When Helen Lowe sat down to write The Gathering of the Lost, she thought she knew what the big idea of the books was going to be. But as it turned out, the book had other plans for her, and for the concept that ended up motivating many of the events of the book. What happens when a book has a mind — and a big idea — of its own? Lowe explains.
Usually when I begin to write, I do so with a very clear notion of the “big idea”—what a story’s really all about. At other times it is only when I read through the finished manuscript that I realize there is an idea present that’s been percolating in the story all along, even if I didn’t set out to consciously write about it.
This latter situation is what happened for me with The Gathering of the Lost, book two of The Wall of Night series.
Seventeen months ago, John very kindly allowed me to write a first Big Idea post for the initial book in the series, The Heir of Night. In that post I talked about my love for classic epic fantasy, but also about my desire to explore how conflicts between good and evil really play out, both within individuals and at a wider societal level—especially when one of those societies perceives itself as defending good and yet has a darkly chequered history.
“And that,” I thought then, “is very much the whole ‘big idea’ done and dusted, as obviously the second book, The Gathering of the Lost, will simply expand on the original theme.” And in fact that is a large part of what this book does. But when I finally read through the completed manuscript, I realized that the new story also has its own, distinct “big idea.”
The Gathering of the Lost is a book about friendship.
The Heir of Night raised questions about ties of honor and loyalty within a rigidly monocultural society. The Gathering of the Lost forces the central protagonists in particular, Malian and Kalan, to ask and answer questions of loyalty and responsibility to each other, but also about their obligations to those who stand outside their own culture’s narrow bounds. And other central characters, such as the heralds, Tarathan and Jehane Mor, and the minstrel, Haimyr, who have been brought together by events into a “band of brothers” find those ties tested by changing circumstances and the reassertion of old allegiances and duties.
Ultimately, The Gathering of the Lost is also a story about responsibility, in terms of which I can do no better than to use the words of my lead editor, Kate Nintzel: “… to each other, to the world in which we live, to our families, whether of blood or friendship.”
What fascinates me in all this is how a big idea can work itself into a story so invisibly—but no matter how fantastic the world, I always strive to keep the characters emotionally real. And this is big epic as well, a story dealing with the sweep of large events—and there is nowhere, history would suggest, that such events bite more keenly than on the personal relationships between people, especially when those relationships are tested by religious, cultural and political difference. So perhaps it is not so surprising that The Gathering of the Lost should have become a story where the big idea is friendship.
Now don’t get me wrong—as well as the sweep of epic fantasy, I love stories that are adventurous and swashbuckling and magical, so The Gathering of the Lost is still very much a magical, swashbuckling and adventurous tale. But running beneath that torrent of danger and power, very much like a secret river, is a story about friendship: its tenacity but also its fragility, as well as its potential—sometimes, if the fates are kind—to transcend the divides of creed, ambition and self-interest.