The Big Idea: M.J. Putney
Posted on March 3, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 10 Comments
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.
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!
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.
Like I don’t have enough to read already! I like MJ’s writing anyway (don’t always like the stories, but that’s a different thing), and now she’s doing YA magic? There goes another afternoon of productivity….. thanks everso. :)
I really enjoyed Blood and Honey from a recent Big Idea entry, and my local independent bookstore has this on it’s shelves. I have to pick up a copy.
I always love reading Big Idea pieces and often think YES I LOVE THIS BOOK THIS IS WHY. But this might be the first time I’ve read one and realised I NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW.
This is amazing. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to read it.
Sounds beautiful! I love those “Eureka!” moments when you find a real world story that seems to have been made for fiction. Congratulations on seizing this one and doing the work required to turn it into genius.
Sounds fascinating! Can’t wait to read it. Weather really is a great way of working magic into history–Ian Tregellis did some interesting stuff with that in Bitter Seeds as well.
Sounds fascinating, though I am an Old Adult.
There was at least one group of people who considered themselves magicians working to protect Britain from invasion. Gerald Gardner (a man who knew enough Anglo-Saxon to know that Wicca is a person and Wiccecraeft is the religion) and the New Forest Coven mostly famously raised a “Cone of Power” in 1940 to ward off the Nazi invasion. Mr Gardner was told the same had been done against Napoleon and the Spanish Armada. One of the coven died of cold during the winter ritual, supposedly giving their life-power to the spell.
It does not speak well for my acuity that it took me this long to find the comments. *g*
Nina–I’m glad my blog had that effect on you! I hope you find the book equally interestiing.
dtrasler and Julia S–I’ve written so many historical novels that I’ve seen how weather really CAN change history. Think of the Spanish Armada, blown off course by a hurricane. And yes, I’ve written a novelette based on that. *g* Think also of the D-Day invasions. Given Britain’s weather, it’s not surprising that weather is a frequent factor in great events.
Pat, you’re absolutely right about the New Forest coven and their raising a barrier of protection against Hitler and other potential invaders. Some years ago, a Disney movie called BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS used that basic idea, wiith Angela Landsbury as a witch. A fun movie, too. (“You cannot pass the sea, you cannot pass the sea…)
If this series continues beyond the trilogy originally contracted, it can go all sorts of interesting places!
There is a lovely poem about the evacuation from Dunkirk that echoes in my mind (because I chose it for a high school speech-class assignment to deliver a passage from memory) and evokes both the flotilla of small boats and the (in)clement weather:
Bess looked at him. She kept very still.
She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,
How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,
And the fleet had gone to get them out –
But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.
There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.
. . .
They raised the sail on the Sarah P
Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance
And headed the Sarah out to sea
To bring their soldiers home from France
. . .
But the tides were fair and the wind was free,
And they raised Dunkirk by the fall of night.
. . .
He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.
He saw his England where she lay,
The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,
Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,
The English cliffs and the English loam –
He had fourteen men to get away,
And the moon was clear and the night like day
For planes to see where the white sails creep
Over the black water.
He closed his eyes and he prayed for her;
He prayed to the men who had made her great,
Who had built her land of forest and park,
Who had made the seas an English lake;
He prayed for a fog to bring in the dark;
He prayed to get home for England’s sake.
And the fog came down on the rolling sea,
And covered the ships with English mist.
The diving planes were baffled and blind.
. . .
The fog rolled over the harbor key.
Bess held to the stays and conned him out.
And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake
Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,
There at his side sat Francis Drake,
And held him true and steered him home.
It’s by Robert Nathan, and a research librarian at the Denver Public Library dug it up for me (around 2000) in an anthology of war poetry that hadn’t been borrowed for 50 years. It was published by Harper’s in March 1941, but available online only to subscribers. I have a copy I can send to anyone who would like to read the whole thing (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I have no idea how I managed to give that speech. I can’t even copy a few lines without sobbing.
LOVED the poem, Linda! And yes, just reading it brought tears to my eyes as well. As for giving it as a speech and not breaking down–Ithink that when we’re young, we’re not always as aware of the poignance and pain life life brings.
I’ve copied the poem out of your e-mail, and it’s going into my Dark Mirror Dunkirk files.
And let us bow our heads in thanks for wonderful librarians….
I have a sample of this book on my nook. I can’t wait to get around to reading it. :)