May 18, 2010

Favourite bits

 

This is probably obscene, but hey.  This blog is too clean anyway.  I worry about all the nine year olds and Great Aunt Gladyses who read it.*  The way the stories come is the way they come, and you can like them (I hope) or you can read something else.  But I took the decision way back before Day One on livejournal that I was going to restrain expression of my natural sordidness and depravity. 

            So.  Obscene.**  I mentioned over on Twitter that I was enjoying reading the favourite McKinley quotations from people queuing up for a chance to win an ARC of PEGASUS.  And I thought I’d talk about a few of my favourite bits*** that I haven’t seen turn up as anyone’s chosen quotation.  Although this may be more to do with the fact that Facebook and, particularly, effing Twitter, have a habit of not letting me click on past the opening page, so I may not be seeing all of them.†

            I posted on Facebook this afternoon that I was thinking about listing some of my own favourite lines from my own books and gave as an example Rosie’s ‘insurrectionist feet’ in SPINDLE’S END, so I’ll start with SPINDLE.  I’ve been pleased to see that the magical background of SPINDLE is a popular citation:  it was a monster to write, but a (mostly) fun monster.  Most people mention an excerpt from this, on the first page:  ‘If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water.  (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant, like snakes or slime, especially in a cheerful household—magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself—but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory. . . .’  Although when I wrote the very first line of the book:  ‘The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust’ and found myself unexpectedly immediately adding ‘Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages’ I had one of those supernumerary little morale-bounds that you get sometimes, writing stories, which are one of the things that keep you writing through the dog days and doldrums.

            But for me, beginning the wrestle of getting the world of this story down on paper, a world that (from my perspective) is even thicker and knottier than usual in my stories††, the place where I first went yes, got it happens in the next paragraph:  ‘The best way to do it was to have a fairy as a member of your household, because she (it was usually a she) could lay a finger on the kettle just as it came to a boil (absentminded fairies could often be recognised by a pad of scar-tissue on the finger they favoured for kettle-cleaning) and murmur a few counter-magical words.  There would be a tiny inaudible thock, like a seed-pod bursting, and the water would stay water for another week or (maybe) ten days.’  For me, writing, and wrestling, and knowing that I have to choose what I put on paper, and that I’m trying to describe a world, gods help me, so that people who only know that world through me will be able to put it together in their own minds till they can see it as I do—waiting my own inaudible thock of ‘got it’, it is the scar-tissue and the bursting seed-pod.

            I also, writing it down for the first time, knew, a few paragraphs later:  ‘The people in this country had developed a reputation among outsiders for being unusually pious, because of the number of things they appeared to mutter a blessing over before they did them;  but in most cases this was merely the asking of things it was safer to ask to remain nonmagical first . . . The muttered words were usually only some phrase such as “Bread, stay bread” ’ . . . I did not know, till I got there, and my fingers kept typing:  ‘ . . . or, in upper-class households, “Bread, please oblige me,” which was a less wise form, since an especially impish gust of magic could choose to translate “oblige” just as it chose.’  And this made me laugh.†††

            I also (sparing my own blushes) love SPINDLE’s take on fish—which again I had no idea of in advance:  ‘Fish, which flew through that most dangerous element, water, were believed not to exist.  Fishy-looking beings in pools and streams were either hallucinations or other things under some kind of spell, and interfering with, catching, or—most especially—eating fish was strictly forbidden.  All swimming was considered magical.  Animals seen doing it were assumed to be favourites of a local water-sprite or dangerously insane;  humans never tried.’  And this then gives me the opportunity much later on for a bit of throwaway humour:  Aunt and Rosie are attempting to give Kat’s son Jem his bath:  ‘When the initial force of Jem’s protest was spent . . . he had declared his intention to be a fish, in the hopes of getting a reaction for having used a bad word (disappointed, he began to splash water on the floor) . . .’   One of the best things in a writer’s life is when something you weren’t expecting that produces something else that you weren’t expecting turns out to help weave your story together in that shape you’re hoping (somewhat frantically) to produce.  The point here, to me, in hindsight, is that while fish, in SPINDLE’s world, are thought to be either imaginary or dangerously enchanted, this is the way little kids are in both that world and this one:  they use bad words to see if they can get a reaction out of the local grown-ups.  This ties the story-world to this world—and my own feeling is that this kind of tacking down and tying up often works best if you don’t really register it:  it just passes by as part of the story.  Jem’s bath is background to a conversation between Aunt and Rosie about magic.  It’s the conversation that is clearly important to the plot.

            The scene with the insurrectionist feet in it—about a third of the way in—has something of the same quality:  the tying of that world to this one by the responses of a human being.  What Rosie is responding to is unfamiliar to us in this sadly mundane world;  but Rosie herself is someone you recognise instantly (well, I hope):  ‘Rosie had a notion that the only way grown-ups knew to protect you was to lock you up somehow—even protective spells usually had a locking-up quality about them, like the anti-drowning-in-a-bog one Aunt had laid on Rosie about eight months ago, after what Rosie still insisted indignantly was nothing like a near miss, and which simply prevented Rosie from walking in certain directions in certain places, although there were quite a few certain places round the damp and fenny Foggy Bottom . . . Rosie had not come indoors in the best of tempers, as she had forgotten which way she had been headed till she found herself reheaded home, briskly carried by insurrectionist feet.  The ballad she’d been humming as she came through the door . . . had a pleasingly bloodthirsty chorus which suited her mood:  “I lighted down my sword to draw, and hacked him into pieces sma’, and hacked him into pieces sma’ ” . . .’  That ballad exists in this world:  Peter sings††† it, although that’s as much as he remembers.  Enough for Rosie’s purposes:  it came to me when I got to that point in the story.  We don’t charm our children to try to keep them safe, but children in this world do often feel locked up by grown-ups’ rules.  A kid who’s just nearly been run over—however passionately she insists it was nothing like a near miss—will probably be barred from riding her bike on the main road;  same difference.  This kind of double-purpose grounding detail is very satisfying:  if you’ve done it right, you’ve set up both the sameness of your story world to this one and the difference.  Yaay.  In a writer’s mind these may become favourite bits.

            To be continued.  Supposing I remember, and don’t get distracted . . .

 * * *

 * I know you’re out there, because you email me from time to time.^  Join the forum.  You’re a lot likelier to get a response on the forum than you are to an email, mostly because I get too much email, but also because I can hope to interest more than just one person by writing answers on the forum.  I’m sorry—but practical and possible are what they are, and very many individual answers to emails aren’t.^^  I still read all my email, and thank you, all of you who have written me and never had a reply.  But the best I can do contains fewer and fewer personal emails. 

^ Okay, maybe not so many nine year olds.  But quite a few teenagers.   Um.  I remember being a teenager, believe it or not, yes, even forty years later—adolescence leaves deep, scarring wounds on a lot of us—and in terms of reacting to McKinley stories most of you would find a lot of company on the forum.  And—just by the way—of everything on the FAQ what probably gets the most reader comments+ is my saying that I find SWORD a little embarrassing, because it reveals my eleven-year-old self’s favourite daydreams rather too clearly.  I’ve had hundreds of SWORD readers write to say, no, no, no!  Your eleven-year-old self was dead on! 

+ Barring the link to ‘There is no sequel to SUNSHINE’ 

^^ This is also what AskRobin is trying to help address:  say or ask something, especially something I hear a lot, and raise your chances of getting an answer.  And for those of you appalled at the idea of saying something on a public forum:  AskRobin is anonymous.  So knock yourselves out. 

** You’re all panting in expectation, right? 

*** Such indelicacy and want of proper feeling.  I’m ashamed of myself.  But not very.  Great Aunt Gladys is probably ashamed for me however. 

† Note that I am not limited to a favourite line, let alone 140 characters.  Well, being the frelling writer has to have some advantages.  And you don’t have to fill up a blog entry (almost) every night. 

†† Although gods help me, SUNSHINE was waiting in the, er, shadows, which world blew me out pretty much as thoroughly as Sunshine herself blows out Pat’s combox, looking for suckers. 

††† My rules of writing say that I get to laugh at my own jokes when I didn’t make them up.  

‡ Well, ‘sings’.  When I don’t stop him fast enough

comments

Please join the discussion at Robin McKinley's Web Forum.