Friday, 5 March 2010

A Tourist in the Fields of My Desire

Fair fields to walk through - by Paolo Neo, via www.public-domain-photos.com - released by author into public domain.I'm now firmly into the Wassail section of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland. It's going slowly so far, and I'm content with that. This is a place of recovery, reflection, and the tale's minor eucatastrophe - with whose achievement the tension must suddenly pull double-taut again, catapulting the characters into the wild Rising. It is, I discover, not the kind of thing that can be written in a frenzy. So Life comes strangely to mirror Art, and such jazz. There is, though, another thing I'm learning here that is new to me.

Beginning this chapter, which we may as well call that of the Mice, I was annoyed to discover how thinly imagined my cherished vision of Fairfields really was. I had a few stand-out images, a sprawling central family with whom I'd fallen in love at the moment of creation, and a certain feel for the air and manners of that country. This, it turned out, was pretty much it. And as usual, a lot of the things I thought needed to happen there either aren't so important, or at any rate don't mean what I thought they would a year ago.

Now, when characters are fleeing from bandits and bogeymen in between breaking up their love affairs and stealing the One Ring from each other's pocketses, a certain sparsity of deep detail concerning the countries they pass through is excusable and even desirable. When on the other hand they come to rest and re-awaken in Rivendell or Re Albi, specific detail shared with the reader is what it's all about. Otherwise, one might as well just write:

There they found right good hospitality, and were rested and their hearts healed of their weariness. Deeply they partook of the Counsel of Elrond, and worked through their several issues with his trained Elvish counsellors; and many mysteries were revealed to them, as of the Seven Personae of Highly Effective Hobbits, and other matters now lost to us with the waning of the ancient lore. When they were resolved not to be such asses again, and had been signed off as fit for questing, then did the Lord Elrond ding the warning-bell for the last of many meetings. "Now," said he, "the One McGuffin is revealed, and we must deem our Age's doom..."

Bah!

Tolkien made his havens immortal Elvish dreams, where merely mortal minds and senses quickly became lulled and trippy. But my Fairfields is more like something of Le Guin's or Chesterton's, where dear naked mortality is the magic above all, with the gathering of firewood and the craftsmanship of a shawl and the vagaries of goats in the rain.

There is only one way to describe a place like that. So I've spent the last week mainly walking around it and talking to people, until I know it in passing: from Perch Hill to Glassy Gill, from the Sugar-Loaf to the Glide; commiserating with glum shepherds, and coaxing Sairey Salt-the-Stew for a song, and taking a wary bite out of the sweet strange loaves they bake from the flour of Drizzle Mill. And very, very carefully avoiding the lane to the tannery...

I have, in fact, been playing tourist. Almost none of what I've seen and heard and tasted, and only briefest glimpses of the high points I've just mentioned, are likely to find a way directly into the story. But quite apart from being a very pleasant and affordable holiday, this seems to have been just what I needed, since the tale is now flowing at a pace as free as it is mellow. With the ground firm beneath my feet, I'm no longer distracted, and see plainly what the episode of the Mice is really about - and what my characters must variously do about it.

So they do.

The thing is, this good and agreeable counsel hasn't been my usual form in the past. More often, I've discovered that I don't really know everything I ought about the realities of (say) mediaeval-tech rural life in the winter, and therefore gone off for weeks and months trying to get enough detail to believe in my own vision.

That is all very well for something like the Miller's Tale, where as the author I really need to be able to talk intelligently with my protagonist about the water-power technology he's obsessed with developing, and about the business environment for his plans to make a fortune out of it.

For this fairy-tale, more than a tourist level of understanding is often surplus to the telling's requirements, and holding things up for 'research' speaks less of diligence than of a failure of imaginative nerve. Besides, this way is so much more fun!

I do, however, highly recommend to all writers of traditional fantasy that they spend at least a few weeks or months studying all that 'boring' social and economic mediaeval history, so that they build a framework beyond other tellers' conceits in which their regular folks can go about their own affairs. It is not really very interesting, as such, to know how many acres a single horse- or ox-team can cultivate effectively. It is a great deal more interesting to get an intuition for what that acreage means to the goodwife, or the ploughboy, or the lord who supports his retinue off it. And so with many other matters. For the likes of me, who find 'ordinary' people like Cinderella and Katy Elflocks at least as interesting as glamorous predators like Prince Charming and Golden Kate, such lore may hold special attraction.

I've never regretted an instant I spent learning it. Least of all at times like this, when it liberates me to create as I please, with a semblance of true proportions and textures - and to reserve the enchantments of my dream-fields for heart-wringings instead of hand-wavings. Which is as it should be. The King of Elfland himself couldn't enchant a big blob of Whatever!

But once there are shapes and people and dealings, and so something worth enchanting - why, there are things to be learned in a blustery wind on the way to a Fairfields outhouse, that were never shown in any dusty library or all the woven Internet.

I am glad I learned that too, and that I've played hookey in the country of my desire this week gone, and come again by back lanes to gladder and more serious work than swotting.

It's a vacation I recommend very highly.

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