Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Necessity of Bar Room Brawling

I spent most of yesterday trying, yet again, to make headway with a chapter that has been foxing me for a long while now. The main problem is that what I am planning to do is not really dramatic enough, as it begins with two characters discussing art, music and philosophy before moving onto alchemy. One of them is a sceptic, while the other is a practicing alchemist travelling incognito.

Finally, after going for a walk along the sea-front at 9.30 last night, and then popping into a hostelry on it for some much needed inspiration, I realised I had the solution. What was needed was to have something else going on at the same time as the discussions. What this turns out to be will be, of all things, a bar room brawl.

What happens is that the sceptic watches some women doing their laundry on the banks of the Rhine, and recalls something the alchemist said to him - 'Go to the woman who washes her sheets at the river and do as she does.' This is a fairly well-known alchemical adage, and the guy starts to wonder about his new friend. We then have a bit of back story about how the two met in Rome. After pondering recent events, the man realises he's been staring at the women for so long that they've gotten worried about his attentions, and leave.

That night, the sceptic meets the alchemist in a tavern. The husband of one of the women is also there, and he picks a fight with the sceptic, accusing him of lusting after his wife. Our hero protests, saying that he was thinking about alchemy, which makes the husband scoff. This is doubly embarrassing for our hero, as he doesn't want to tarnish his reputation (he is a university professor) with belief in alchemy. Needless to say, the husband takes a swing at him, flooring him in one go. It is then, I think, that our man spies the alchemist watching all this from a corner table. He is incensed, and, after the husband has left, asks the alchemist why he didn't intervene. The alchemist replies that the time is not yet right for him to blow his cover. By way of apology for the right hook that the sceptic has sustained, the alchemist offers to make him gold...

I'm pretty sure that by having the fight in the tavern, it will make the dramatic element of this particular episode much better, and will enable me to then get some alchemical chat going while the sceptic is applying ice to his bruised face. And of course, it will set up the later moment when the alchemist is forced to blow his cover, with tragic consequences. So I think that's the golden rule: always have two things going on in a scene.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

How to write a novel Part 1: Look out of the window

Another post about Elias (the novel), although I have to admit to not having written anything since the last post here due to going to Cannes and attending two weddings and a funeral, and also that the post is not actually about writing, but something tangential to it.

But since I got back to the Manor at the weekend, I have been looking out of the window a lot. It's something I do anyway, as my desk where I write this is by my front window which looks out over the western edge of the Somerset Levels and, beyond them, the Quantocks and the cusp of Exmoor.

Due to the extreme weather we've had here over the last week, though, the landscape has changed on an hourly basis. I'm amazed at how different the same view can look under different atmospheric conditions: storms, mist, sudden bursts of sunlight that illumine parts of the landscape you've never seen before, gaps in the clouds, strange dusks.

It maybe sounds strange, but I have felt as though I have been able to see what C17th Dutch painters like Ruisdael saw... especially when the cloud breaks for five minutes or so, and an otherwise overcast landscape can have a shaft of gold cast down across it, maybe just highlighting one village, or a few fields, or a church spire.

Given that Elias happens in the C17th, this last few days' weather has seemed auspicious indeed, and I know that, given the right kind of silence, I will be back at work.