The Big Idea: Robert McCammon
Surprise! While usually I post one or two Big Ideas a week, this week there are three. Because sometimes I overcommit. Hey, it happens. It’s not like it’s a bad thing. Especially in this case, because this week’s first Big Idea comes from New York Times bestseller and Stoker and World Fantasy Award-winner Robert McCammon, who is back in action with Mister Slaughter, a book of intrigue and murder set in colonial-era New York, and part of a series featuring professional “problem-solver” Matthew Corbett.
And in the writing of the series, McCammon found himself constructing not only a multi-volume adventure, but also something else entirely — the sort of apparatus first thought up by no less than H.G. Wells. McCammon explains, below.
Suddenly I found myself creating a time machine.
Yes, I read the book and saw the movie (both versions, enjoyed the one starring Rod Taylor the best) but here I was actually putting one together, strapping myself into the red leather seat and traveling with a hum of computer and whisper of pages into the past.
What was I thinking?
And, more importantly, where was I going?
Or, to be more correct, where am I going?
Well, I do know where I’m going but I’m not sure how I’ll get there yet. This is all preface to say that I find myself writing a mystery/suspense series set, among other locales, in the town of New York, population five thousand citizens, in the 18th century. I never intended in my long career to write a series. Creating a time machine was not on my agenda. But suddenly I began to put odd pieces together—my love of history, of the detective novel, of the supernatural and macabre, and yes even of science fiction—and the thing began to first whisper, then hum and whir. And I was off on a voyage unforeseen and frankly quite frightening.
I am writing about a young man named Matthew Corbett, an orphan and law clerk, who becomes by his wits and circumstances a “problem-solver” in New York. This occupation brings him into contact with both gentlemen and ladies of that era as well as cold-blooded killers and those dark souls—both male and female—who would like to use his head as a hatstand. In particular, Matthew through the course of this series comes to the attention of one Professor Fell, a shadowy emperor of crime who has interesting plans for both the future of the colonies and Matthew’s own destiny.
I’ve written three Matthew Corbett novels so far, namely Speaks the Nightbird, The Queen of Bedlam, and the newly released Mister Slaughter.
My big idea was not just to write one book, but to write ten books that flow together as one. Events of the first book spur events in the second, and events in the second drive the third book forward. Characters move from one book to the next. The time frame between each book is at most a season. Someone who plays a minor role in one book may appear as a major character in the next. Mysteries and plots are solved and completed in each book, yet some threads—and questions—are left to be completed in the next volume, or the one after that. I know what the major plot is, and what the overwhelming purpose is that Professor Fell has set his sight upon, yet how I’m going to get there is both the challenge and fearsome fun of directing this particular time machine.
And it is fun, really. One of my challenges is to make it so. To make the characters real, to use suspense and an essence of “strangeness” that hopefully makes a book memorable, but also to emphasize humanity and add a good measure of humor to the mix. I’m challenging the reader in a way, as well, because hidden in each book (and sometimes not hidden very deeply beneath the surface) are the names of three or four fictional detectives. So, in a way, this particular time machine is a demonstration of my affection for the detective story, and the great characters who have gone before.
Or, in the case of my time-traveling machine, characters who have not yet been born upon the stage, but are destined to leave their mark upon a particularly impressionable young reader in the far-distant era of the 1960s.
I hope my character of Matthew Corbett can stand cloak-and-tricorn with the best of them. He will go through many trials and tribulations. He will pass across the lives of many beautiful ladies and many villains who wear their ugliness like badges of crooked honor. He will come to many a rough road and treacherous wilderness, on his journey into the dark territory of Professor Fell.
It’s my hope, also, that Matthew is worthy enough to find a place in someone else’s time machine in the unknown and unknowable land we call ‘the future’.