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.
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!