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In palaces, treason

Strange times, old buddies, strange times.

It’s sort of nice to be at home with the children. We live on the edge of a village with tons of green space in every direction, so we don’t have any of that cooped-up / stir-crazy feeling that so many people must be having now. And the infection rate in our part of the world is low. Plus people round here are being very damn sensible with their precautions.

So in many ways we’re fine. And in other ways? Well, the news has become kind of odd, hasn’t it? And the impact of covid on the business side of Jericho Writers is like its own little whirlwind of destruction. Not nice. We’re doing emergency rescue work where we can. We’ll grab some loans if we need to. We’ll survive.

(And oh, if you fancy a manuscript assessment or the like, now would be a very good time to seek it! Do look in the PSes to see if anything there takes your fancy. We’d be much obliged.)

But in all of this, one thing that has struck me very forcefully is the metaphorical power of huge global forces.

Last week, I mentioned that King Lear was written (probably) while Shakespeare was in quarantine. Theatre-goers would have encountered the same kind of year that he’d had. And they’d be hearing the echoes loud and clear – a sense of end-times, things being split asunder:

… Love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason …
 We have seen the best of our time:

But you don’t have to be Shakespeare or be writing poetry to grab the same kind of effect from the world outside. Some of the most obvious examples of the technique from 20th century literature would include:

  • The Great Gatsby. Prohibition is just central to that book. It’s the flipside of all the prosperity and flash of the Roaring Twenties, the vicious little secret behind it all. You couldn’t have Gatsby without Prohibition. The actual historical facts of the era effectively deliver the moral, metaphorical tapestry of the book itself.
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Le Carre’s spy fiction is all about love, trust and betrayal. Those are his themes and how better to play those out on a massive canvas, than adopt the entire Cold War espionage struggle as his emblem? If he had taken the exact same story – who loved who; who betrayed who – and played that in a totally different setting (boy’s boarding school, Kansas dairy farms), the story would never have felt as urgent, as necessary, as colossal.
  • The Plague (La Peste). Camus’s 1947 novel tells of an epidemic sweeping the French-Algerian town of Oran. There was some historical underpinning for the book – Oran did indeed have a history of plague – but no reader in 1947 could read that book without thinking of Nazism and the great darkness that had come over Europe. Without that instant and obvious metaphorical connection, the book would have been half what it was.

And what is all this to us?

Well, it’s just a way of suggesting we look up and out for metaphor, not just down and small. It’s not something you can force into a book. It’s just something that, if offered by your story and its setting, you should grab with both hands.

Sometimes, you’ll just walk straight into the centre of the Big Thing. So Hilary Mantel took a story of power and ambition and set it in the heart of the Tudor court. Everyone knows that Tudors are box office. Result: a trilogy of global bestsellers that far exceeded any of Mantel’s previous work in sales. It wasn’t that her writing had got better. It’s that her canvas had got bigger, the scale of everything was greater.

Equally, you could walk straight into the Cuban Missile Crisis or the American Civil War or the Battle of Britain. Any story set in the heart of those things would effectively matter right away, because you’re just grabbing history as your story.

If you’re writing SFF, the same thing, except you’re making up your Big Thing. One Ring To Rule Them All plus Mordor plus all that went along with those things – result: the seminal work of epic fantasy. It wasn’t the writing; it was the scale. It was the ambition. Same thing with His Dark Materials.

But you don’t have to walk into the heart of things to get the same effect. Suppose your story was a kind of Godfather-style mafia tale set in New Jersey or New York. If you got your story to play out, at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis was playing out, you’d get instant depth, instant authority, instant echo from doing just that. It’s like the ‘great times, great decisions’ feeling about the actual historical facts would bleed downwards into the pages of your novel. You wouldn’t need to do much more than dripfeed the historical drama into the pages of your fictional one. The reader’s own brain will do most of the rest.

And – well, we’re living in strange and overwhelming times at the moment. For what it’s worth, this covid epidemic doesn’t speak to the writer in me. I don’t get itchy fingers when I think about it. (Whereas – godfather-type story plus Cuban missile crisis? Yes, I could start writing that one tomorrow.)

And you? Maybe your Great Theme is covid. Or the Cold War. Or something completely else. And of course loads of great books are written without some great backdrop of that kind. But as a technique to use, when the circumstances are right? It’s a no-brainer. You get instant depth and gravity. You get sales.

That’s just about it from me. Do take a look in our PSes. But also do remember that we have a free membership offer for y’all too. We’ve had way over a thousand people take the offer up already and have had amazingly positive feedback too. We’ll be ending the offer soon, so grab it now:

Access My Free 14-day Membership Here

That’s it from me.

Stay safe. Stay happy. Stay writing.

And what do you think? Reckon that King Lear is overheated codswallop? Are you already at work on the Ultimate Covid Masterpiece? Are you safe and well? Or going stir crazy? Or, heck, do you have a great internet meme to share. Put your glad rags on, mosey down to the comments, and let's all have a Heated Debate.

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Comments (17)
  • On a rationale level, I panicked and self-isolated long before the French government demanded it (bad asthma and what not). But once I had a number of days of feeling safely at a distance from the hives of germs in the world around me, I realized my SF/dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel was talking exactly about all this and I got excited. And then felt guilty for feeling excited... these days sure are emotional rollercoasters... 

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    • Don't feel guilty! Bet Shakespeare didn't ...

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    • I throw my head into my story, 1993, Florida and a female cop. No quarantine, but the AIDs epidemic is in full swing. The year before saw AIDs as the number one cause of death in U.S. men ages 25-44. My story doesn't deal with it, but during a discussion over "bar hopping" to meet women, one character mentions ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev died of AIDS-related illness at age 54 last year ('92). 

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      • Thanks Harry. Your Le Carre example (The Spy Who Came In from the Cold) gives me much encouragement. My WIP is, similarly, a story of love and betrayal, this time set in 1967 Hong Kong, under threat from Mao's Red Guards and Cultural Revolution.

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        • Hong Kong is a great backdrop. A novel of mine was set there in the early 'eighties, when Margaret Thatcher came out to commence negations for the eventual handover to China (she was fresh and flushed with success in the Falklands). Unfortunately, the very unusual dual storyline continues to frustrate/prevent publication :(

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          • Well, yes, I get all that and no doubt you're right. I do however fear a glut of covid literature and I will be doing my best to avoid it. My fingers aren't itchy with it either. In fact, I think living through something, reflecting and coming back to it (maybe) is my way, though I do admire those who take the bull by the horns and push something out there before someone beats them to it. Each to their own.

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