Ian McEwan

Last week I did a post-Valentine’s blog on History Hoydens that I thought I’d repeat here for those who missed it. I like to do a romantic moments blog around Valentine’s Day. This year I thought I’d focus on moments where a happy ending for the couple in question seems an impossibility. Sometimes they are the ending to a story. Sometimes they are the bleak moment before a triumphant ending. Either way, they can be intensely romantic, despite or perhaps because of the edge of sorrow.

My examples are mostly historical and come from novels, films, and a Broadway musical.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. Damerel sending Venetia away for her own good. I feel a heart tug every time I read about him throwing her up into the saddle for the last time. Much as I want to shake Damerel, there’s something that always gets me about a guy trying to be noble.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Cecilia running after Robbie and embracing him before the police take him away. The fact that she stands by him against the seeming evidence, against her family, against the pressures of class prejudice stunned me the first time I read the book and stunned me the film version as well.

The Silicon Mage by Barbara Hambly. Antryg saying farewell to Joanna before sending her off to her own world, both of them fully expecting him to die. There’s a lovely restraint to the scene which makes the words all the more powerful.

The Empire Strikes Back by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas. Princess Leia saying farewell to Han Solo before he’s frozen in carbonite (“I love you.”/”I know.”). I was talking about this scene to a friend over dinner on Valentine’s Day. The moment my thirteen-year-old self fell in love with Han Solo/Harrison Ford. I still remember sitting with my parents in a restaurant afterwards and saying “It’s so unfair we have to wait so long to find out what happens next.”

“Send in the Clowns”, A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Desirée’s song captures the poignancy of the moment when love seems lost, wry irony with a wealth of pain underneath.

Casablanca by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Rick putting Ilsa on the plane. I can’t think of another scene that is at once so poignant and so satisfyingly right.

Shakespeare in Love by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Will and Viola saying goodbye. I find this scene much more painful than the end of Casablanca. And yet there’s the power of the fact that you can already see Will beginning to think about writing again and you see Viola’s will to go on.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig. Robert sending Charlotte away for her own good. Like the scene in Venetia, this one brings a lump to my throat. But unlike Damerel, who simply thinks he’s too tainted to make Venetia happy, Robert is caught in a dangerous web he really can’t tell Charlotte about. Fortunately for both of them, the intrepid Charlotte unravels things on her own.

Any examples of your own to add? What makes this type of scene work or not work for you? Writers, do you find these scenes harder or easier to write than happy love scenes?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is David’s reply to Simon’s letter of a couple of weeks ago about his visit to his family in the north of England.

I love books and I love movies. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that I’ve been mentally casting the books I read for as long as I can remember, and that when I start to write a new book, one of the first things I do is cast the characters. When I wrote with my mom, it was a great way for us to be sure we had the same image in mind for a character. Even writing on my own, I find it’s an invaluable help in visualizing how scenes play out. I have some writer friends who clip magazine pictures for images of their characters, but for me I find thinking of actors works better. It gives me a sense not just of what the characters look like, but of how they move and talk, their gestures and mannerisms, all sorts of details that help them come to life for me. Sometimes aspects of more than one actor will go into my image of character, but there’s usually one actor who’s the main image I have in mind when I write about a given character.

Occasionally I change the actor I’m thinking of for a particular character while I’m writing a book. Often the character doesn’t come into focus for me until I have the right actor (that was particularly true with Gisèle in Beneath a Silent Moon; I struggled with her for the early part of the book in my first draft and then she fell into place when I started thinking of a different actress).

Casting beloved books has led to endless discussions on various book lists I’m on, notably involving Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolò series and Laurie King’s Mary Russell books. It’s fascinating and illuminating to discover the different images readers have of the same characters (yet again going to the fact that everyone reads a slightly different book). Plus it makes for fun discussions :-). Usually when a book I’ve read is filmed, the movie doesn’t seem at all like the mental film strip I had in mind when I read the book. I may love the movie and it may influence me on subsequent rereads (Richard Sharpe will always be Sean Bean for me now), but it isn’t what I had imagined when I first read the book. A notable exception is Atonement. The actors and the overall look of the movie and scenes were startlingly close to the movie in my mind when I first read the book.

A wonderful new website called StoryCasting allows one to virtually cast favorite books, post the casts (complete with pictures), and offer comments. They have five of my books listed (Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady, Beneath a Silent Moon, and three of my historical romances). I’ve joined as an author member and posted a cast with some of the actors I had in mind when I wrote Daughter/Secrets. You can see the cast here and leave comments. As I mentioned in my notes to the cast, I’d love it if readers who have other ideas of how they’d cast the books posted alternate casts.

Do you mentally cast books as you read them? Writers, do you cast your own books before you start to write (or find yourself casting them as you write)? Any books you find it particularly fun to play the casting game with? Any suggestions for casting the Charles & Mélanie books? Any questions about whom I had in mind for a particular character?

I’ve also recently joined a fabulous online literary community called Redroom. Stop by and check out my author page and interact with a host of other authors. And as always, there’s a new addition this week to the Fraser Correspondence–a letter Andrew writes to Charles, after a particularly fraught meeting.

Rifle fire peppered the air. Charles Fraser came awake with a jerk and tightened his grip on his wife. Mélanie froze in his arms, then sat bolt upright in bed. Another hale of bullets. One rifle. No, not a rifle. Rapping. On the oak door panels.

That’s currently the opening paragraph of Charles & Mélanie Book #4. It will very likely change during subsequent drafts, but working on a new book has me thinking about the crucial opening sentences of a novel. They can be daunting to an author–so daunting that I tend to force myself to get something down and not stare at the computer screen too long in writing a first draft. There’s so much one wants to accomplish in those sentences–establish character, setting, mood, theme–above all, draw the reader into the story.

Here are some opening paragraphs that have drawn me in:

“Lymond is back.”
It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.

From The Game of Kings, the first book of the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. Right away, the opening establishes a world of intrigue and adventure. You know you’re in Scotland and while the exact era may not be clear, the word choices (It was known, should not have carried) strike a note that isn’t modern. Above all, the opening sentences establish Lymond as a mysterious, fascinating person one wants to know more about. Which one could say is the core of the entire series.

The butler, recognizing her ladyship’s only surviving brother at a glance, as he afterwards informed his less percipient subordinates, favored Sir Horace with a low bow, and took it upon himself to say that my lady, although not at home to less nearly connected persons, would be happy to see him. Sir Horace, unimpressed by this condescension, handed his caped greatcoat to one of the footmen, his hat and cane to the other, tossed his gloves onto the marble-topped table, and said that he had no doubt of that, and how was Dassett keeping these days?

From The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. A much quieter opening, but I remember being completely drawn in by it at the age of ten. The detail sets up the Regency world beautifully. Actions characterize both Dassett and Sir Horace. And the arrival of a family member who has, by implication, not been to visit in some time, sets up that the ordinary world is about to change.

The play–for which Briony has designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper–was written in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north.

From Atonement by Ian McEwan. We’re pulled immediately in the world of the young Briony. Her youth and emotional intensity (both of which are key to the story which is to unfold) come through and the wonderfully specific details (folding screen, red crêpe paper) begin to establish the world of the English country house in which the book opens. Again, there’s the sense of a world about to change with the arrival of outsiders. Most important, the book begins with a writer absorbed in creation, setting up the theme of the book.

The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for month was seeing him every day at work.

From The Silicon Mage, the second book in the Windrose Chronicles, by Barbara Hambly. We know at once that we’re in a fantasy world, and yet at the same time a world grounded in reality (every day at work). We get a touch of Joanna (the heroine)’s tenacious sense of humor even in dire straits. And we want to read on to see what on earth is going on :-).

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered to be the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The driving force of the book, summed up with economical irony in the first sentence. Austen doesn’t begin with specific characters, it’s more a wide-angle shot, which sets up the world and the social pressures against which the story will play out, and also establishes the dry, ironic tone of the book. But though there aren’t specific characters, there’s the plot premise–wealthy single man (men) settle in a new neighborhood and every local family sees the prospect of husbands for their daughters.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defence, I must say it was an engrossing book and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading among the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person.

From The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first Mary Russell novel, by Laurie R. King. It totally sucked me into the world of the book the first time I read it. There’s a surprising amount of setting detail (Sussex Downs, 1915, war year, sheep, gorse bushes) but all couched in Russell’s distinctive voice so you don’t feel you’re being inundated with information. Russell comes through as a vivid character, and the promise of learning about what happened when she nearly stepped on Sherlock Holmes keeps the reader turning the pages.

Thursday, June 18
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal. And although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

From Have his Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers. Not first person, but the dry tone fits with Harriet’s pov and frames a surprising amount of back story. Harriet’s lover’s murder, her trial, and acquittal, and her present state of mind. As well as the current state of her relationship with Peter, which sets up their conflict in the book. And there’s perhaps a hint that Harriet is protesting too much which also foreshadows the future.

What draws you into a book? Any particularly effective openings to recommend? Writers, how do you approach the opening sentences of a new book? Do you craft them endlessly or dash off something and find you stick with it? Do you consciously consider where to start and why or is it instinctive?

Be sure to check out the new addition to the Fraser Correspondence. It’s a letter from Quen to Aspasia’s sister Cressida.

There’s something about summer that seems to call out for lazy afternoons burrowing into books by the pool, on the beach, or simply in a favorite armchair. My summer is anything but lazy, thanks to my involvement with the Merola Opera Program (a summer training program for opera singers, pianists/coaches, and stage directors), but I have been finding some reading time. I thought this would be a fun week to post some reading recommendations.

Your Scandalous Ways
by Loretta Chase

I finally had a chance to read this, and I loved it. It combines so many of my favorite elements in a book–intrigue, espionage, a heroine with a past, a hero with his own emotional baggage, witty repartee, fascinating secondary characters, a beautifully realized setting (Venice, 1820). I loved the fact that the heroine is not only a courtesan, she’s unapologetic about it. I loved that the spy hero really feels the soul-destroying strain of the business. I loved that Francesca and James seemed so well-matched.

Careless in Red
by Elizabeth George

I’ve been fascinated to see where Elizabeth George would take her series after the recent, audacious plot twist (two books ago, but the last book was in a sense a prequel). I’m currently in the midst of Careless in Red, and completely hooked. It’s equally intriguing to watch Thomas Lynley grapple with recent events and to meet a compelling new set of characters. I find myself staying up far later than I intended, driven by the desire to learn more about these people, what secrets they’re hiding, what drives them, what will happen next.

The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham
I love stories about married couples, both as a writer and as a reader. There’s so much rich and complex history to explore. The Painted Veil explores the theme in exquisite, heartbreaking detail. Their marriage beset by lies and shattered illusions, Kitty and Walter Fane leave 1920s Hong Kong and journey into the heart of a cholera epidemic.

by A. S. Byatt
Two modern-day academics investigate a literary mystery involving a secret love affair between two Victorian-era poets. Byatt not only creates vivid, compelling characters in both settings, she wrote the poetry for both her fictional poets. The poetry (each poet has a very different style) is interspersed throughout the book and often contains clues to the mystery. I read this book on a long plane flight, and I was so engrossed in it I wanted the trip to last longer!

by Ian McEwan
A haunting, multi-layered book that begins on an English country estate in the 1930s. A thirteen-year-old girl (and aspiring writer) misinterprets her sister’s romance with the the son of one of the family’s servants, with tragic consequences that shatter lives and ripple through World War II and beyond for those involved. It’s a book I thought about for a long time after I read it, because I loved the characters so much and because the book questions the nature and power of what a novel is in a way that fascinated me as a writer. I recently saw the movie and also loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was so close to the images in th my head as I read the book.

The Lymond Chronicles
by Dorothy Dunnett
This is actually a six-book series, but the books are so intertwined its impossible to pick just one. It was also nearly impossible for me to put them down once I started reading. I devoured the books the summer between high school and college, and have reread them many times since. The story begins in 16th-century Scotland and ranges all over the Continent. The fictional characters are so intertwined with real people and events you’d swear it must have happened this way. There’s wild adventure, court intrigue, romance, and at the heart of the series is the mystery of who Francis Crawford of Lymond really is—both the literal mystery of his birth and the tantalizing question of the real man behind the many masks he wears.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
by Laurie R. King
I was drawn into the world of the Mary Russell series with the first paragraph of this book. Mary Russell literally stumbles across the retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs and eventually becomes his apprentice. The mysteries are intriguing, but it’s the complex, evolving relationship between Holmes and Russell that makes me return to this book for frequent rereads and eagerly await each new book in the series.

Gaudy Night
by Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night is one of my favorite love stories. I love the whole Peter Wimsey series, particularly the books that involve Peter’s relationship with Harriet Vane. That relationship comes to a crisis point in this book. Peter and Harriet investigate a crime during a reunion at Harriet’s college at Oxford, while Harriet struggles with the risks of love and the dangers of passion and Peter realizes there will be no going back from whatever choice she makes about the course of their relationship.

Mortal Sins
by Penelope Williamson
A violent crime brings Lieutenant Daman Rourke face to face with his lost love, Remy Lelourie, now a silent film star and possibly a murderess. The story twists and turns through a dark, vivid, wonderfully realized 1920s New Orleans. The characters are compelling, the writing lush and lyrical, and the plot full of page-turning surprises.

Freedom and Necessity
by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
I keep talking about this book. Breakneck adventure, intrigue worthy of a chess match, page-turning mystery, and heart-stopping romance. There’s a brilliant hero on the run, an intrepid heroine, and a tangle of conspiracies, both personal and political. Set in England in 1849 and told in letters, this is one of my favorite books ever.

What’s on your summer reading list? Any recommendations to share? Any thoughts on the books I’ve mentioned?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is again from Raoul in the aftermath of Kenneth Fraser’s death. One letter to Charles, another to Mélanie.