Juliet McKenna guest post: This ‘Solitary Writing’ Business

From the first time you get a writing contract, bemused friends and family take refuge in accepted literary clichés. ‘Writing, that’s a solitary life’ is one favourite. But by my tenth novel, Irons in the Fire, I’m more convinced than ever this particular piece of wisdom is outdated, if not plain wrong.

Granted, there’s some truth here. Stringing words together is a solo activity for author with pen or keyboard. But once that first draft is done, every writer I know looks to test-readers and editors for feedback. Every piece I’ve ever written, fiction and non-fiction, has been improved by helpful comments when fresh eyes have read it. Yes, writers tend to work at home, alone apart from the cats. But now that solitude only lasts till you log on to the Internet. Forums, blogs and social networking means a UK based writer will have conversations with readers and other authors all over the world-wide web.

But what about the creative process? Only one central vision can drive a book. Again, only up to a point. An essential part of that process is bouncing ideas off other people, listening to their comments and puzzling over the questions they throw back. The evolution of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution is a case in point.

The country of Lescar forms part of the backdrop to my first series, The Tales of Einarinn. Those stories involve an assortment of men and women from the fringes of society, some of them mercenaries. Mercenaries need somewhere to fight, to earn their coin and learn their swordplay. So I sketched in Lescar, with six rival dukes all convinced they should be High King and thus perpetuating skirmishing unrest and occasional open warfare. I wrote the origins of this unhappy situation into the history of the collapsed Old Tormalin Empire and satisfied myself the wider economics of the region would support this running sore. Oh, and established reasons why magic didn’t just solve it all. Job done.

Only as I continued writing, I kept contemplating Lescar’s troubles. Divided societies interest me. With an Irish father and an English mother, I realised early on that the version of Irish history I learned in a true-blue English grammar school was radically at odds with the tales I heard at my Catholic grandmother’s knee. I have friends who’ve lived and worked in Yugoslavia-as-was and subsequently in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. The Israel-Palestine question has featured in news and political debate all my life.

The more I thought about Lescar, the more convinced I became that some of the people would decide they were as mad as hell and not about to take it any more. I mentioned this to my husband, Steve, who said fine, but what was the story? That’s where I got stuck. I had a few thoughts but none of them convinced him. ‘That sounds like a boring book about peasants covered in mud,’ he warned. Since I suspected he was right, I tucked those ideas away.

Then Peter Crowther of PS Publishing invited me to write a novella. I needed an idea to complement my on-going series of books without causing major continuity problems. So I looked at Lescar again. A novella was an ideal way to explore that troubled society, to consider how ordinary people might try to relieve their own suffering, and ultimately to explain why they couldn’t succeed.

So I wrote Turns & Chances. I devised a conspiracy of priests and craftsmen, linked to Lescari exiles in neighbouring countries. The conspirators would send young men and women and anyone falling foul of the dukes to safety. They would secretly work to frustrate the dukes’ plans when fresh warfare threatened. Writing such an episode, where the ordinary folk decide the outcome of a battle, would definitely not be a tale of peasants covered in mud.

I wrote the story from successive points of view, as information passed from hand to hand, from the duke’s mistress spying for her uncle the priest, following every link in the chain to the lad caught up in the battle and its aftermath. The stable boy, the housewife, the blacksmith, the duke’s bastard son and the unwilling militia-conscript could only see events from their limited perspective. It was for the reader to understand the big picture.

Only there were things in that story that I hadn’t seen myself, until Peter Crowther invited Chaz Brenchley to write an introduction, in keeping with the novella series format. Chaz wrote about fantasy in general, my writing within that tradition and specifically about this story. He saw what I hoped; appreciating this perspective on the common enterprise and sacrifice of ordinary people. Which, he pointed out, underpins revolutions. He was absolutely right. I hadn’t realised it myself but now it was obvious. Lescar needed a revolution!

But how? I’d nailed down this intractable situation. Lescar was mired in ancient grudges, with shifting ducal alliances undermining any progress towards a solution. Those Lescari living in exile thought they were helping by sending goods and money but that only sustained the on-going strife. Those Lescari living in exile…

Well now. These would be people with a clearer perspective on their homeland. As second class citizens, they’d find common cause as Lescari more important than divisions they’d left behind. They would have ties to that conspiracy of priests and craftsmen. Those who had prospered in exile would understand the economics sustaining the dukes and know where they were vulnerable. Those with an intellectual inclination would have found a refuge in the universities of Vanam and Col, already mentioned in the Tales. They’d have links with like-minded Lescari nobles, the only people with the leisure for scholarly pursuits. Then there would be those driven by anger and desire to avenge injustices suffered. I began to see a multi-stranded narrative, enriched by all these different points of view.

As I developed this scenario, reading up on revolutions across Europe, Britain and America, questions from readers of my earlier books kept prompting further ideas to improve this story. Those who’d read Turns & Chances wanted to know more about Failla, the Duke of Carluse’s mistress. Those who’d enjoyed the Tales were still asking what had happened to Charoleia, the information broker and woman of many faces, all of them beautiful. She’d be more than happy to earn some gold finding out what these exiled plotters needed to know. When they needed military advice, she’d naturally turn to those experienced mercenary brothers Sorgrad and Gren, who had plenty of fans waiting for their further adventures.

What about magic? I’d explained why wizardry, the elemental magic of air, earth, fire and water was never going to feature in Lescar’s wars. Not officially, anyway, though I’d already found one loophole in the Archmage’s edict. This world has more than one magic though. What about Artifice, the mental magic rediscovered in the Tales? Plenty of readers wanted to know more about that. Artifice could give these would-be revolutionaries a key advantage. What would the Archmage make of that?

As I saw how existing characters could play their part in this tale and created new men and women, young and old, to drive the narrative onwards, the overall shape of the story became apparent. This is a natural trilogy. The first phase is these people deciding they need a revolution and making that happen. Then they have to win the inevitable battles. Then they must make their revolution stick. Historically, that’s always been the trickiest bit, with the seeds of success or failure often planted in the earliest events.

So I invite you to read Irons in the Fire, where the Lescari Revolution gets underway, and see if you can guess at the eventual outcomes. Because really, when you think about it, writing can never be a solitary business. Writers and their books will always need readers!

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