Big Idea

The Big Idea: Derryl Murphy

They say travel broadens the mind, but for Derryl Murphy, it did more than that: It helped to write his newest novel, Napier’s Bones, and did so not just on a practical level (that is, of allowing him to research information) but also on an inspirational level as well. It’s an argument that being there matters, and here Murphy is to make it.


Sometimes the seed that becomes the Big Idea can launch an author into an almost manic, obsessive chase for information to feed the story, and sometimes that information can fall into the author’s lap in copious amounts. After my friend Wayne Malkin showed me a picture of Napier’s bones and said the magic words to launch my search, both of the above happened to me, with each new serendipitous bit of trivia leading me deeper into the rabbit hole and worried that I would eventually succumb to such a surfeit of detail that the novel would never be finished.

But let me back up. Napier’s bones, also known as Napier’s rods, were developed by John Napier, a Scottish laird and mathematician, who died in 1617. The bones were a simple tool for multiplication and division and more, and were only one of Napier’s many accomplishments in math as well as other fields. And when Wayne asked me the question (which will probably seem obvious, but which I won’t reveal here), it got me to thinking, and very quickly I had the main conceit firmly locked in place.

In our own world, what if some people have the ability to see numbers, and to control them, to control the very mathematical foundation of our world, as if those numbers were magic?

Some of you are probably feeling your eyes glaze over now, thinking about dry textbooks and painful high school math. But I promise it isn’t like that. My characters do talk about numbers and formulae and a few mathematical concepts, but I saw no sense in laying them out for the reader as if Napier’s Bones were some urban fantasy version of hard SF. Instead, the numerical ecology, as it’s called, needed to be natural for Dom and his companions. These are not necessarily people with advanced degrees in math, but rather people who grew up surrounded by numbers they could interact with and who taught themselves how to use them to their benefit. Think of that movie you probably watched when you were in elementary school, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land (and yes, I reference that film in the book), and Donald seeing numbers everywhere he turned.

With this as the groundwork, I began to research. History, sports, literature, science, quantum physics, ancient languages, and above all, I did a deep search for all sorts of mad coincidences that I could weave into the fabric of the book. And then,a few years ago, the Canada Council for the Arts (our version of the NEA) generously gave me money to finish the novel. And so off I flew to Scotland and London on a research trip, where I visited the National Library of Scotland and Napier University in Edinburgh as well as Imperial College and Lambeth Palace Library in London, and got to lay my (cotton-gloved) hands on handwritten letters from Napier himself, as well as books that were published when he (and therefore Shakespeare, to give you a different point of reference) was still alive.

Being able to sit and look that these primary sources first hand was an incredible rush, and I can understand why some people succumb to the desire to possess such rare items; who but me is ever going to care about reading such a document, and therefore who but me can be trusted to take care of it? (And no, don’t worry, I didn’t abscond with any priceless documents. Security was too tight.) Seeing these letters and books also led me not only into Napier’s mind, but to more questions and yet more coincidences, one of which ended up adding another historical character to the book, which required yet more research.

And, of course, I traveled, searching out locations for the book in London and Scotland. Going back to Donald Duck for a moment, Carl Barks, the great creator of Uncle Scrooge and the greatest artist and writer of the Donald and Scrooge comics, often took his characters on trips all over the world, and his source of information, visual and otherwise, was usually National Geographic. I’m sure I could have gotten away with the same; I’ve managed to write fairly convincingly about Madagascar, for instance, without having been there. But there is obviously something to be said for standing in a place and discovering it in a multitude of dimensions, to say nothing of the happy accidents that can worm their way into your brain. A wrong turn I took on one hike to see a potential location ended up playing a fairly significant role late in the book, all because I discovered something that I suspect most visitors don’t even know is there. A chance glimpse of something in the harbor while having breakfast in Ullapool resulted in a moment of action and danger. A flaky new age tour of Rosslyn Chapel and its surroundings resulted in a numerical device that uses Pictish rings in a diner, and a question on the internet about flagging patterns in trees led me to the Ballachuan Hazelwood, a forest that will forever remain as one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been and where a key moment in the book takes place.

Probably the biggest thing the trip did for me, though, was create a character. My wife and I were driving through Oban, dealing with the slow crawl of summer traffic, when a vision occurred to me of my heroes stuck in that same traffic and wondering about this individual. At first I couldn’t place exactly who this was, but with a little time and editing my thoughts turned to the numerical ecology, to the numbers Dom and others of his ilk are able to control, and to evolution.

Evolution of numbers. And even evolution of the people who can control those numbers. Almost, you could say, another Big Idea.


Napier’s Bones: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

16 replies on “The Big Idea: Derryl Murphy”

This is not the first book I’ve bought after reading about it here, but it’s the first one I ordered immediately. Must. Have. This. Book.

blainesgirl, there are some profanities sprinkled throughout the book (Dom is told by someone early on that profanity is his strong suit), and as a moderately liberal parent, I feel it’s OK for my older boy, who is almost 15, but probably still a bit much for my younger boy, just turned 12 (although less for the language then for his level of interest). As always, these decisions need to be made based on who you are and who the young person is.

This is the worst Big Idea that I’ve come across. While not all books that are featured in Big Ideas appeal to me this is the first time I feel that John has failed his duty as gatekeeper by not sending it back and saying ‘Rewrite this so it is worthwhile’.

Speaking as someone who is pretty enthused about math and historical use of numerolgy as a divination tool I found the entire thing completely incoherent except the mention of travel and the grant (go CCA!). I get that the author is really, really enthused about this idea but to hook me I think this would need some stronger explanation of what “the ability to see numbers, and to control them, to control the very mathematical foundation of our world” translates to in terms of narrative.

Vic, the best I can do is tell you that it can be ordered online, but that there are also a variety of ebook editions available.

And Beth, I’m sorry that it didn’t do anything for you. Each author has his or her own interpretation of the Big Idea, and of how much of the story we really want to give away.

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