Tag Archives: dorothy dunnett

be bold, be uncompromising

I’ve just finished the second book in Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, which means – and I should be getting used to this by now – my heart is broken. Actually, the sensation’s a little bit more like having someone slam the heel of their hand into your sternum hard enough to shatter it.

This quality of Dunnett that is heartbreak but feels less of the heart and more like shock comes from the fact that she’s 100% uncompromising. She’s such a hardass she doesn’t even give the pain anywhere to land.

Last weekend the Melbourne Romance Writers Guild was lucky enough to have Anne Gracie give us a workshop on how to get your book noticed in the slush pile. She talked about really books. You know, really funny, really dark, really passionate. It’s the only way to describe what makes an editor read a well-written manuscript with a plot and competent characterisation and go, “Meh.” Probably wasn’t really anything.

This is something Cat and I talk about a lot. Going fully into an idea and pushing it to its furthest, deepest end. Not being scared of the places your id wants to go. Actually, we’ve refined that one to the point where if one of us is blushing and reluctant and freaked out in response to an idea, we know we have to go there.

As Anne Gracie put it: Don’t flinch away. Be bold.

Then there’s Dunnett.

We’re told to put our characters in a tree then throw rocks at them, but while Dunnett’s characters are busy fending off the rocks she’s razing the land underneath them, so that they have no home to come back to when they find their way down.

She simply does not flinch away. And she pulls it off by having these uncompromising moments happen within a gripping, breathless, joyful, gambolling narrative. It’s not all bleak doom. But when those moments come – she gives no quarter.

I can’t give any specific examples, because they’d all be massive spoilers, but try on something like this:

Think of the one person who gives meaning to why your character does what they do. Who is the sun in your character’s universe? Now kill that person. Now take away every outlet for grief your character might have. Now surround them with people who will take them apart if they are vulnerable for a second. Now make your character clearly, deeply aware of the impact of this death. Now make every one of their best qualities useless in the face of it.

The woman has nerves of steel. There’s no way I can do, yet, what she does.

some history lessons from the masters

Last year I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and it changed my life. Or my brain. Or something. It challenged me to think while I read. It screwed my emotions tight and then didn’t let me go and then screwed them tighter again.

Those six books, the most incredible series I’ve ever read, were Dunnett’s learning-to-write books. I’ve just started her eight-book series House of Niccolo, which are her I-am-a-master-craftswoman books.

Special k always knows when I’m reading from the gasps and laughter and “Oh my God, Oh my God!” that emanates from the couch.

But really, I want to talk about writing history.

In my last post on writing within a genre, I raised the question of how detailed a description I should give of the famous London gentleman’s club White’s. This sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter about how much detail is expected in romance, and whether this should be redressed.

And here’s one of the reasons I love twitter: Jo Bourne, who I cited in that post as the master of detail, was right there in the fray giving her thoughts on the subject. She made one statement that started fireworks in my brain:

You want to describe something at Almacks, you describe a moth on the window.

Just pause and soak in the brilliance of that statement. Instead of the particular wallpaper Almacks had that year – which would take hours of research, and come across as a researched detail, a historical detail – we have a moth on the window: a right-now, visceral detail that connects me as a modern reader directly to the historical character. It’s a common experience between us.

It achieves what I ultimately strive for in writing in a historical setting, which is to evoke characters who live in the modern world, staring down change and industry and the sense that global disaster waits just around the corner. It’s difficult to do, because when we write history it’s through a lens, looking backwards.

This is where Dunnett’s genius comes back into play. More than any other historical writer, she places her characters right at the front of the charge into the future. Her lawyers know their law and are still part-student, her doctors are clever with their potions and her city council parades are tacky affairs.

One of the ways I’ve noticed she manages this (and trying to figure out how Dunnett does anything is not simple) is that her details are completely unconscious of the modern reader. For example: There’s a short description of a woman sitting by a window, with a rug thrown over the sill. I suspect other writers would be tempted to explain the rug, because it’s a detail that’s alien and interesting to a modern reader. It would look something like, “As the windows had no glass pane, the window sill had a rug thrown over it to reduce the chill and as decoration.” In Dunnett’s world the rug is simply there, because that’s the way things are done. It is a complete world that doesn’t question or explain itself, just as I wouldn’t think, “I am sitting on the couch with my laptop because it is wireless and doesn’t require to be on a desk.” It just is.

I’ve been thinking lately about leeching – that old medical practice that seems barbarous, almost farcical to a modern mind. Of course you don’t take pints of blood from someone already weakened by illness.

In romance novels, I’ve noticed, you can tell whether a character’s supposed to be good or evil by their stance on leeching. No hero or heroine worth their salt would believe it to be a good idea.

I want to read a physician-hero who believes whole-heartedly it is the right thing to do. The mad-inventor heroine I’ll be writing a few books down the line is going to think the battery heralds a whole new world, with an unlimited power-source that will close the class divide.

I want people who are passionately, integrally of their time – visionaries who see not the future we know followed, but the future their world suggests to their imagination.

history and language

As you know, I’ve been workshopping my first chapter in class. There’s been quite a lot of debate over whether it’s appropriate for my characters to say fuck or not (given that it’s set in the Regency – England in the early 1800s).

My reasoning is this:

The first, most important thing to me, is that people living “back then” would have felt just as modern as we do – they were living into a future that was moving beyond them, in a world that progressed without cease. They were human beings whose self-expression defined them (to the extent that men would weep in parliament just to make a point, people).

I cannot possibly reconstruct what natural conversation sounded like back then – as it moved unrehearsed between people.

If I try to sound “ye olde”, or use the kind of language that seems of the time, all it will convey to modern audiences is a stiff self-consciousness in the characters that they are of a bygone era.

So what I do is use language more flexibly, so that the characters feel modern and expressed to a modern audience. This feeling is more important to me – and seems to express more truly the actual nature of the characters – than trying to be strictly correct when I will never be able to be word-perfect anyway.

Here’s where I need to mention that writers I admire manage to do both, i.e. use historically-accurate/appropriate vernacular and also create a right-now sense of character.

One is the inimitable Dorothy Dunnett, of course, that master of historical fiction. The device she uses most often to make her characters of their time, is to have them quoting obscure literary works. This evokes the world vividly, and the character as a thinking being interacting with the world. It also makes a character look highly intelligent, if they can use snippets out of context to convey their own meaning, with subtext woven out of a whole literary tradition.

Unfortunately, this method takes more research and knowledge than I will ever have patience for in my lifetime.

The other writer who I think does admirably is Catherine Jinks. Her Pagan series, set in the Middle East and Europe at the turn of the 12th century, is amazing for so many reasons. However, I will restrain myself and just talk about this particular aspect.

She uses a modern, expressive, punchy structure, but though her character’s voice sounds vibrant and loose, the word-choices are all period-appropriate. Pagan’s favourite curse is “Christ in a cream cheese sauce”. (Er, so I guess I don’t mean period-appropriate in that it was necessarily actually used, but that all the references/words/images are of their time.)

Both these methods are to be studied and aspired to.

Still, there’s one more angle to consider. The word fuck can be seen in writing from as early as the 16th century, but was considered unfit for print for hundreds of years. It has a history of being an expressive and naughty word.

So often when people say “that doesn’t seem historically accurate”, what they mean is,  ”that’s not how they speak in BBC costume dramas”.

Lymond 4: some great writing

I haven’t posted for a few days, because I am lost in Checkmate, the sixth and final book in the chronicles. I got off the tram today just as I finished reading a hugely dramatic scene, and walked all the way down the wrong street in 40-degree sun.

So I thought I’d just share two of my favourite pieces of writing from this book:

Nostradamus giving romantic advice to Philippa: “Here you have a hawk of the lure, not of the fist. He will not come to you. If you would have him, you must lay your heart upon your hawking-glove; and feed it to him.”

Aside from just being a very evocative statement, this makes me smile, because it’s so typical of the books. Love and passion, but love that risks everything and is inextricably bound to death.

A lie is a broad and spacious and glittering thing, sweeping belief before it from its very grandeur. But the truth fits, like an old man cutting cloth in an attic.

I love this image. An old man cutting cloth in an attic doesn’t have anything to do with telling the truth, but it feels absolutely right, and describes a feeling I immediately understand.

It reminds me a little of the image at the end of Banville’s The Sea, of the waves moving along the beach like the ripple of material falling from a seamstress’s machine. (I am baldly paraphrasing, by the way. I’m sure Banville would disapprove from the literary heights.)

Lymond 3: love is cryptonite

Lymond has fallen in love. It was possibly the best fictional moment ever.

Some thoughts about how the most superior, restrained, unreachable character I have ever read managed to fall in love believably. (And this is a useful thing to look at, given how often a great, tortured hero is made void by falling in love.)

I had no idea how Dunnett would have him fall in love with Philippa, given that he is superior to everyone he meets – and they always want him more than he wants them, which always gives him the upper hand.

It seemed to be a two-armed approach – though I’m sure the beast really has at least ten arms, and I’m just missing all the subtleties, as usual.

1. Philippa doesn’t give in to Lymond’s bullying, where everyone else in his life, at some point or other, does. The worst threat he can hold above her is to deny himself the friendship of she and her mother, which he can’t afford to do (as this halves the friends he has in the world, poor old Lymond). And even then she won’t be turned aside.

2. She is as inquisitive as him, quicksilver intelligent, and courageous in a human, error-filled way that he is not. So whilst the fact that she can stand up to him has some fascination, it is tempered by the way that her brain sparks his alight, and by the ways she surprises him – and most of all by the fact that she made him laugh.

Here is a brilliant moment: Dunnett has spent five books plumbing the depths of Lymond’s restraint and, particularly in the fifth book, paring away all the human sentiment in him that holds him back from greatness. And then Philippa makes him laugh, by hitting him with a costume axe.

Then, when the realisation that he’s in love strikes, he walks around in a daze all evening, not aware of what’s going on around him.

It reminds of an anecdote an old boyfriend told me: He saw a guy jump the curb on a skateboard. The skater didn’t land the jump and stood there, staring at his board, for a whole minute. By the fact that he was so put out by misjudging such a simple trick, said boyfriend knew he was a pro.

So here’s how I think Dunnett pulls off the ultimate anti-hero in love: With his great powers of intellect and restraint, he doesn’t let that knowledge affect his life, or the way he conducts his life. But he is unable to control his actions quite so well as before, and an element of unpredictability has entered the life he is used to controlling down to every last expression.

I have some thoughts about heroes and their heroine-as-kryptonite that you can read here.

Lymond 2: show don’t tell…except when you do

I mentioned in my previous post that there’s a moment in the Lymond books when you find out what’s actually been going on the whole time, and it retrospectively changes the narrative.

The wonderful thing about this moment is that whilst it’s unexpected, once the revolution of thought happens, it makes sense. Dunnett plants the “real” series of events in the narrative so that as a reader you pick up on the markers subconsciously and all the dots join, backwards, once you have the key pieces of information.

The way she does this in The Disorderly Knights (book 3) is absolutely brilliant, and a great lesson in writing.

Unfortunately, I can’t really go into this point in depth without some spoilers, so if you haven’t read it yet and think you might, don’t read on!

The Turkish corsair Dragut tells Lymond a cautionary anecdote. I don’t have the book with me and can’t quote it in full, but the message is this: If you want to know the truth of someone’s intentions, don’t listen to them – watch their hands!

This is the key to how Lymond discovers Gabriel’s true, evil intent, and also the key to how Dunnett both fools and informs the reader at the same time.

We are constantly told how magnetic Gabriel is – how he draws men to him, how glorious and humble and worthy he is. We see other men affected by him; we see them listen to and respect him.

But I suspect that, like myself, most readers are left with an odd feeling that something’s not quite right – he just doesn’t seem all that amazing.

Lymond sees his true nature where no one else does, by looking at his hands, not listening to his words. If he were truly everything he is supposed to be, says Lymond, then why isn’t he the Grand Master of the Order of St John? Why hasn’t he achieved greatness?

I think this is what confounds the reader as well, but in a subconscious way before we are shown the true nature of Gabriel. And the way Dunnett does it is by using the sacred Show Don’t Tell rule against us.

She tells us that Gabriel is glorious and she shows us that he’s not. We believe what we are told, but our senses and logic are being shown something else. There is a hollowness to just being told something, which is why writers are warned against it in the first place.

There’s a lesson in here for all writers, I think – that you can flout rules bravely and with intent, and create a series of expectations in a reader of which they aren’t even aware, until you give them the key to what they already, somewhere, know.

Lymond 1: the anti-hero and the witness

to people who are more clever than I (but see how clever I am! I even use correct grammar!) this may be obvious. To me it was not.

It is very, very difficult to write a successful anti-hero if you allow the reader inside his head.

This answers a lot of questions as to why bad-boy romance heroes are so often nauseatingly noble and misunderstood. Or rather, why the fact that they are noble and misunderstood is nauseating.

We are inside their head, we are privy to their struggle and their real motivations, and the things driving them that no-one else can see or know. Unless done with a masterful touch, being inside their head bursts the bubble of cool around them.

Dunnett’s incomparable anti-hero, Lymond, is almost always seen from the outside. We are not privy to his motivations or his plans. This distance creates the tension at the heart of the books:

His actions from the outside look villainous, cold and destructive; we see him as his world sees him. As the narrative draws to its climax the two versions of Lymond become mutually exclusive – one must give way to the other. It is then that we’re let in on the master plan that retrospectively reshapes the whole narrative, and transforms Lymond into a hero – albeit a dangerous, complex and self-destructive one.

In being kept distant from him we long for access, as the people around him long for access, and this slavish devotion to a character who won’t share himself, no matter the cost, lies at the heart of the series.

And how does she keep us out? Enter the Witness.

Each novel takes a different kind of witness: a person who falls in with him, and tries to make him out, and fails. In Queen’s Play, Lymond even becomes the witness to himself as his disguised self begins to take over his true self. In carefully choosing what these witnesses want from Lymond, and by what ideology they order the world, Dunnett is able to show Lymond in whatever deceptive light she choses.

The final element that I think makes this such an effective technique – the hero misunderstood by the witness – is that Lymond never feels compelled to defend or explain himself. He allows himself to be misunderstood because common opinion is not important to him. His actions speak for him, the man who can speak circles around any subject on earth.

Lymond

I came back this year promising Lymond and have so far delivered none…. so here goes:

An infamous man returns to sixteenth-century Scotland. Six years previous he sold secrets to the English that almost destroyed the Scottish army, and rumour hints at darker and worse.

The first thing he does on his return is to nick all his brother’s silver and set the house on fire – with the mother he hasn’t seen for six years still inside.

So begins the story of the best anti-hero I have ever read.

Lymond is charismatic and intelligent – he comes complete with obscure literary references for any and all occasions – and incredibly cold. This uncanny self-possession that encases the mind and soul of a genius is just as compelling to a reader as it is to his various followers and detractors.

It isn’t an easy to series to get into, because within the first pages you encounter that odd sensation of having to really think, just to figure out what’s going on. As Lymond and his Machiavellian schemes unroll with stunning precision, so the reading experience becomes a quest to connect the dots and apply your mind to the riddle of the subtext.

Two characters have an ordinary conversation. One reacts in an extreme way. Stop. Rewind. What the hell were they actually talking about?

This happens to me all the time, reading Lymond.

Because Dunnett is a genius for plotting and for inscrutable, irresistible characters, I’m going to follow up with a series of posts trying to figure out how the hell she does it.

hiatus ends – Lymond begins

six months into my arts degree one of my lecturers, at wits’ end how to get through to us, said: “Stop. Read the question. Now think about the question.”

It was the first – and last – time anyone challenged me to think in the whole three-and-a-half years I was at university.

Reading the Lymond Chronicles is a lot like that moment. Which makes it difficult to write about in my usual slap-dash, unconsidered way.

Thinking is hard work.

Because thinking is hard work, I am reluctant to even begin on the incredible Lymond Chronicles. But because they have somewhat hijacked my whole imaginative world, it’s probably inescapable.

I tackled my plot, trying to create a poor, anaemic shadow of Dorothy Dunnett’s complexity, and whilst it took a good hour just to sort through one problem, applying my brain…worked.

It makes me wonder where else I’m just not thinking in my life.

What an exhausting thought!

So the long and the short of it is: I’m back, and you’ll be hearing a lot about Lymond, considered or otherwise.