WRITING THE MUSIC AND COMPOSING THE PLOT

Chord of EvilMusic has frequently been a catalyst for me in the creating of a plot, and it seems to have found its way into a good many of my books.  There’s the eerie death lament, ‘Thaisa’s Song’ in The Bell Tower, and the music hall songs in Ghost Song.  More Death Notes currentrecently, there’s the Phineas Fox series, with a music historian and researcher as the central character – although it has to be said that while Phin certainly gets entangled in music mysteries, he also finds himself drawn into other intriguing situations

But one of the difficulties with using music as a frame for a plot, is the embarrassment of riches that music’s history offers.                           There’s the macabre – such as the legend of how Paganini’s body was refused burial because of alleged participation in satanic rituals, and was apparently trundled across Europe for the best part of four years, before an appeal to the Pope finally allowed conventional burial.  That practically presents itself as a complete plot, there for the writing.     Or, if an author happens to incline towards the realms of the supernatural, there’s the dark tale of piedpiper2the Piper of Hameln to draw on – that infamous figure from the Middle Ages, who, when the townspeople reneged on payment for his rat-catching services, wrought his grisly revenge by luring the children into the mountains by his magical music.  You do have to be wary of sinister strangers offering peculiar deals, although the legend has certainly provided material for such diverse names as the Brothers Grimm, Robert Browning, and Walt Disney.
And, staying with the supernatural, might there really be a ‘Curse of the Ninth Symphony’, given that a surprising number of composers died after completing their ninth? The composer Philip Glass was convinced of it – to the extent that he insisted on completing his tenth symphony before allowing his ninth to be performed in public.

Moving away from the macabre, there’s the humorous, such as the Elizabethan Kempcaperings of one Will Kemp.  Master Kemp was a Shakespearean comic actor and ‘purveyor of mad jests and merry jigs’, and he accepted a bet that he could not dance from London to Norwich – roughly 80 miles (132 km).  He won the bet, although it took him nine days to do it – which he later chronicled as ‘The Nine Daie’s Wonder’ [sic].  Happily, though, the nine days don’t seem to have been entirely without a few lighter moments;  one version tells how, at one part of his journey, a young lady came out and danced a mile with him, to keep him company.  Some versions suggest slyly that caperings of a different kind took place, as well.  But that would be a tale for an entirely different kind of book, and in any case, Shakespeare, if he heard about his actor’s exploits, would have instantly spotted the potential for a bawdy romp scene, and very likely used a version of it in several of the plays.  (He probably did just that, although probably not in Hamlet or King Lear).

There are other, more straightforward mysteries, of course.  There’s a definite whodunnit flavour in the question of whether Salieri really did murder Mozart – witness Peter Shaffer’s play/film ‘Amadeus’, and also Alexander Pushkin’s 1830’s poetic drama, ‘Mozart and Salieri’.  There’s the question of why Schubert never finished his ‘Unfinished Symphony’.  To come more up-to-date, there’s surely a lively quest to be mapped out in solving the meanings and identifying the characters in Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’.

And so Phineas Fox, in his second outing, might have found himself imbroiled in any one of half a dozen plots, ancient or modern, classical or rock or jazz, any of which could be based on true stories.  I considered and discarded and researched and re-considered.  I tumbled half-forgotten books from my shelves, dispossessing armies of indignant spiders in the process, and I trawled libraries and the internet.

Then I latched onto the infamous tritone – the ‘Devil’s Chord’.

If we’re going to be technical (which always sounds nicely scholarly and looks impressive in this kind of article), the devil’s chord is an augumented 4th, or Tritonus, and spans three steps in the scale.  It’s been described as one of the most dissonant music intervals around – so much so, that it was banned in Renaissance church music.   Church music was supposed to be a paeon of praise to God, and the tritone was considered so ugly that it wasn’t thought suitable.  Medieval arrangements even used it to represent the devil, and Roman Catholic composers sometimes used it for referencing the act of the crucifixion. Its dissonance can work to advantage in some cases, though. It’s remarkably effective as background music in films, where it can serve as a warning to the audience that something bad’s about to happen. That harsh discordance that tells you the killer’s outside the door with an axe.  Think shower curtains in Psycho.

It occurred to me that the devil’s chord might make a guest appearance in a composition that had become part of music legend.  But what could that legend be?
Well, as somebody once said, if you can’t find a genuine legend, create one of your own.

Music has often been composed to celebrate great events – coronations, births, victory in war.  But what about a legend in which a piece of music was written to celebrate not a happy, or a triumphant event, but something far darker?  Something so menacing its existence was kept secret?

It was at that point that I saw the whole plot.  I could see Phineas Fox peeling back the layers of a secret that had lain undisturbed for three quarters of a century – glimpsing edges and corners of it, and ending in delving into a very grisly fragment of musical history indeed.

And so, Chord of Evil was born.

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A MATTER OF A NAME… and an unexpected piece of theatre lore

 

death-notes-currentWhile writing Death Notes, (Book One of the Phineas Fox series), I was initially delighted to discover the existence of the Opera and Ballet Theatre of Odessa – a building that had the splendid address of No 1 Tchaikovsky Street.
The theatre had been burned down towards the end of the 19th century, and it seemed that this might all fit beautifully into a plot that wove in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. (Less well-known than the butchery meted out to his grandson, Nicholas and family in 1917, but sufficiently documented to make it possible to disinter the salient facts).

odessa-theatre
Odessa Theatre today

I wrote four chapters, with happy diligence, making use of this Russian theatre.  Then I discovered that it had burned down in January 1873 – which was eight years too soon for the plot. I cursed the person who had struck the matches (tinder box?) in 1873 for not waiting just a few more years before consigning a beautiful old theatre to blackened rubble, and then I muttered imprecations against the tsar’s assassins for not bringing their dastardly plot forward, and committing the foul deed in 1873 instead of 1881.
And since the dates of assassinations can’t be shifted, any more than the burning of illustrious theatres can be put forward, in the end I resorted to the ploy of most writers in such a situation.  I set about creating a fictional theatre.  This seemed a very good idea, until I hit the problem of what to call it.  Names matter, and the theatre I was conjuring up, the theatre that would stand somewhere in Tchaikovsky Street (because I wasn’t going to lose that terrific street name), had to sound authentic and romantic.
ghost-songAn English theatre mightn’t have been difficult.  A few years earlier, writing Ghost Song, I had created the Tarleton Theatre, the name a nod to the memory of the Elizabethan clown actor, Richard Tarleton.  I had even called the theatre yard Platt’s, from the old word for a stage plot (layout).  But this was Russia.
I rummaged the bookshelves, scouring dictionaries and reference books and encyclopediae to find a suitable name. I trawled the internet.  Chapter 11 lay abandoned and incomplete on the hard drive. Chapter 12 was still worryingly embryonic (scrappy notes in Word), and Chapter 13 was a mere hope somewhere on the horizon, with no Word or, indeed, words to its name.  Chapters 4-10, all containing the infuriatingly inaccurate references to the Odessa Theatre, patiently awaited amendment.  My agent and my editor patiently awaited a manuscript.

Then I discovered a wonderful piece of Russian theatre folklore – that of the ancient skomorokhs_02people called the skomorokhi.
The skomorokhi appear to be part of an astonishingly old tradition – dating to around the ninth or tenth century, and there are frescoes portraying them in Kiev, thought to date to the 11th century.  They were medieval, East Slavic harlequins – actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances.
Traces of them and their legend are sprinkled over the centuries, and the Tale of Bygone Years, sometimes known as the Primary Chronicle which covers about 850 to 1110, uncompromisingly denounces the skomorokhi as devil servants,
Several authorities suggest that the word, Skomorokh, is linked to the Italian Scaramouch – the clown character of Italian commedia dell’arte, which literally translated as Little Skirmisher.  Harlequin and Columbine are known to most people, but that third character, Scaramouch, is perhaps not quite as familiar.
And yet Scaramouch is still around.  In the 1906 fantasy play, Love in a Dutch Garden, (filmed silently in 1918 as Prunella,) a character says, ‘Scaramel, I am tempted…’   Scaramel’s reply is, ‘Always yield to temptation.’  Which may well be borrowed from the infamous Oscar Wilde line, but does go to prove that Scaramel/Scaramouch, knew that if you’re going to plagiarise, you choose the best loot you can.

In Freddie Mercury’s mind-blowing Bohemian Rhapsody, he gives Queen a line that asks, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango…?
It’s likely that Scaramouche and certainly the long-ago Skomorokh performers, could indeed do the fandango and any one of a dozen other dances.

So there it was, the theatre’s name.  Never mind that I couldn’t pronounce it and that I had to enter it into the spell-checker on the computer for auto-completion of the word, it was undoubtedly the Skomorokh Theatre.  The charismatic 19th century violinist, Roman Volf, whose mysterious and scandalous life lay at the heart of the book, could wander through the ruins, weaving plots of his own, possibly in company with a suitably alluring lady.
Best of all, The Skomorokh Theatre itself could burn down in the right year for the plot of Death Notes.
Fiction is frequently so much more easy to manipulate than fact.

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LEGALIZING THE PLOT

C DickensThe legal profession has always been a novelists’ treasure house, and lawyers themselves are a gift to writers of fiction.  If your plot has wound itself into a hopeless tangle, you can often solve matters by allowing the family solicitor to discover old documents or a Will which will provide motives the reader hasn’t yet suspected exist, (and that the author didn’t realise were going to be needed).            There can even be the discovery that the solicitor has forged the Will/siphoned off the trust fund/faked a promissory note – even pilfered the petty cash – thus giving him/her a credible motive for one or two juicy (or even judicial) murders, and so becoming the villain of the piece.

Wills can be very useful to an author.  If a house needs to be polempty for a number of years, one way to achieve this is by a Will’s disappearance.  For Property of a Lady, I created an old-fashioned firm of lawyers whose senior partner wore a high-wing collar, and whose office was crammed with decades of stacked-up deed boxes. The gentleman died at his desk – he was found by a junior clerk, but several sets of vital documents were not. This allowed the property – Charect House – to stand empty for a very long time, crumbling into suitably gothic dereliction while the ownership was disputed and fruitless searches made for the Title Deeds.

Comedic lawyers in fiction are regarded with affection.  John Mortimer (himself a former barrister), knew this when he created Rumpole of the Bailey, memorably portrayed on TV by Leo McKern. Frequently awash with his favourite claret (‘Chateau Thames Embankment’), Horace Rumpole cheerfully wrought havoc in his Chambers, doled out wise, if not always practical, advice to juniors, and generally managed to confound most judges before whom he appeared.

Other writers, however, were not always favourably disposed to the legal profession.  Shakespeare, in Henry V1 Part 2, gives one character the line, ‘First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. Hamlet, exchanging macabre pleasantries with Horatio in the graveyard and considering a disinterred skull, asks, ‘Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?’  And in Goethe’s Dr Faust, the hapless doctor grumpily observes that, ‘All rights and laws are transmitted like an eternal sickness.’  Given that poor Heinrich signed a legal document that went horribly wrong, perhaps the sentiment is understandable.

Bleak HouseCharles Dickens drew on his time as a solicitor’s clerk (a job he apparently disliked), and as a court reporter, to weave satirical portrayals of the English legal system, with characters caught like hapless flies in the dusty spider strands of the law.  When, in Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble advised a court that, ‘The law is an ass’, Dickens may have been borrowing from a 17th century play called Revenge for Honour, which is attributed to both George Chapman and Henry Glapthorne, depending on which source you check.  Not much seems known about Henry Glapthorne, but apparently Master Chapman signed an agreement for a loan which never materialised.  According to the reports, he spent years petitioning Chancery to release him from payment, but at one stage was arrested for debt.  (A fate which hovers over many writers to this day). Under those circumstances (supposing the facts to be accurate), it’s hardly surprising that Master Chapman did what a great many other writers have done:  he wrote out his frustrations in the plot.    

Recently I came across the term “infangentheof”.  I had never encountered it, but it seems that the literal translation is “in-taken-thief”, and it permitted the owners of a piece of land the right to mete out justice to miscreants captured within their estates, regardless of where the poor wretches actually lived.  It’s an Anglo-Saxon arrangement, supposedly from the time of Edward the Confessor, but when the Normans came barrelling in, they made cheerful use of it as well, because it helped keep the rebellious Saxons in their place.

Infangentheof fell more or less into disuse in the fourteenth century.  But one afternoon, having become lost in the depths of the countryside, I came across a field with a sign on the gate saying, ‘Infanger’s Field’.  A fragment from the past?  A shred of some long-ago feudal baron who had named a field as a warning to miscreants?  I made eager notes, although it was a bit unfortunate that I dropped my notebook in the mud, (I think it was mud – I hope it was mud), and perhaps I wouldn’t have worn scarlet gloves if I had known there was a bull in the field.                                                                                                   I’m doubtful if I could find the field again.  It might not even exist.  It might have been time-slip land – a fragment of the medieval era that had momentarily slipped through a tear.  Being prosaic, it’s also possible that a Mr or Mrs Infanger might live – and farm – in the area. Whatever the truth, the notes are perfectly legible (even if the paper is somewhat pungently scented), and I daresay the bull enjoyed eating the woolly gloves I threw to him by way of diversion while I scrambled over the gate to safety.                                                                   Writers go to considerable lengths to get a plot sometimes.

Dark Dividing USWriting A Dark Dividing some years ago, I searched for an appropriate house name for the brooding old orphanage/workhouse that played such an integral part in the plot.  Names of places matter just as much as names of characters.  You can’t call a Victorian asylum Rosemount Manor or a gaol housing condemned prisoners Summerville Court.   Then I came across the word mortmain, which opened up another unknown chink of law. The Statute of Mortmain (ie dead man’s hand), dates back to around 1200. The kings of that time used to hand out land to religious houses, but after a while it dawned on them that the owners of the land would never actually die – ownership simply passed from abbot to abbot.  That meant the medieval equivalent of death duties were never payable.  So the Mortmain Law was created to close up this loophole and allow the monarchs to scoop up the dosh.  A cynic might wonder if the law was also intended to check the growing wealth of the church, but whatever the reasons behind its creation, it gave me Mortmain House.

The law, with all its quirks and archaic convolutions, provides remarkably good plot devices for authors.  There are tithes and torts and peppercorn rents. There’s assumpsit (medieval breach of contract), and gavelkind (a Saxon form of limited land ownership).

Since Magna Carta a great many of those old laws have been repealed.  Some remain though, and traces of others can still be found today.  Even if one of those traces is simply a field that might once have known the ancient practice of infangentheof, but that now houses only an indignant bull.

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BUILDING THE INSPIRATIONS – AND AVOIDING THE PITFALLS

 

There’s a marvellous theme running through Benjamin Britten’s opera, Owen Wingrave, which is based on the Henry James’ story.  It’s, ‘Listen to the house.’  It’s something I’ve done for years.

owen-wingrave
Set for the BBC2 production of Owen Wingrave, designed by David Myerscough-Jones

By ‘listen’ I don’t mean yomping round the Tower of London and thinking you’re hearing Ann Boleyn grumbling about the damp cell she was put in.  Or taking a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, and imagining echoes of a muttered conversation in a dark corner… ‘And if we hide the gunpowder here they’ll never find it, but this time, Guy, please don’t forget the matches…

I mean ordinary buildings – places where people have lived and worked.  Their atmospheres, their histories, their usage, present and past – these are all chockfull of interest

There are, though a few pitfalls that can trap the unwary author who makes use of real buildings and genuine places:-

DISAPPEARANCE

The original venue can have disappeared without you realising. In that case, there’s usually a reader who lives there, and who writes to you – or, worse, to your editor – indignantly pointing out that Arnold couldn’t have drowned Ethel in the duck pond, because since last year it’s been a supermarket.

DIVERSION

The building is certainly still there, but between your research and the book’s publication the local authority has built a bypass and/or a four-lane motorway. Consequently, instead of the reader being able to imagine the unravelling of dark secrets and discreditable histories in a remote house shrouded in brooding silence, the action now appears to take place to the accompaniment of rumbling pantechnicons and police sirens chasing joy-riders.  Alternatively, a neighbouring land-owner has extended his farm, so the seduction scene in the coppice, with the heroine swooning to the scent of meadowsweet and the sound of birdsong, would now appear to happen against a backdrop of clattering tractors and the pungent atmosphere from the new pig-sties.

DESTRUCTION

You base an historical sub-plot around a building, then discover the building no longer existed at the time of your story. This happened to me when I wove a Russian theatre into a sub-plot about the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.  It wasn’t until I had written four chapters that I discovered the theatre had burned down eight years before Alexander was bumped off – and that re-building hadn’t begun until two years after it.  At this point, I should acknowledge – and apologise for – the fact that writers have a regrettable streak of egocentricity.  I suspect it’s not uncommon for authors wanting to use an historical event to curse the fact that a war/coup/assassination happened inconveniently early or just six months too late.

DIFFERENCE

You don’t check out the venue beforehand – probably because you’re too broke to travel to it at the time – but you write the book anyway. Later, you visit the place and find it’s blood-ritual-currenttotally different.  Some years ago I wrote a contemporary horror novel based on the seventeenth-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  She used to bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and beauty.  (I have no idea if it worked, although clearly Elizabeth believed it did).  She lived in the Carpathian Mountains, but she also had a town house in Vienna.  When I wrote Blood Ritual I wasn’t able to travel to either place, but a few years later I did go to Vienna, and I found her house in a place called the Blutgasse – Blood Alley. I was pleased to discover that the Blutgasse was as creepy and ancient as I had described – one of those really eerie pockets of Old Vienna – owing its name, apparently, to the slaughter of the Knights Templar in the 12th century, when the old cobblestones ran with their blood.  However, at one end of the Blutgasse was a kind of T-junction, with a house that was open to the public – it  was possible to stand in one of the rooms of that house and look through the window onto Elizabeth’s residence. That house was open to the public because it had once been lived in by Mozart, who had composed a great deal of his marvellous music there.  So he would have done so while looking across to the home of a woman who, in her day, had slaughtered more than 300 young girls.  If a century and a half hadn’t separated those two, they would have been neighbours; they could have waved to one another, or discussed the weather when putting out the milk bottles.  It’s certain that I would have portrayed parts of that book slightly differently if I’d been able to travel to Vienna before I wrote it.

DEMOLISHED

For years you intend to set a book at a favourite venue. In the town where I lived as a child was a semi-derelict castle.  It stood on the summit of a small hill – the old feudal lords always built their strongholds high up so they could keep out a watchful eye for any enterprising enemies that might sneak up on them.  The original medieval castle fell victim to a variety of fates, but the main stafford-castlereason for its downfall, was Time.  Simply, it crumbled away. So, with typical nineteenth century gusto, a replica was built on the site.  But it was a replica so outrageously gothic that if it had been offered for sale, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley would have climbed over one another to own it, and Edgar Allen Poe and Matthew Lewis would have been taking gleeful notes.  I was always determined to write a book using this gorgeously gothic old pile and its back story.  And then, one dark and stormy night (what else could it have been?) it toppled down.  The fact that it did so in instalments, one chunk at a time, rather than in a dramatic avalanche of stones and turrets, did nothing to save the embryo plot.

But using a real place can sometimes work brilliantly.   About 10 years ago I discovered a spider-lightwonderful 15th century flour mill in Nether Alderley in Cheshire.  The National Trust team there gave generously and enthusiastically of their time and knowledge, and the result was the macabre and – to quote one review – ‘nightmarishly unforgettable’ Twygrist Mill in Spider Light.  It looked, as one character said, as if it had ‘grown up by itself overnight when no one was looking.’

So, on balance, it’s usually easier, better for the plot, and certainly a lot of fun, to set aside real-life scenarios and construct a fictional building – mental word-brick by mental word-brick.  That being so, I’ll end this blog by explaining I’m off to don a hard hat, some snazzy overalls, and get the stepladder down from the attic…

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