Daily Archives: March 3, 2011

The Big Idea: M.J. Putney

You’ve heard of the concept of the Big Idea, as it involves books (I mean, honestly, right?). But in describing the construction of her debut YA novel Dark Mirror, author M.J. Putney introduces a new concept to the lexicon: Fairly Sizable Ideas. What are they? Do they involve Napoleon in some way? And what do they have to do with her novel? Get ready, you’re about to find out.

M.J. PUTNEY:

The damp northern island stands alone again a continental tyrant who craves world dominion and doesn’t care how many people he has to kill to achieve that. Only the English Channel and native British pugnacity stand against the conqueror. Who is…

Hitler in World War II?

Or Napoleon in the long and bloody Napoleonic wars?

The answer, of course, is both. Napoleon, never one for understatement, said, “Let us be masters of the Channel for six hours and we are masters of the world.” Not that the Prussians, Russians and Austrians weren’t gallant enemies, but that pesky northern island was the most persistence obstacle to his ambitions.

I’m not sure when the similarities between the wars first struck me. My alter ego, Mary Jo Putney, grew up with stories of “the war” when that always meant WWII. She’s also written quite a few romances set in Regency England, which means the early 19th century when Napoleon Bonaparte was doing his best to carve his name on everything he could lay his hands on.

Since tortured military men make excellent heroes, I’ve done a fair amount of research into the Peninsular Wars and the Napoleonic period in general. Time and again, I thought, “There are some interesting similarities between Regency Britain and WWII.”

But that was merely a reflection, not a story. In my experience, Big Ideas need to be supported by a number of Fairly Sizeable ideas. (FSIs.)

A major FSI for Dark Mirror was reading that the famous evacuation from Dunkirk early in 1940 would never have succeeded if the weather over the usually turbulent English Channel hadn’t been improbably calm. The Royal Navy thought that at best, they’d manage maybe three days of evacuation and perhaps save 30,000 or so of the troops trapped at Dunkirk after the collapse of France.

Instead, Operation Dynamo lasted for ten days and about 340,000 British and French troops were rescued. Not only was the water calmer than usual, but cloud cover often helped protect the evacuation fleet from the lethal air strikes of the Luftwaffe.

Dunkirk has always fascinated me, particularly the flotilla of small ships that joined the Royal Navy to make the evacuation possible.

My fascination increased when I learned about that miraculous weather. Sounds like weather mages to me! I’d already written a couple of weather mage stories in my fantasy works, so I had the spells all ready to go.

Another FSI was deciding to create an alternate Regency England where magic is known and accepted by everyone except the nobility. Lords and ladies of the era were raised to think themselves inherently superior. They sneered at rich merchants who had mere money, not noble blood.

Aristocrats could hire mages if needed, but couldn’t control magic or buy the powers. Worse, mages tended if act equal or even superior. Naturally the upper classes would despise magic and those who practice it. Noble children with magical ability would be shocking, Revolting! Tainted blood! Send them away to a school where they can be cured of their loathsome talents!

Thus was born Lackland Abbey, the anti-Hogwarts.

Another major FSI came when my Del Rey editor, Betsy Mitchell, said casually that this concept would work well for young adults. The heavens opened and choirs of angels appeared. Of course! As soon as I heard the suggestion, it felt exactly right.

My biggest concern was whether I could manage a “YA voice.” I wasn’t a very good teenager even when I was one, which was why I’d never considered writing in the genre even though there are many YA authors I enjoy reading. Ultimately, I settled for what another writer described: you don’t have to invent a YA voice. Instead, aim for a voice that YA readers will enjoy, which isn’t quite the same thing.

It took a couple of years to develop the world, the characters, and my proposal, in which my young Regency mage, Tory, falls through a magical portal into WWII. Better yet, I found an editor who liked the concept, which meant I had to do really serious, nuts-and-bolts research.

WWII is within living memory, yet distant enough that much is different. There is no shortage of material available about WWII, which is a decidedly mixed blessing. It’s easy to disappear down the research rabbit hole.

The single most helpful piece of research was the Dunkirk episode of “When Weather Changed History” from the Weather Channel. I taped it off the air and watched multiple times, remote in hand as I took notes on the weather and water conditions during Operation Dynamo.

Hence, when my team of teenage mages manages to turn a potentially disastrous eastbound storm at a right angle north between Ireland and Great Britain—that really happened. Maybe Britain really did have weather mages on her side.

I love fantasy where it seems that magic really exists, just there out of the corner of my eye. The second book in the Dark Passage series has been written, and I’m contemplating the third. Maybe it’s time the young mages of 1940 returned to the Regency to help their friends!

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Dark Mirror: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf). Visit Word Wenches, a group blog featuring the author. Follow her on Twitter.

 

DDoS Blues

Just got a note from the WordPress VIP folks that WordPress.com is suffering through a distributed denial of service attack, which is making sites hard to access, both on the front and back ends — and I’ve definitely noticed things being slow on the back end. So if for some reason Whatever is hard to reach today, or you had to try a couple of times to get to it, that’s why. It’s not me, it’s all of WordPress. Hopefully this will be resolved soon.

Update, 4:17pm: Apparently everything’s groovy now.

Penelope: A Poem

While I’m off writing on the novel today (a Big Idea piece is coming later in the day, incidentally), here’s something for you to consider: I’ve unearthed a poem that I wrote when I was, I think, 23. It was on a previous iteration of the site, so now is a good a time as any to put it back on. For those of you who don’t know the story of Penelope, here’s some background. I wrote the poem, naturally enough, because I was missing someone.

Penelope

I.

There is no difference between far and near.
Perspective is all
A mountain and a rock that falls from its incline
Are shaped by the same forces
Separated only by scale
And the attentions of the observer.

I keep this in mind as I unravel my work
And tear it down to its component thread.
Today’s design was a masterpiece
Hours of planning and execution
Done in by a casual pull at the end of the day.
It is no matter.
The action is lost in the larger picture of things
Today’s destruction a building block
For a greater work.

Down the hall voices call to me
Insistent suitors demand my presence.
Soon enough I will join them
Some honest enough, others something less
They will ask about the progress of my work
And I will tell them that it remains unfinished.
We will not be talking of the same work
But it is no matter.
There is no difference between far and near.
Perspective is all.

II.

I don’t know whether to blame you or your stupid war.
It is easiest to blame the war
The insistent beating drum
The pretense of noble purpose
Masking a banality so insipid
As to stagger the observer.
But you were always one of the best
Not the strongest, but the smartest
Not forceful, but with a craft
That became its own definition.
You, who upstaged ten years of anguish
With one night and a gift.
You are magnificent
A prize for poets.

It’s hard to understand how one of your talents
Has managed to stay from me for so long.
I imagined your return so soon after your victory
A homecoming which would shine to the heavens
Pure in emotion and joy.
Yet now you are as far away as when you began
Your arrival a distant dream
Your homecoming unfulfilled.
Your war is over
But you are not home
If there is blame
It is yours.

But it is no matter.
It makes no sense to talk of blame
When circumstances rule the day
No sense for anger
When chance plots your course
Whatever mysteries you hide from me
I know your heart.
Your homecoming lives there
Waiting to come true.
It lives in my heart too
Two views of the same moment
Two dreams with the same end.

III.

My suitors engage me in idle banter.
I am sometimes painted as a noble sufferer
enduring unwanted attentions
But in truth, I enjoy the diversions
My suitors entertain me, amuse me
And no few arouse me
Their endless chatter every now and then
Showing promise of something greater
Of depths that dare to be plumbed.

They appear worthy suitors
And indeed some of them are
But there is not one
Who shines so bright as to dim your memory.
The curves of their arms and legs
Call to mind your own sweet body
Their lips and eyes
Bring your own gentle face
Your voice
Calls distantly from their throats.
Every one that comes to me
To cajole, whisper or impress
Becomes a window
Through which I see you.

I smile frequently when I am with my suitors
And they smile back, convinced that the pleasure in my eyes
Is brought by their form.
But it is not them I see.
Perspective is all.

IV.

My work is now unraveled
And my intentions secure for another day.
Tomorrow I will create another
And unravel it, each tomorrow
Until you return to my shore.

It is a difficult task
Building a creation from which
All that is seen is its daily destruction.
It is a work that only I can see
Its completion something only I desire.

It is no matter.
There is no difference between far and near
Perspective is all.
Perhaps from the distance where you are
You can see my larger work.
Use it as your beacon
And have your homecoming at last.