the things that Kigan would have looked forward to:
“Then a knock from one of the other women to tell us his ship was in and we’d join wives and other children rushing down the street to meet their fathers off the boat. Every time he would bring us wood-carvings his ship mates made of the strange animals they saw, and once or twice I saw others he would show my mother that would elicit a shriek of laughter and were hidden away from us.”
With few other outlets on a busy boat, whittling would have been a pastime for some, and exotic toys for the children back home for men on a pittance. It was a short jump to picture those men, out at sea for long stretches, whittling less innocent figures for their amusement. I saw then that in bringing these home for his wife, I had a vehicle that would perfectly define Kigan’s recollection of a young man’s physical affection for his wife, but also that such things were ‘grown-up’s secrets’, so the gift of the carvings was both something he remembered his mum and dad shared with each other only, but also from our perspective, indicated a younger couple’s lust-tinged reunion, by corollary a happy home, the parents in love. Kigan wouldn’t describe these actual carvings because it reflects better that innocence he would have had; they were merely ‘other carvings’ he wouldn’t have made sense of, and would only have glimpsed anyway. The phrase ‘shriek of laughter’ I chose because ‘shriek’ gives the sense of a surprise or shock, while laughter is a very physical, aural thing. They would not have let him see their reaction to his bawdy carvings, it would be something Kigan would hear more than witness and so that would be the nature of the recollection he’d have.
The question is whether I managed to communicate that sense of his early family life in a single paragraph to a reader, thus not bogging down the flow of the novel, and making Kigan seem a bit more ‘fleshed out’ as a character. You tell me… :)
Further on in the book, the main protagonist, Gant, and his buddy Shale were looking for their old crew, because an assassin has been killing them off. Their search for one of them, Valdir, leads them to his sister’s farm.
It would be easy to ping them on from Valdir’s sister to Valdir himself in a paragraph. The stop is purely incidental. But there was a good opportunity here, given Valdir was going to be playing a part in the remainder of the novel, to fill in some backstory, give him some context. This could have come from him of course, and he does give some exposition on his life after splitting from Gant, Shale and the crew. But by putting in a full scene with his sister I could illuminate something of her life and character, and how it was affected by Valdir’s leaving the family to go off as a mercenary. There was also an opportunity to bring some colour to this part of the world, something distinctive, which all fantasy writers have to try and do in order to ground their ‘regions’ with the reader, and make the world feel solid, full of variety and quirks.
Once I’d decided that Valdir had left the family farm and thus estranged himself from his father and made his family’s life far more difficult, the sister would have to be a hard woman, a survivor struggling in poverty. If the father had died, perhaps the mother was alive, and his sister was having to care for her as well. She would thus be worn out, a good person, but worn out. To give the setting some distinctiveness, to ground her in a particular place within this made up world, the use of slang and the dialogue more generally would be efficient at establishing setting and class. The challenge with invented slang here is making it sensible to the reader by embedding it clearly in its context:
“The stone walls about the farm and the bit of land it had enclosed were only secure at a few points. I reckoned a lot of those about were setting their own walls with the pieces of this one. The farmhouse were on the top of a rise, backing onto some woods. The thatch were in disrepair and there were a clutter about of broken forks, flails and a cart that spoke of hard times, not least because this were harvest and they should be making the coin now more than later. As we approached I saw two faces at an open window, then a woman stepped out, smoothing out a blackened apron.
“It’s soldiers mum, expect they’s after food. We got little food with a bad harvest and two shites for farmhands probably off smoking kannab. I can get you some brin, been baking this morning.”
“We were looking for Valdir,” I says.
“You found his sister, but he lost an arm, he won’t be signing for you even if he was here. You’d best come in. It would have been nice to have word he was well.”
We tied the horses and she threw them a bail, which were a kindness.
It were damp all through inside, despite a big fire where the main table were at the back of the room. A fat old dog were stretched out by a window to the front but the place needed more light in it than the two small candles what were sat on the table. Their mother were an old age for sure, she were adjusting a blanket and presently dozed for the time we were there, small like a bird and as free of concern for the plight of the place.
The daughter, herself grey, greasy hair drawn back with a tie, stared for a moment at her mother as though she were another chore waiting its turn. She had a bit of a lith, which softened her words.
“I can’t spare you long, the brin there cooling needs running to Picket’s and he screets if you’re not on time.”
“We’ll do that for you…um,”
“My manners! I’m Julir, did Valdir not talk of his family?”
“It were more than fifteen to twenty summers past since we last spoke to him. I’m Gant, this is Shale,” I says.
“Oh.” She shifted some trays and rags that were on a bench and bid us sit at the table.
“It’s good of you to let us in an’ feed the horses, we’ll pay well for it, Valdir was a brother,” says Shale.
“A real brother would have been a saving here, pat might have been less rummy if I’d got a length and not a soofy.” She flashed a smile but it seemed to vanish for lack of strength. She fetched some bread from under a cloth on a shelf near the window, unshuttered and giving a view west to woods and open land far off. The brin were a bit heavy, but good with some of her salted butter.
Her hands were scarred, the fingers thick and knuckles swollen from the work. She had no more meat on her than her sparrow of a mother behind her, deep lines on a face that might once have attracted comment. None of us were paintings now though.”
The thing I most enjoyed about writing this passage was that it brought to life a woman I had hardly given thought to in the plotting I’d done. But in defining their dialogue, in picturing her kitchen, the damp, and her willingness to feed Gant, Shale and their horses despite her own poverty, I had a perfect opportunity to show them reciprocating the kindness and thus a mechanism that helped me to put in the reader’s mind that Gant and Shale were decent (shortly after this extract they give her enough money to see her and her mother comfortable). I liked her, and it was its own discrete pleasure that they should be able to make her rich and end her poverty and struggle, while also allowing me to give the reader a sense of Valdir’s background.