Tag Archives: Easter Meikle Pinkerton

Another Character Moment

This is going to be a little bit of a process entry again, so, uh, consider yourself forewarned.

I’ve been getting a reasonable amount of work done on the WIP (not anything so mundane as coming up with a title, though, heh) and thinking about it a lot and I find myself in interesting territory again. I’ve written before about how, as I write about characters, a lot of times I feel as though they’re telling me about themselves as I create. Obviously this is an inversion of what’s actually happening, but – again, as I’ve said before – I feel as though these imaginary people are coming to me rather that me creating them. Perhaps when I call them into existence, I don’t know everything about them, or at least it feels like it.

My latest example is the protagonist of the current WIP, Easter Pinkerton. She’s a spy in 1880s England who is about to get into more trouble than she would have believed possible. When I first started writing the story, I wrote a scene where Pinkerton (I learned fairly early on that she’s not fond of people using her first name) kills a traitor, and in the process uncovers part of the mystery she’ll chase for the rest of the book. In that scene she’s disguised as a man, and originally I did that because a) it struck me as probable that a female spy would find it convenient to dress as a man at least some of the time, b) it seemed to me that it made this specific mission easier for her, c) it makes for a nice swerve at the end of the scene (which I have now spoiled, aheheh) and d) I am a massive Sherlock Holmes dork and so of course I couldn’t resist putting a little of Irene Adler in her.

So there it was and I think the scene works ok, and I hadn’t given much more thought to Pinkerton’s use of male clothing than that. Then I wrote some more, and wrote some more, and finally created the scene where she returns home after a full day of cloak-and-daggery. And the very first thing she did was change into mens’ clothing again. I wrote that bit through what felt like a reflex, I genuinely felt ‘well of course she does this’ without having any wider ideas about it than that. I wrote it and I knew it was true and felt like Pinkerton had told me something about herself. This part of the creative process fascinates me more the more I think about it (although again, no doubt there are psychologists somewhere going ‘yes, all very straightforward’) and why you’ll never convince me that there isn’t something at least a little beyond biological/electrochemical machinery going on in there somewhere.

Of course now I’ve had some time to think about it, and of course there are all kinds of wider issues connected to it. Wearing mens’ clothing would have been a much more deeply transgressive thing for a Victorian woman to do than it is today (and obviously there’s still lots of issues around it today), so why does Pinkerton do it? It’s not just to be comfortable, or at least, not physically comfortable. She’s at home, she can be herself, and this is what she chooses to do. Pinkerton told me something about her identity in that scene that I now know I have to do right by the rest of the book.

I went back over what I had written that precedes that scene, and I don’t think I need to change anything to reflect my new understanding of Easter Pinkerton, but it has changed a bunch of things that will come afterwards. On the whole, if I can do it right, I think it will make the book richer and I like the character even more now. (I mean, I like each and every one of my imaginary people, even the awful ones, but probably inevitably I have my favorites, and Pinkerton is rapidly becoming one.)

That ‘if I can do it right’ looms rather large for me as I attempt to continue writing, though. Easter has a part to her identity that is not my experience, and so I feel extremely cautious about proceeding. Appropriation is a real issue for many people, and even well-meaning misportrayals can be upsetting and hurtful. It would be easier, in some ways, to just Not Do This part of the story, and make Pinkerton back into a character whose cross-dressing is purely pragmatic, but I wouldn’t like it, and I wouldn’t feel I was doing right by the character. I would feel like I was silencing something in a potentially hurtful way, even if no-one would ever have known about it but me.

I really don’t want to sound ‘oh pity me’ here – this is a challenge but I like it. It is somewhat like being out for a run and coming the the bottom of a big hill. This is going to be difficult, but on some level difficult is why we’re out there. Writing something that’s going to be difficult (for me) is a good thing for me to do. It will (however it works out) make me a better writer and make me think about a whole ton of things I wouldn’t have otherwise. If I do really well, perhaps no-one who reads the finished product and hasn’t also read this blog will know that Pinkerton was a hard character for me to write – they’ll just enjoy her story. I could presumably write a bunch of perfectly acceptable stories with characters who won’t push me the way I think Pinkerton is going to, but among other things, then I wouldn’t have the feeling of being at the top of the hill, and knowing you’ve done it, where you feel (just for a moment) invincible.

So Pinkerton is going to exist (in whatever form the story ends up existing in) as she ‘really’ is, or how she has started to explain herself to be. I’m going to do my best with it. I’m also waiting to see if she has more to reveal to me. I have a feeling there’s more that she’ll tell me about when the time is right. I don’t typically write romance, because I don’t feel I’m very good at it, but I also have the nagging feeling that Pinkerton isn’t going to let me off that easily. She and I will perhaps have to negotiate.

These imaginary people are a treasure, and a responsibility. I genuinely want to do right by them (in my admittedly-odd way of viewing them) but I want to do right by whoever it is that reads the story in the future. Ideally I’d like it if there’s something in my characters that might speak to them, that they might identify with, or at least that they’ll feel that my imaginary friends are worth spending some of their time with.

That was all very introspective, even by the standards of this here blog here, so thanks for your patience. I’ll go see if Pinkerton wants to talk about anything and let you know how it goes.

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Driving with the top down

As I’m continuing to write the new WIP, at the moment I’m having a great deal of fun. In part this because I’m mostly at the stage of the project where I think it is A Fantastic Idea and Statler and Waldorf haven’t weighed in too much yet, partly it’s been because I’ve had wonderfully encouraging feedback from its very limited audience so far, but in large part there is another reason. Some characters are just fun to take out for a spin.

If you read the blog regularly (first of all: my sympathies), this is still the project with Easter Pinkerton, Victorian-era spy as its protagonist. I’m greatly enjoying writing Easter at the moment because she’s very unlike the lead character of King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and the other project that got stuck in the mud summer before last. In all of those cases my lead tends to be thoughtful, arguably intellectual, but certainly not hard cases or much good at physical confrontation.

Easter is clever, I hope, but she’s also dangerous and that’s a very fun change for me. Easter responds very differently to crisis and to her enemies and it is (I imagine) like driving a different kind of car for a while, one that handles differently and has more power and acceleration. It’s not necessarily better (I am still very fond of Adam Godwinson) but the different experience is exciting.

This is one of the joys of writing, of course. One of the cliches about being an author is that you get to live a great many lives, vicariously, through your characters. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but you certainly get to play with a lot of different bits and pieces of the range of human experience without, you know, actually having to do them. You can write someone who is not the least bit afraid of perilous situations and get at least a sense of what that might be like, as one who generally tends to run for cover. You can create a character who speaks their mind no matter the consequences, and sort of know what that is like, even if you really tend to be shy. Of course it’s all pretend, and all you really know is what you imagine those things to be like, but these are still rewarding explorations to go on, and one of the pleasures of being a writer.

Some characters are just fun to write, as well, and I hope that Easter will continue to be one of those. I guess by this I mean their personalities are such that its entertaining to think of what they might say or do next and fun to put it down on the page. Another character from King in Darkness, Dr. Todd Marchale, turned out to be a great joy to write because he’s such a sarcastic grump and coming up with his next grumble never fails to amuse. Fortunately readers seem to have liked him too. I’m enjoying writing Easter in a somewhat similar way, too – hopefully in time her audience will like her just as much.

It is one of the great pleasures of indulging ones imagination and writing to take the time to come up with all the bits and pieces of background for characters that we like and craft every facet of their personality. At least for me, a great many of those details will never make it into the story – I think I’ve said before that I don’t particularly like it when stories bury me in reams of backstory, most of which has no real impact on the tale at hand – but still come up with them. I was delighted to discover that George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max franchise, has detailed backgrounds for just about every character that appeared in Fury Road, even though you don’t get even a hint of most of them. It sounds very familiar.

There are times when characters are not fun to write, of course. I talked about this a bit in the process of writing Bonhomme Sept-Heures – some characters are genuinely unpleasant to ‘be around’ and so the task of writing them down is (for me, anyway) also unpleasant. In a narrative sense it needs to be done, because I need that character and the story requires them to be a certain way, but that doesn’t mean I have to like doing it.

I suppose it’s a tiny tiny downside to writing fiction with some darker elements to it; from time to time I have to slither around in dark parts of the human psyche to create the made-up people I need to give the story the villains to go with the heroes. The temptation is to do it quickly and get it over with, but I have always thought that a good villain needs depth just as much as a hero does (perhaps more, because we’re more likely to ‘naturally’ grasp the hero’s motivation) and so it’s not an experience I can rush through.

I guess I hope I do justice to all my imaginary people, in the end. It isn’t their fault if the story requires them to be awful and I hope I treat them with somewhat the same care as I do the character who are fun to create. It’s also a kind of comfort that I know they aren’t real and are safely in my imagination where they can’t really do any lasting harm.

Now I think I’m going to go see what Easter wants to do for a while.

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It’s just a few days untilĀ Word on the Street in Toronto! If you don’t know, Word on the Street is a fabulous open-air literary festival and this year, Renaissance Press will be there for the first time. I’m very excited to be able to make the trip down and to hang out at the Renaissance table all day; we’ll be in the Fringe Beat section if you’re looking for us on your map. If you’re in the area I don’t think there’s any way you’ll be disappointed if you come down, soak up all the wonderful reader-y and writer-y stuff going on, and pick up some awesome stuff to read. I’d love it if you came and said hi at the table.

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Me vs. The Speckled Band

As part of working (slowly) on the Easter Pinkerton project I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I have been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes stories (a thing I tend to do anyway) and a night or two ago I got to ‘The Speckled Band’. I am told that Conan Doyle considered it the best of his Holmes tales, and while I don’t agree with this (something Sir Arthur and I can no doubt debate when I reach the great Writers’ Hereafter) it is a good un.

There is an issue, though. (This next bit is arguably spoiler-y but I think the Holmes stories are old enough that I don’t care) At the climax of the story, Holmes discovers that the murder weapon in this particular case is a swamp adder, ‘the deadliest snake in India’, as our hero describes it, that has climbed down a bell-rope into the bed of its victims. Which is pretty cool.

The problem is that there isn’t actually a snake called a ‘swamp adder’ in India or any place else, nor indeed a snake that looks all that much like the one Conan Doyle describes. Herpetologists and Holmes fans have wrestled with this problem and come up with a few snakey options for what the creature might actually be, but there’s a larger issue yet. Apparently snakes can’t climb ropes. (I didn’t know that either!) Thus, the whole premise of Conan Doyle’s story is impossible. Despite this, ‘Speckled Band’ was his favorite (I assume he didn’t know it was impossible) and despite the problems with the made-up snake and the made-up snake behaviour (the snake is also trained to respond to a whistle, which is also a problem because snakes are, apparently, deaf) people have been reading ‘Speckled Band’ for over a century, and it is routinely mentioned as a favourite.

Presumably at least some of that is the readership not knowing about swamp adders and snakes, and thus not knowing where Conan Doyle has gone wrong. However, I still enjoy it very much even knowing the issues with it, because Conan Doyle was right and it is a very good story. The central mystery is good, we get some opportunities for Holmes to show his deductive brilliance, as well as the somewhat rarer example of Holmes being (temporarily) mistaken. The atmosphere and tension of the climactic scene is very well done. In other words, the thing works, if you can put aside or cheerfully ignore all the snake-related issues.

This gets me to wondering (probably in part because I’m writing a story that will be set in the Victorian period, a period I am not expert on) whether we get too hung up on factual precision, getting every fact and word exactly correct, when we create. The example of ‘Speckled Band’, along with very many others, suggests that if you’ve got a good story, your audience will follow you, even if there are cases where you have an, ah, elastic relationship with the truth.

If you have a good story, I wonder if it might not be better to just write the thing and worry less about the facts. I know an overriding concern with accuracy can kill creativity. I think I wrote here a long while ago about a story of mine I wrote for a creative writing class with an opening scene that I set in Vladivostok, purely because it sounded like a suitably William Gibson-y place to stick a cyberpunk-ish story. My teacher pointed out (probably accurately!) that Vladivostok looked nothing like that. The story, which was meant to be the first piece of a novel, never recovered and I hardly did a thing to it or with it after that, because I couldn’t let the Vladivostok thing go. In this case, I don’t think the world lost a great story (I’ve written elsewhere about why my phase of trying to write cyberpunk was irredeemably bad) but the point I’m thinking about at the moment is that from a creative point of view, it probably would have been better to cheerfully ignore the whole issue with Vladivostok and just write the story. If it was a good story (it was not a good story), most readers would have cheerfully ignored it right along with me and enjoyed the narrative they were being given.

There is probably a minimum standard here somewhere, some tipping point past which even a well-written story gets dumped down from ‘enjoyable’ and ‘entertaining’ into ‘unbelievable, and in a bad way’. Some things do (to judge from internet reactions) seem to get particular subsets of readers particularly energized – getting facts wrong with guns seems as though it will get a reasonably large number of people excited, and computer-y people routinely point out all the problems with any kind of scene involving the internet and hacking. I freely confess to being scolded for ‘ruining’ the Clive Owen King Arthur movie by objecting to its problems with the truth throughout the film. (I still maintain that movie was pretty much self-ruining, though) If you get certain parts of your story wrong, people will notice, and it may bother them enough that they either give up on your story, or switch focus to finding all the other mistakes you’ve made, and then (often) pointing them out, a task which the internet certainly assists.

Part of this is (I think) that we love to point out our own knowledge. Part of this, though, is that places where a story strays from the factually possible is kind of a challenge to the reader: how ‘in’ are you, with this story? Are you bought in enough to stay with me through this, er, creative interpretation of the truth? You can, I think, only challenge your audience in this way so many times, or to a certain degree of severity, before the answer becomes: ‘nah, I’m out’.

I’m not sure if this is some precise calculation that a writer needs to constantly make, or (as I suspect) that this is one of those intuitive processes where you have to decide how essential certain facts may be to your story and to what extent they can – or in some cases must – be fudged in favour of your story. I am sure that in the end, if you have a good story, you probably have an audience that will follow it despite any factual blips that may be in there. If you have an immaculately researched, factually unassailable piece of work that isn’t a good story, all the research doesn’t matter because people won’t want to read it. I guess the more I think about this issue, and how to budget my time and energy as I work on this current project, the more I think I need to spend it on creating rather than on graduate-level research into the Victorians. I gotta have a good story before I need anything else. If I have one, I think my readers will forgive me for any swamp adders.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week.

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The Strange Course of Ideas

This is going to be one of those ‘process’ entries that may or may not be of any particular interest, but I do get people asking from time to time where my ideas come from. A lot of times I just go with ‘my crazy brain’ as a response, but over the last week there was a fairly self-contained example of how the ol’ mind-gears work and I thought I would share it today.

To somewhat set the stage, I had just finished the first round of edits for Bonhomme Sept-Heures and fired the manuscript back to the publishers for the second go-round. My plan was to revisit the project I had started writing last summer and then put aside because I got kind of stuck and had more ideas for Bonhomme Sept-Heures. So much for the plan.

Instead a dear friend of mine posted on Facebook that they had driven through a town with a name that they loved: ‘Easter Meikle Pinkerton’. (A town, by the way, that I have since been unable to find out very much at all about, but never mind) For whatever reason I latched on to that and wrote back a hilarious (not really) observation that this sounded like the love interest in an obscure Victorian spy novel. Another friend commented that I was now obliged to write said novel.

And there the trouble began.

I started thinking about Victorian spies and the first thing I decided was that Easter Meikle Pinkerton should be the protagonist rather than the love interest, because a) it’s too awesome a name to not be the main character b) the ‘Pinkerton – not of the agency’ line only works from the lead and c) a female spy in the 1800s is a pretty interesting character. Also kind of d) I haven’t written a female lead in a very, very long time, and not in anything that I have shared widely, so that’s attractive right there.

Now, I make hilarious (not really) comments like that all the time and most of them don’t go any further than amusing me and perhaps exasperating others, so we now reach the part of the process that I honestly don’t understand. Where a lot of ideas and musings and concepts just kind of flicker and vanish, certain ones set the mind-gears humming away, without (honest) me thinking about it, and then gradually more Stuff that goes with the idea starts getting thrown up from whatever strange subconscious alchemical part of my brain does these things to where I can notice them.

So it was with Easter Pinkerton. I started having ideas about what the general plot of the story could be and in general I like it. I know where Easter lives, I know she dresses as a man sometimes (sometimes out of necessity), has little patience for those who aren’t as quick-witted as she is (which is nearly everyone) and has a Welsh butler (whose name I need to nail down) whose main role in life is to smooth over the social upset she causes. Like most fictional spies she can kill you with a knife (and various other ways) but she’s rather unlike most fictional spies in that she builds model wooden ships. (There’s a reason) I know who our villains are and have a broad sense of how the story will play out. I need to start making a plot diagram to help me keep things straight, and I especially need to come up with Easter’s background. I’m trying to decide how many Holmes references to put in there.

I wrote a very rough teaser/prologue thing and sent it off to some friends to see what they made of it. They were foolish enough to say encouraging things and so now of course I have more ideas coming. I am at that point where I know the mind-gears are fully engaged because (among other things) I’m thinking through scenes as I’m running. (Sorry, reset the ‘days since Evan made a running reference’ sign to zero)

So I guess that other project is getting put off for a while again, even though I do like the idea and (because my brain is crazy) do feel guilty about those characters having to wait, again, while I write another story. On the other hand I think I need to jump on this idea that has me excited right now and get as much of it done as I can. I’m even taking the advice of (yet) another friend to write the bulk of this story now, while I’m enthusiastic about it, and do repairs and edits based on research (which will have to be done) afterwards. This goes against my instincts of How to Do Things, but one of the things that helped the other project run into the sand was realizing how much research needed to be done to get it right, and thus my mind wandered off to other things, so this may work out better. We’ll see.

So there you go. The idea for this one, which I hope I will be able to share with you at some point, came from a fairly offhand comment in the most mundane of places, and for whatever reason engaged the mechanisms of my strange little mind to the point that a story has started to form. I wish I could predict what will set that process off, but I can’t. Perhaps that will come in time, and perhaps not.

Perhaps you enjoyed reading that. I hope so.

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This weekend I am excited to be at theĀ Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston along with a whole passel of accomplished authors like Jay Odjick and Tanya Huff, talking about reading and writer related things for a few days. I’m going to be participating in a couple of panel discussions on Sunday afternoon and will be around the whole weekend, including spending some time at the Renaissance Press table, where you will be able to get a copy of King in Darkness and say hello if you’d like to.

Online registration is still available and you should definitely come if you can!

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