Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Hoping your 2009 is safe, happy and healthy.

Who's made a New Year's resolution? I really shouldn't - I never keep them - but I've resolved to write at least a thousand words a day, every day, this year. I think I'll last... oh... till Saturday. :)

And because I can't resist, here's the resolutions my characters would make. Let's see who can keep theirs. ;)

Book I

Marcus: I think it's time to bury the hatchet with my dad. He has been dead for more than two years. Ouch.

Gairea: To finally find out what these recurring dreams of mine mean. Oh, and I have a habit of falling in love with unsuitable men. I should probably knock that on the head.

Agricola: Come on. Guess.

Calgach: I will not make big speeches. I will not make big speeches. I will not make big speeches...

Cathal: *measures size of right foot, then size of the footprint in the Epidii kingstone* Eh? What? I missed that; I was... sort of busy.

Tuathal: I dunno. Get the kingship of Temair back from my daddy's murderer, I suppose. I should probably check with Mum...

Tacitus: You know what? I think I'll start writing history books. That should fill my spare time.

Book II

Aulus: (sheepishly) Should probably tell Kirsten exactly what's happened to me north of the Wall...

Firmus: Need to stop impulse buying. And commissioning altars. Any more, and the Hunterian Museum will have no more room for 'em.

Eilwen: I will smile. Or laugh. Or - I don't know - do something cheerful.

Aneirin: I should get up off my arse and figure out what my loyalties are.

Aurelia: Get a husband who doesn't divorce me/die suddenly/disappear in suspicious circumstances. One with a bit of stamina.

Cinioch: To gain the respect of at least one person in the world.

Seithved: I should de-skeleton my closet...

Book III

Aelius: Make sure that when I go boar-hunting, I never end up alone with my main political rival.

Cairpre: Nothing special. Escape a hostile king and a famine. Find land to settle for me and my followers. Found an influential Gaelic kingdom. Fulfil a prophecy made by my great-great grandmother. You know, the usual.

Septimius Severus: Well, I'll try not to die before slaughtering everyone north of Hadrian's Wall, but I'm not making any promises...

Caracalla: I WILL RULE THE WORLD. I mean... I'll help my dad fight the Maeatae and the Caledones. And look after my brother. Yep. That's totally it. Mm-hm.

Gwenllian: Maybe I should try to be more tactful...? Ah, bugger it, it will never work...

Gaius: Try not to get crushed between those two royal brats' quarrels. Easier said than done, though...

Plot: I promise, I'll try to be less like Star Wars.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Yule. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Whatever you happen to celebrate.

Wishing you all the best for the season. Hope you have a great day!

(Yeah, that's our dog, and that's what he'll put up with for biscuits. My mum's idea, not mine.)

I'm home for the holidays and we're all ready for Christmas over here chez Campbell. Mum's been playing Christmas carols all day and thanks to a website Iona found, we've been singing them in every language from English to Japanese. :) The lights on the tree are blinking away, and the presents are all wrapped and piled up under the tree. Plus we're halfway through It's A Wonderful Life, with a ready supply of tissues to hand - though that's strictly for my cold. Honest. :)

Nooo! The money's gone!

Sorry. Real-time posting.

Anyway, after it's finished, we'll be watching another traditional Campbell favourite - A Muppet Christmas Carol. Love that film. :)

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Multiple PoV: some musings

Io, Saturnalia, everyone!

Like I said - somewhere - NaNo gave me a few ideas for some long-winded writing posts, and since my first semester exams are over, I'm taking a break from mooching around the flat with my friends, Christmas shopping, playing video games, and watching Doctor Who repeats, to write one of them. My review of Gillian Bradshaw's Dark North mentioned the issue of PoV, so this particular topic has been shifted into first place.

I don't at all mind reading books which are told from a single PoV, but when I'm writing, unless I'm writing in first-person, I tend to use multiple PoV. My plots tend to big, sprawling things, and by using more than one character as the reader's eyes, I can flesh out the many plot threads better than I could with a single PoV. The Ancestor Crown, for example, could theoretically be told entirely from, say, Marcus' PoV. The main plot is still there, and the reader still gets the adventure, the character development and all that, but it would also miss out a lot of important subplots. Like Calgach's struggle to unite the tribes, Agricola's dealings with certain Imperial intrigues, the Druidic wheeling and dealing that Gairea is in the thick of, and the Epidii politics that Cathal deals with. These themes would all be touched on, but not in such great depth. Giving all these characters a voice allows the entire story to sprawl out (and boy, does it sprawl) and allows me to do the main subplots better justice.

It also, I think, helps the credibility of certain plot twists. Let's take, for instance, the second book. If the entire thing was told from Firmus' PoV, we'd have the major revelation of "You know that woman you bought down the slave market? Actually the sister of some tribal king, the descendant of a major Caledonian rebel, and she was passing information about the movements on the frontier to her clansmen because her brother has some crazy idea about reviving their ancestor's confederacy" all at once. Possibly a wee bit too much shockgasp! material to swallow in one go? With so much backstory and baggage attached to that particular subplot, it makes more sense to have Eilwen's PoV in there as well, so this barrage of information isn't coming completely out of left field, to the reader, anyway.

This approach might be something of a double-edged sword: if you're going for suspense you might not want to throw all your cards on the table like that. And I do have a good few subplots where the enemy/culprit isn't revealed to the reader until it is to the characters. The trick my own approach is in dropping just the right hints in just the right places. With a bit of careful handling, you can still maintain the suspense. Then again, the approach makes for its own sort of suspense. For example, in Book Three, I know that Aelius and Gaius are eventually going to meet each other again on opposite sides of a war - but when? And how? The suspense is heightened as the reader waits for their stories to converge.

And, of course, giving more characters a voice is an advantage when it comes to characterisation, as it allows the reader to see more facets of a certain character than they might otherwise. This a particular advantage when it comes to villains/antagonists. Take Cathal. Again, if I told AC totally from Marcus' view, the portrayal of Cathal would be limited to his most dominant traits: his aggression, his arrogance, his ambition, and his hatred for all things Roman. It barely makes it to two-dimensional, but by including Cathal's PoV, I can let the reader see other facets to his character, like his genuine loyalty to his tribe, his moments of integrity (yes, it does exist!), and his relationships with his fellow warriors. I like to give at least some of the antagonists their PoV, and write them from the principle that everyone is the hero of his/her own story, which balances out their good and bad points a bit more.

And, of course, letting the reader into the minds of several characters gives them a better chance to find one to find at least one like. I always try to make my characters as interesting or appealing as possible, but it's a fact of life that you can't please everyone, and there are inevitably going to be characters who I love to bits, but who just won't work for another reader. Some are likely to find Calgach, the cunning and world-wise king, a more appealing guide than Gairea, the troubled teenage girl, and vice versa. It's all a matter of taste, and introducing more PoV characters gives the reader more opportunity to find one to their liking.

Well, there's the why. It's the how, though, that really gave me pause during November.

When using multiple PoV, the two main techniques are third person limited and omniscient PoV (some authors do use first person, though, but in my experience many of them don't give their PoV characters distinctive enough voices, so I don't think it works quite as well). My own preference is third limited, because omniscient sometimes disconcerts me when I've just got settled into one character's mind, only to flit to the next one. It's just a matter of preference, and both ways have their pros and cons.

Since I use third limited, the technique I went with in AC was to identify my main characters (Marcus, Gairea, Calgach, Agricola and Cathal) and tell their intertwining stories a chapter at a time. But, looking ahead, I've realised that there's a problem with this. My general rule of PoV is that a scene should be told through the eyes of the character who has the most at stake, to get the most emotion out of it. But then I thought ahead to the big set-piece of AC, which is the Battle of Mons Graupius. All five of my designated drivers are present for it, and it presents a huge turning point in each of their individual stories. So, whose head should the reader be in for it? The answer is: everyone's. But my chosen technique doesn't allow for it. By confining each character to their own chapter, I'd be splitting the battle into several sections, rather than making it flow as a whole, and that could slow the pacing. This was what first got me thinking about changing my technique. Maybe it would be better - overall, not just for that particular scene - if I let each PoV intertwine throughout each chapter, rather than segregating them as I have been doing. It definitely lend more fluidity to the narrative, and the more I think about it, the more I'm realising that this could apply to several events in all of the books, not just Mons Graupius.

I've also been thinking about being less strict with whose PoV I use. This came when I wrote a chapter in Cinioch's PoV during NaNo. He was never meant to be one of my windows, but the chapter just felt right when it was written in his PoV. It also showed Cinioch's motivations, rather than telling them. With this mind, I looked around and realised that it wasn't just my main characters who could contribute to the story: some of the secondary characters could also provide crucial insights at certain points in the story. Tuathal, Sargaid, Verecunda, Aulus, Seithved... I never intended any of them to have a PoV, but I'm realising that there are certain points where their input might be more valuable even than my main characters', and again, offer a little window into their heads, too. I gave a friend the first couple of chapters of Book Two to read during NaNo, and she remarked that Edarnan came across as weak, because at the ideal opportunity he didn't act on a subject that he professed was important to him. As the writer, I already knew that Edarnan didn't act right away because he had a long-term plan, but it occurred to me that sprinkling in a little of his PoV at certain times would strengthen his characterisation in the eyes of the readers and allow enough of a look into his head to know exactly why he's not acting when he should.

So I'm thinking about relaxing my "one character PoV per chapter" rule, and mixing them in together a bit more. It might make the separate stories flow together a bit better, and maybe allowing more than one person a look-in during a chapter will do the thing proper justice.

I don't know yet. I'm only just turning to this technique, and still need to experiment a bit. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Book review: Dark North, by Gillian Bradshaw

Insert your own likely spoiler warning here.

Let me just start off by saying that I'm so, so glad to see Iron Age/Roman Scotland being used more as a setting for novels. There were some pretty intriguing and not-too-greatly-documented events and characters, so it makes the ideal writer's playground. The Flavian invasion of the first century AD has gained some popularity with writers, and in Dark North, Gillian Bradshaw takes on the Severan invasion of the third.

The year is AD 208, and the Emperor Septimius Severus has arrived in Britain to deal personally with the troublesome tribal confederacies in the north: the Maeatae and the Caledones. Among the ranks of soldiers drafted over from the Danube frontier is Memnon, an African scout in the numerus (roughly, "unit") of Aurelian Moors. As the book opens, we meet Memnon playing an elaborate practical joke on the legionaries of the Second Legion Parthica. When said joke embarrasses the legion, infuriates the Emperor, and has the Imperial spies doing the rounds, Memnon's prefect, Rogatus, decides to get him out their way by sending him north, partly to save his hide and partly to punish him, to make an initial report to the unit's new garrison, Aballava (Burgh by Sands). Not too thrilled at this prospect, Memnon is assigned to a travelling party whose members are also bound northwards. Most of them are soldiers, but it also includes two members of the Imperial staff, the freedman Castor and Athenais, a secretary to the Empress Julia Domna.

Despite his introduction as a troublemaker, Memnon soon proves to be quite heroic, when the party is ambushed by Maeatae raiders and Castor and Athenais are captured. While the tribune in charge is all for retreating, Memnon breaks away and goes after the raiders by himself, spurred on by memories from his past. He succeeds, not only in rescuing the two from torture, but also in besting the Votadinian chieftain Fortrenn (pedantic quibble time: Fortrenn is actually a genitive form, the reconstructed name being *Fortriu, but I managed to live with it). After putting the fear into Fortrenn and his warriors, Memnon frees the two prisoners and they make their escape. Despite the anger of the tribune, he earns a hero's reputation amongst the soldiers, though because of his memories, he's not quite so glad about it. He also gains in Athenais and Castor two good friends at court.

Meanwhile, he and his unit move into Aballava alongside a resentful cohort of Frisian auxiliaries, and begin to scout the countryside in preparation for the war. But it soon becomes clear that it's not only the Maeatae that they should be worrying about, as, thanks to Castor and Athenais, he learns of the strife and intrigue within the Imperial family. The Emperor's two sons, the vile Antoninus (aka Caracalla) and the not much better Geta, are constantly vying against each other, and as they use their father's war for their own nefarious purposes, many lives become endangered: Castor's, Athenais', and even Memnon's, when the intrigues involve his numerus. In addition to this intrigue are Memnon's adventures on the frontier. Whilst on campaign, he is cornered by a group of warriors, but with his bravery and wit he gains the respect of the Caledonian chieftain Argentocoxus, and spends some time as his guest/prisoner. This allows him a glimpse into their culture, which ultimately humanises them to his eyes. When he escapes and returns to the army, his outlook begins to change. His years in the army have led him to love the Empire, but as he learns more about the power struggles within the Imperial family from Castor and Athenais, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the people at the head of it. As the war rages on and the intrigues become more dangerous, Memnon and his friends will need all their wits to survive.

The novel is told entirely from Memnon's PoV, so it's a good thing that he's such an engaging and lovable hero. Bradshaw strikes a good balance between his good humour and his troubles, his practical jokes and his diligence as a scout. His past and the fears it has spawned in his mind are present, but never veer into draggy angst, as they might easily have done, and his personality means that there are plenty of humorous moments in between the intrigue and danger of the plot. There were a few times where I think Bradshaw let him get out of trouble a wee bit too easily, but luckily, he never turns into a full-blown Gary-Stu, remaining a very human protagonist. As well as the tribes and the Emperor's sons, he also has to deal with the prejudices of his fellow soldiers, who believe a black man to be an unlucky omen (despite, y'know, the Emperor being African), and of the tribes, who have never seen an Ethiopian before, and fear him to be a demon. Usually racial tension in historical novels of this period deal more with the Roman v. Gaul/Briton/German/Goth/etc. theme, so it was interesting to read about a form of racism (white/black) which is much more virulent in our own time. People, and, sadly, their prejudices, never seem to change.

Memnon is, I think, the best-developed character of the book, but there are others characters I grew fond of, like the unconventionally brave Castor, the intelligent and capable Athenais, and Rogatus, the hard-bitten old prefect with a heart of gold. I even got quite attached to Dozy, Memnon's trusty gelding. Historical figures such as Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla, Argentocoxus and his wife, also get small parts and cameos.

The novel's plot stays faithful to Cassius Dio's account of the Severan invasion (scroll down to paragraph eleven), including all the major events and utterances reported. Bradshaw also uses an anecdote from the, admittedly unreliable, Historia Augusta, albeit, as she points out in her author's note, one that might just be plausible. The world-building is sound, especially in the details of the Roman army, even if there were a couple of times where the narrative strayed a wee bit too close to an info-dump. Bradshaw does a good job in portraying the possible tensions between legionaries and auxiliaries, and even between auxiliary cohorts. I'm no expert, but the details of the cavalry, the horse training and care, all seemed pretty authentic, too. I should maybe add that Bradshaw's identification of the Maeatae as a confederation of Lowland tribes (Votadini, Novantae, and Selgovae) might be disputed by those who favour their location to be in Fife or further north, but since Dio describes them as living "next to the wall that divides the island in two", I'm inclined to agree with her.

The fact that the novel is seen completely through Memnon's eyes was perhaps its greatest weakness. He receives most of his information about the court intrigues second-hand through Castor and Athenais, who are in the thick of it, and maybe telling parts in their PsoV could have made the dangers more immediate and intense. For instance, Caracalla's cameo portrays him as rude, but not necessarily dangerous: we learn that mostly from the information passed to Memnon. Giving his friends their PoV would have enhanced the suspense of the novel, and fleshed out the historical cameos a bit more, as well as the complicated emotions created by the sorta-love triangle that develops between the three of them.

That said, Dark North was still highly entertaining and exciting, and I finished it in a couple of sittings. Bradshaw's other book about Roman Britain, Island of Ghosts, is definitely on my TBR list.