Thursday, 29 January 2015

New Year 2015 Postbag

Another year over, a new one arrives.  Thankfully, unlike buses, they come along at the advertised time and only ever singly.  Even we folk living in Scotland can only manage one Hogmanay per year!  

Once again, many thanks to all of you who have written to me or posted reviews since the launch of The Door of Perarolo in September 2013. 

The members of the Turriff and District U3A Creative Writing group have asked me a number of questions and I'd like to address them in this post - they correspond in many cases with questions received from readers of The Door of Perarolo.

The U3A (University of the 3rd Age) is an international organisation that started in France and has spread to many other countries, including the UK.  

It caters for retired people and allows them to meet for activities such as language classes, hiking, Scrabble... in fact just about any activity that members wish to pursue.  

The U3A Creative Writing Group contacted me earlier this month and asked me to meet with them to discuss researching and writing a historical novel.  
We met for an hour in the library at Turriff this week, during one of their regular fortnightly meetings. Here are their questions:

Jean from Mountblairy wanted to know whether the characters in The Door of Perarolo are fictional or factual. 

The answer is that most of  the characters - Metternich, Francis, Caroline, Hiller, Maillot, Beauharnais, Murat, Maillot, Salvini and the rest - were real people.  I started the researching The Door of Perarolo about twenty years ago.  In those days the Internet wasn't quite the wonderful thing it is now, and it was hard to find out anything about the less famous people such as Maillot, Tupinier and Salvini.  But in France and Italy new editions of old memoirs (such as Tupinier's Mon Reve) began to appear.  Mario Marzari's beautiful book Progetti per L'Imperatore (Projects for the Emperor) was a unique find for me.  It gives details of Andrea Salvini's life and work.

Detail from the map on the book cover showing the old Arsenal (left - where the galleys were made) and
the 'new' shipyards where the Rivoli and other fighting ships were made.

All the  major politicians, military men, royalty and so forth who feature in The Door of Perarolo were real people, all the subject of detailed research.  But of course, only the famous (and the infamous) find their way onto the pages of history.  

History books do not record the name of the French forester sent to oversee the cutting of the trees in the forests of the Auronzo valley.  I gave him, my main protagonist, a name - Xavier Fortin.  

The Albergo alla Posta (right) at Longarone in 1916 (Elda Deon Cardin's  Così lontano, così vicino... p79)

Bortelo de Zan was the proprietor of the inn at the end of the nineteenth century.  But who ran the inn at Longarone in 1810?  Someone whose identity has been lost in the mists of time.  I gave her the name Lucia, but avoided a surname (as I did for other other 'local' characters such as Carlo and Zuanne, because the surnames of the old zattieri still survive, and I did not wish to risk giving any offence).  

In the book, Padrig Droug - the lieutenant running the (factual) French garrison at Longarone - had a Breton name I invented.  I was able to find nearly all the names of the military officers (generals, majors, etc.) but Padrig slipped the net.  But then, sometimes, when he was in his cups, Padrig's wine slipped his glass...

Liz from
Alvah asked me in the U3A Creative Writing group meeting about the construction of the rafts.  

The traditional three section rafts were articulated, which allowed them to rise and dip to flow over  submerged objects or dip down in sections when rapids were encountered.

On the river, May 1992 [Cierre Edizioni, Verona]

This flexibility together with the traditional rugged construction meant they were able to remain intact under the rough conditions encountered on the dangerous waters between Perarolo and Codissago.

A sad sight   [© Peter Alexander Gray 1998]

This raft (above) was scrapped for timber some time after I took this photo.  Already all the decking had gone and one of the oar posts, too.  Stripping off the decking had exposed the long logs used in the construction of the base of each section of the raft.  The cross beams underneath were there merely to lift the timbers off the grass to stop them rotting and were not part of the vehicle.

Wendy from Gardenstown (which locals call Gamrie - it is where I live too) wanted to know if I start a novel by outlining the plot - or if I first think about the characters to be portrayed.  
Me wearing a silly hat, watching the sun set on Gamrie Bay

The short answer is this: I plot first.  All my novels (I'm writing the second of the Italian quartet at the moment) are based around the lives of the folk of the Piave valley, and in particular the families of the zattieri of Codissago.  But their lives were also influenced by the events in Europe in the nineteenth century.  So I write the major historical events that occur along the timeline first, while at the same time (but in the back of my mind) I am sorting out the major and minor characters of the novel.

Where do the ideas come from?  Rose Tremain in her essay 'The First Mystery' (in the 1993 collection The Agony and the Ego edited by Clare Boylan, Penguin) gives us this insight:

On a rainy afternoon in August 1983, I lay down in a hotel bedroom in Bourges and had a waking dream.
I imagined a middle-aged man standing by a low stone wall, somewhere in the French countryside. He had thinning, sand-coloured hair. He appeared tired and melancholy. He looked up at the clear sky above him
and saw an enormous bird circling there. He realized it was an eagle and his expression changed from
sorrow to wonder. The eagle kept turning lower and lower. It landed on the wall right in front of the man and perched there, regarding him. Now, the man beamed. He felt violently happy. He understood that something miraculous had occurred.
   This sequence of images, carrying in it the idea of sudden transformation or transcendence, was the fragile foundation of my novel The Swimming Pool Season. It was what I shall call the 'first mystery' of the book, the thing that will — or might — contain the essence of what that book is going to be, provided the significance of the mystery can be rightly interpreted. By ‘rightly’, I mean that the writer’s task is to bring the ‘first mystery’ to earth, in order to extract from it a meaning that will serve the work.
   The Bourges dream, containing as it does the miraculous thing that literally comes out of the sky, has been useful in helping me to understand one part of the process of novel writing — that part in which the imagination conjures images and the controlling authorial mind gives them context and meaning.
There exists, I believe, throughout the writing of a novel, a constant traffic of the mysterious or random towards an absolutely unmysterious and un-random place in the narrative. 

It is much the same for me.  For example, hitch-hiking along the old coach roads of France, following the 1817 diary of the 14-year-old Charlotte Harriet Beaujolois Campbell, I arrived one afternoon in Sens in Yonne.  I was looking for the Grand Cerf (where the Campbell family stayed) and a place to pitch my tent that night.  

The Grand Cerf (left) in the Rue de Lyon
I was provided with information on both by M. Bernard Brouse of the Société Archéologique de Sens.  He told me that the inn, the Grand Cerf, was located of the junction of the Rue de Mondereau with the Rue de Lyon, now renamed the Rue de General de Gaulle.  

But it was the newspaper cuttings Bernard Brouse sent to me by post after I returned to Scotland that changed everything.

Circus elephants in the abreuvoir in the early 20th C.
Once I saw photograph of the abreuvoir I knew I had found the key to the backstory I needed for Xavier Fortin.  The rest fell from somewhere, like Rose Tremain's eagle, into place.  

The window directly above the elephant's head in the photo is the window from where Beaujolois Campbell admired the view of the city of Sens in 1817.  If you wish you can read more  in the posts about Xavier Fortin and  Vauluisant Abbey.

Some of you wanted to know what books to read about writing novels.  There has been an awful lot written.  Many are best avoided - Alan Coren's comment 'once I put it down I couldn't pick it up again' is most apposite. But... there is some good news!

Jurgen Wolff's book Your Writing Coach is one of the best I have found.  For example, his advice on 'getting to know a character' (p. 64 onwards) is invaluable.  

I must admit I'm not a fan of Celia Brayfield's novels.  But then... they're written for light holiday reading for the masses - as bestsellers, in fact!  So if you want to write such a book, that's great.  

Apart from the appeal to would-be bestseller writers, Bestseller is a very good book on writing in general.  I would say it is on a par with Your Writing Coach.  I found it equally helpful.

EM Forster's Aspects of the Novel is a collection of lectures given at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927.  But don't be put off by that.  There are points about writing a novel that Forster covers better than any other writer to this day.  His discussion of 'flat' and 'round' characters is very useful.  His examples of Dicken's use of 'flat' characters, '...but he bounces us!' says Forster, is great reading.  So, please, do read it and absorb the wisdom within.

Don't panic - Stephen King's excellent book On Writing is not a manual on writing horror.  It's a very good book, like the ones above, about writing a novel.  He has a method of writing he calls 'digging your fossil'.  It's another take on the sort of thing Rose Tremain means by 'the first mystery'.  

Most writers experience something called 'the gift' - a thought that seems to come from nowhere into the mind of the author.  A gift from... who knows where?  As a writer, such gifts are welcomed and explored.  Stephen King 'digs up fossils' - ideas, characters... they're yours, too, if you want to dig them out.  'Keeping digging your fossil' he urges.  Go for it!

Well, that's all for this month's blog.  My thanks go to Kathleen, Marion, Wendy, Bernie, Liz and Jean at the U3A group for their time, interest and patience.  Next week's blog continues the 1998 diary - when we explore together the ancient walled town of Feltre.

Note: This blog supports readers of The Door of Perarolo, a historical novel set in Cadore, Italy in the early nineteenth century.  You may examine feedback from readers in the UK here and in the US here.  The Door of Perarolo is a Kindle ebook comprising 140 chapters.  It can be downloaded from Amazon sites worldwide.  The launch post of this blog gives further details.  The second post provides links to maps, etc.

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