Previously on My Origin Story: I power-wrote my third novel twice in under three months and vowed I wouldn’t try that again for a long time.
When I was about twelve, I read Leon Uris’s Trinity. My Irish Catholic grandma had made comments about our being Irish and the Troubles and “those damn British.” Eight-hundred pages and lots of juicy Irish suffering later, I was enraptured by my Irish roots and immediately set about romanticizing them.
Later, I stayed at my grandparents’ house, which meant getting up early to make the bed. Suddenly, there was an Irish rebel soldier in the bed, Conor Larkin, just like the hero of Trinity. He looked like I imagined Larkin looked–big, blond, good-looking. His head was bandaged from a bullet wound. It was 1867 and we were Fenians, nationalist rebels against British rule in Ireland. I was a young barwench/rebel named Sian. Larkin and I were arguing about something and of course our animosity was laced with sexual tension. Larkin was born.
For all of junior and senior high, he and his buds Devlin and Gus were with me, submerging at times so other obsessions could rise–TV crushes, teacher crushes, boys at school. For about six years, they stayed safely in my head. Until that fateful November evening when I was working for tips in the coat check room at the Wellington Broker. Lots of time to kill. Fortunately, I had that rich inner life. From there, the idea sprang. Write a novel with Larkin and the gang as the characters. Make them come alive outside of your head.
I tried to stop myself, but it was already too late. The seed was planted and pretty soon, I was “gathering,” the combination of research, acting out scenes, taking notes and planning that means a novel is about to happen.
I read articles about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. I checked out The Green Flag: The Turbulent History of the Irish Nationalist Movement by Robert Kee from the library and studied it assiduously all during my senior year instead of doing schoolwork. (I underlined and highlighted passages in red pen of the 800 page book and never brought it back to the library–sorry, library.) Kee’s balanced, reasonable voice would set the tone for the narration of my story. Two weeks after I graduated high school, I started … My Irish Story.
“Faber built his house past the Border, beyond the western swamps. His former neighbors told him he’d not last long, being past the Border where the tamed farmlands ended and the wild swampland began. They warned him there was no one who could build a strong enough fortress to keep out whatever might come in from the sea. There were no smithys, no doctors, no neighbors, no midwives…”
Somewhere in the first 50 pages or so, I made the fateful decision to not stick to Irish history but to transplant my parable of oppression to a made-up world. Thus began some serious world-building. I created parallel countries for much of Europe, India and Africa. The Irish were the Fiddish, the Brits the Jules from Juling. (Hey, it beats Ori and Yor from my other made-up world.) I invented religions, histories, mythic heroes, political parties. Included: a cultural movement called Faminism, where the children of the Famine took over everything with their famine talk. I wrote songs and poetry, parts of plays and art reviews. I created my own Thesaurus. Some of the words that I used often: poverty, barbarism, lust, debilitated, drunk, upstart, enemies.
I alternated points of view; a close third on Sian and Larkin as they separately survive The Famine. A close third on a Julish Lord named Sevrin who shows us the Julish empire’s brutal colonialism in my India stand-in. And then an omniscient view in the dry voice of a historian who kept the readers up to speed on the progress of The Famine and the rebellion. Interspersed throughout the narrative are quotes from various figures in my own little world as well as excerpts from plays, bills, songs, and books written by my characters. It’s a novel with footnotes.
My romance-novel pair, Sian and Larkin, were much better examples of a couple you might actually want to root for than my earlier sweet/savage lovers. Larkin does hit Sian when they first meet but she knees him in the balls and he never does that again. A far cry from Lee in my first novel and Ariah in my second, who were poster boys for abusive boyfriends.
I wrote the first book twice in longhand and then for the first time, I typed up a draft on an old Royal typewriter, on erasable ClearErase paper. (First I had to get a Gregg’s book from the library and teach myself how to type.) I tracked my three viewpoint characters’ stories up through their twenties until they finally meet up around Page 500. I wrote another 200 pages and then threw that out and started again. I didn’t bat an eye at tossing huge chunks of story and trying something else. What was the rush? I spent hours a day for years on end playing around in my fictive world. It was 1982 and I was an Angry Young Man in conservative times. Recreating the Dublin Renaissance of the 1890s in my basement and pretending I was there, hanging out with Yeats and Maud Gonne, was a great way to survive.
I kept writing through my early twenties as Sian and Larkin do the romance novel tango. The revolution proceeds as well, until Larkin is on the verge of being imprisoned, which would eventually lead to either Larkin or Sian being hanged as a martyr. Or they would live and get old. Unacceptable. I freaked out and stopped writing. I didn’t need a finished novel with these characters. I needed their world to stay alive, as a possibility, so I always had some place to escape to when the real world got ugly. After six years and close to two books completed out of at least three, I put away My Irish Novel. And proceeded to fall apart. But that’s another (Origin) story.
What I learned:
- When you have a complex story with lots of characters and places and time periods to cover, create a hub where they and the narrative can land. For MIN, this was DeMornay’s coffeehouse, where the dilettantes could rub elbows with the creative heroes who could dally with the underground rebels.
- Keep track of your character names by first and last name and try not to have too many with the same letters. When I tallied up the first eighty-eight characters, most had names beginning with B or D. ( I guess I just really liked B and D names.)
- Don’t get your people all lined up to be in a time and place and then pull out and have them rush off somewhere else. AKA, don’t move the action of a scene around. See Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for an example of how she builds up a lot of tension and potential conflict–and then her characters jump on a train and the tension deflates like an old tire. (It’s still a great book, but it is interesting to note.)
- Don’t be afraid to just throw any old storylines out there and splash around in them and then let them sit to see how they hold up. Rewriting is the anal-retentive path to salvation.
Mostly I learned it’s a fine line between being a dedicated world-building novelist and being just plain dissociative.
Next up on My Origin Story: I dress up like a black man.