Embryology of a story #4 (Fate of a Hatchling)

Welcome to the fourth and final part of this journey through writing a novelette. After committing over six thousand words to my human skin parchment last week, I can unproudly announce that I’ve broken one of my rules. I was going to keep this project under 20k words and therefore call it a novelette, but since it’s standing at 21k (including prologue and epilogue) I’m now firmly in novella territory. So, I could decide that the story has become too bloated and start carving out great chunks of it — which would be a terrible waste of the aforementioned skin parchment (it’s hard to come by); or, bludgeon my way forward and allow the characters to map out their fates regardless of word-count. Well, I’ve always been one for solving a problem with brute force and ignorance, so guess which route I have chosen?

Last time, I entitled the blog post as ‘The Egg Hatches.’ So, I guess now that the story has reached this stage, I should perhaps re-title this post, ‘Journey of a Chicken.’ Only, it’s a baby that’s hatched, so — ‘Journey of an infant?’ ‘Childhood of a story?’ The analogies begin to break down, so I’m sticking with the original, ‘sinister’ title of ‘Embryology.’

Now that I’ve put the rambling aside, I’d like to talk about names. When I’m writing fantasy, I use a mixture of Tolkienesque, family/race-derived language or fantasy name generators. Whichever I choose, each name is anything but random. The name has to mean something, has to shout at me, so to speak. When it came down to writing this story, it was a little easier as it is set in Cumbria (my home county.) As such, there are many local surnames dating back hundreds of years, taking in families and clans from the Reiver days (link), and even going back to Saxon times when Norse and Danish influences came to bear. In addition, many nicknames were on offer, some of which were bandied around when I was a school kid. So, the male mc is called Jeremy Woods. Now, anyone with that surname gets called ‘Woody’ around these parts (for obvious reasons.) A builder who Woody works for is called ‘Nobby’, as his surname is Noble. In fact, many nicknames end up with ‘y’ at the end. Other common surnames around N. Cumbria are Armstrong, Foster, Bell, Elliot, Graham, Hetherington, Hodgson, Liddell, and Nixon. So, there’s a rich vein of possibilities to mine here. Whenever a new character presents themselves, the name I choose starts to mould the person’s features in my imagination. It also partly determines the way they speak. If I’ve known a person with that name, it might even suggest mannerisms and turns of phrase. I never lift the whole name or mould a character entirely on someone I’ve known, however. Remember that caveat at the beginning of all fiction: any resemblance to real persons is entirely coincidental? (Well, that word ‘entirely’ dwells in a very grey area. Let’s leave it at that.)

Before I leave this subject alone, it’s interesting to reflect that when I’ve met up with my school friends in later years, I’ve had to consciously check myself to stop me blurting out their nick name. I don’t think my friend, ‘Mouse’ would take kindly to me referring to him thus nowadays!

Following on from character names, I’m going to touch on another problem. Well, not so much a problem as a choice to make. Those who have been born and bred in Cumbria — and I’m sure this is true the world over — have accents and colloquialisms embedded in their speech patterns. So, how should this be conveyed, especially when I’m writing for a world-wide audience? There are traditionally two approaches to take. One is to initially describe the character’s speech in terms of tone and pronunciation, whether they use contractions, etc. This has to be done when the character first walks on stage, hoping  the reader will imprint this description and flavour the character’s speech using their imagination whenever they speak from then on. This requires judicious use of description and, preferably, a ‘hook’ for the reader to hang their imaginary coat on. So, if a character has a slight lisp, I might use something like ‘Jared’s esses were pronounced like he’d been possessed by a rattlesnake at birth.’ The snake metaphor also engenders the notion that Jared’s character is not to be trusted, might even bite you on the ankle when you least expect it. If, on the other hand, the character is aligned to a more ‘lawful-good’ disposition, I might choose, ‘Libby’s tongue often got tripped up by her teeth, to the extent that she sounded like a four year old despite the fact she’d just celebrated her sixtieth birthday.’ The drawback with this approach is that the reader might forget that initial description or skim-read over it, which means the character runs the risk of losing authenticity.

The other approach is to write that character’s dialogue using contractions and word-modifications. In this manner their vocalisations are very obvious wherever they appear. An example might be, ‘Woody picked up the car keys from the kitchen table. “A’m ‘gaan down the Bentley Arms. Reckon’ a’ll ‘ave a pint o’ two.” This technique has the advantage of impressing the character’s personality repeatedly, but runs the risk of being intrusive and contrived. Again, I have to be careful I don’t overdo it. In the above example, I might choose to include a standard ‘I’m’ rather than ‘a’m’ and limit the inflections to just two examples. Enough to give a flavour, so to speak.

In The Egg, I’ve chosen to adopt the latter approach. This is partly to steer me into simplifying Woody’s language. I want him to have profound thoughts, expressed in straight-forward language, and I have a tendency to imprint my own vocabulary and speech patterns when doing this — something I need to avoid given Woody’s upbringing and environment. Much of this dialogue will take shape and undergo further refinement during the editing process, as I don’t want to deliberate on the mechanics of it too much while laying out the story when in first-draft ‘fugue-mode.’ I just need to ensure I don’t skim through this exercise in a superficial manner when the time comes (makes notes in outline to ensure he remembers this!)

Next topic (given the stage this story is at): how to portray the gradual unhinging of a mind. Allied with this is setting the normal against the abnormal and supernatural.

To make the story work, I need to give the reader sufficient reason to believe that Woody would act in the way he does in the closing scenes. I’m going to have to be careful I don’t introduce spoilers here but, suffice it to say, I want to create that ‘feel’ I got when reading The Shining; gradually appreciating how events and weaknesses (in this case Jack Torrance’s alcoholism) contribute to the mental instability of the MC. This is partly why the story has gone over 20k, I didn’t want to rush this aspect and sacrifice the reader’s suspension of disbelief. To succeed in this, I’ve employed a couple of tools. One is to emphasise an obsessive need within Woody and his wife, Jenna; namely, the craving for a child. When a person has such a driving goal, it can serve as a way of justifying other actions that offset a character’s otherwise reasonable judgements and actions. I’ve drip-fed this aspect throughout the story, introducing it straight away in the opening scene, and then re-visiting it many times from different angles. Secondly, I’ve used internal dialogue to describe thought patterns and coping mechanisms that the character could never express verbally. An example here is where Woody reflects on his boss’s son’s success when he describes how the young man’s new business is faring. It’s a brief exchange of dialogue, but enough to register with the reader Woody’s regrets over what might have been:

“Your son,” Woody said. “Following in the family tradition, is he?”

“Yep. Following in the family tradition. He’s set up on his own now. Covering the west of the county, up-market properties only, so he’s no competition. Does me proud.”

“I envy you,” Woody said, uttering the words before he could stop them.

Nobby looked at him, narrowing his eyes a little. “You and Jenna never had a family, did you?”

Woody shifted in the bucket seat. “Guess it’s just not on the cards for us.”

Taking The Shining example again, we can’t overlook (no pun intended) the influence of the supernatural. The ghosts of the hotel, whether it be the eerie twins in the corridor or the spectral bar-man serving Jack his whiskies, are successively introduced, each snapping a tendon holding together the skeleton of Torrance’s mind. In my story we have the enigmatic backdrop of Jenna’s lineage traced back through generations of gypsy lore and practice. (The appearance of a giant egg in one’s chicken house couldn’t have a natural explanation, now could it?) So, I’ve got this aspect to play on. I’ve kept the exact mechanics of this influence deliberately vague, as I don’t want the story to become a scientific treatise on paranormal activity. It’s also nice to get the reader to speculate in their own mind how this might work. The supernatural doesn’t usually follow trains of logic, but it has to make a believable ‘sense’ in the reader’s mind. Enough to get them over questions like: Why on earth would they not be running away from that haunted house?’ or ‘why did they not think it was strange that …?’

The advantage that books have compared with films in this respect is that the written word can make use of internal dialogue when operating in 3rd person pov. (Films can circumvent this by adopting a journal or first person narrative approach, as in The Great Gatsby, but by and large this isn’t an option.) The other advantage of books is how descriptions involving metaphors that tickle a reader’s imagination can immerse them in a way that films cannot. In the cinematic medium, we have to judge that a character is frightened by their expressions or the nature of their dialogue. A skilled actor can portray this, but they have to work hard. Scenes in films dictate the images a viewer receives, which is why the revealing of the monster can often be a let-down. Notable exceptions IMO include Predator and The Ritual’s beast. If a writer does their job properly, they can get a reader to fill in the gaps and imagine something much more terrifying than make up and CGI can portray.

I final ingredient to nudge the reader into accepting how an every-day, ordinary kind of character can tolerate or even embrace strange occurrences is the backdrop of my story’s setting. It occurs about a year after the events in my novel, Mycophoria. The community that Woody lives in went through this traumatic outbreak, and each person knows someone who was affected by the bizarre occurrences surrounding it. This connection gives me some latitude with the whole ‘suspension of disbelief’ syndrome.

I’ll finish up this post by mentioning the whole notion of a conclusion, or denouement — as it is sometimes called. I’ve long since given up on the wrestle that arises from the question, ‘How do I give the tale an unexpected twist?’ They’ve all been done before, IMO. We simply observe variations on a theme in most cases e.g. the same type of ending in The Others as you see in Sixth Sense. Instead, I let the characters write the story. This is where I am apt to adopt gardener/discovery mode more often than not. To date, I’ve changed the ending three times, as my original unfolding of events seemed too contrived or unbelievable. The last stage is how one completes the final sentence. I try to engender a sense of what could have happened next in the reader’s mind. If I can do this, then I have done enough to make them care about the characters. This being a horror story, you can guess that things are unlikely to turn out well for all concerned, but beyond this statement I’m not going to provide any spoilers!

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