Tag Archives: conflict

Classics You’ve Never Read, Part One: Why Pretend?

Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.

-Mark Twain

I hope you enjoy my attempt to create a series of blogs around great works of heroic fiction that most folks haven’t read. Several of these I have mentioned before in one forum or another but now I want to try and do several things: amuse you, get you interested in checking them out, and perhaps find a window into the writer’s craft through these past works that resonate with us so well in other forms.

There’s no shame in seeing the movie, let me hasten to mention that. In nearly every case I can think of, I found the book to be better, but usually that was only after seeing the tale. When a classic is redone, it’s interesting to see whether the basic inner stuff of it has changed. I find, most often not; even Hollywood doesn’t always screw that up!

This Question of Disguises, Now…

For my first theme, I want to look at two great classics that share one such common idea. Their heroes, set in almost the same time period but halfway around the world, do the same thing when faced with evil. They adopt a secret identity. This raises a great question, one that classic heroic and epic fantasy seldom touches on- why pretend?

Most folks know why Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent took on a mild-mannered alter ego- freedom to act and the need to protect loved ones from harm. But Superman and Batman, it turns out, were far from the first.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is widely thought to be the first hero in history to have a secret identity. It’s also one of the first heroic fantasy tales authored by a woman, the Baroness d’Orczy in 1903. There’s definitely something up with that, and if I say much more I’ll be accused (with justice) of chauvinism. But I’m here to tell you, guys aren’t nearly as interested in hiding their powers as women are in believing this dope before them truly has hidden talents. Deep water here, and I don’t swim well…

Tiny flower, BIG action.
Tiny flower, BIG action.

This is a gorgeous tale of death and danger in the blackest days of the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror was eating people by the hundreds. Faking his disinterested, foppish life as a useless English dandy, Sir Percy Blakeney conceals from everyone- including his beautiful new French wife- that he secretly commands, as one of his followers puts it, “nineteen men who would lay down their lives” for him. Guided by his brilliant mind, the Pimpernel and his gang outwit the horrid, cruel, secular (!) French soldiers and agents to save dozens of innocent French aristocrats from the guillotine’s embrace. Then he returns to English society sporting the latest fashions, on the arm of his wife making witty remarks and annoying everyone- especially her- with his “inane laughter”.

The Best Intentions

We discover as the story moves briskly along that there has been a terrible misunderstanding crossing the main characters, one that probably won’t be happily resolved and which could lead to Blakeney’s death. He had only started his career of rescuing French nobility when he married the gorgeous Parisian actress Marguerite, whom he secretly still worships. For her part, Marguerite defended her beloved brother Armand by speaking down about a leading aristocrat, and her denunciation led to the death of that entire family- staining her with suspicion of sympathy for the Revolution. Blakeney adopts the guise of a flaccid fool, always honoring his wife and giving her every luxury but never letting on that he could be the mysterious hero capable of leading such daring and intelligent escapes. She is stung by the change in her husband and resorts to sarcasm, making fun of him in an effort to rouse the man she thought she knew. All this makes her look even more guilty to Blakeney’s heartbroken view. And when the dastardly French agent Chauvelin gets wind that Marguerite’s brother Armand may be helping the Pimpernel, he blackmails her with the young man’s life in order to enlist her help in exposing the enemy of the Revolution.

"Chicks dig that romantic crap!"
“Chicks dig that romantic crap!”

One remarkable aspect of this secret identity theme is that the hero is so obviously torn; he dare not let Marguerite know the truth because she appears to side with the enemy. Yet Percy is hopelessly in love with his wife still. After a moonlit encounter on their veranda where Marguerite implores him to be more truthful with her, he holds firm as the lazy, disinterested dandy until she turns to go. Then he throws himself to the tiles and kisses the ground whereon she walked. I’m telling you, chicks dig this stuff!

But the other aspect that may be of interest to the writer is that this situation compels us to see almost nothing directly from the hero’s point of view. For at least three-quarters of the story, you search for the Scarlet Pimpernel along with everyone else (you do better than they do). Nothing is told from Percy’s perspective until close to the end; there is a level of remove where you don’t read what he thinks or feels, only what he says and does. This increases the tension and reveals his character beautifully, whereas an omniscient third-person view would struggle hard not to seem maudlin or cute. Much of the heart of the tale is really from Marguerite’s point of view. The moment when the awful truth finally breaks down the doors of her mind- when she realizes that she has already led her husband, the man she always loved, into Chauvelin’s death-trap- is the height of the story.

What Hollywood Made of It

Hugh Grant did well enough in the movie-version I would say, but the earlier flick with Leslie Howard (who played Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind”) sticks in my head. Ironically, it was Howard who immortalized the phrase “Sink me!” coming from the dandy Sir Blakeney; yet in the first book of The Scarlet Pimpernel Blakeney never uses that phrase. Also Merle Oberon perfectly matches my image of Marguerite.

Sink me! Nice cravat, wot?
Sink me! Nice cravat, wot?

In summary, we have a tale in which the hero adopts a secret identity specifically to prevent his plans from being overset and to keep his men from even greater danger. And he takes this foppish guise chiefly to keep the tale away from his beloved- not because he fears harm to her, but because he suspects she is his enemy. This sets up tremendous pathos and conflict in every scene they spend together, and d’Orczy exploits this original idea with fabulous prose that cuts to the heart of the scene each time. Her descriptions, dialogue and turns of phrase are uniformly apt and convey the emotion without slowing the pace too much. I think like any reader, I had moments where I “got it already” and was a bit impatient when she lingered on an image or reinforced an emotion, but there was nothing here to take me out of the tale for a second. I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as classic Heroic Fantasy (using my Fantasy Solar System taxonomy), shading towards Cinematic mood in places, particularly where Percy adopts an ingenious disguise despite his enemies knowing what to watch for.

Final bit of trivia- it was first put up as a stage play and evidently struggled, but the novel was published in the same year and did wonderfully right away. And I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of my top three ever Broadway shows- “Into the Fire” still makes me stand up and cheer out loud.

Read it For Free

I downloaded The Scarlet Pimpernel for free to my phone from Amazon Kindle Classics- this is a wonderful value for me because I’m often traveling or without my laptop and can still read quite easily on the phone. I can change the background and font-size to suit my failing eyes, and the only feature I miss from the laptop version is the automatic dictionary. The free versions do suffer from imperfect formatting and there is the occasional mis-spelled word or even repeated phrase, but it’s nothing to pull down your enjoyment of the tale. Here’s another site to get it as an e-book, and you can also listen to it as an audio-book.

So, which tale is set at the same time, but far away and also makes use of a secret identity? Stay tuned for Part Two! And let me know how you reacted to any version of The Scarlet Pimpernel you may have seen or read.

The Joys (You Heard Me!) of Revision

I don’t think I’ve ever done this before. I’m revising a novel, The Eye of Kog, by which I mean going about it in the same way most other authors do. It’s an incredible feeling: I’m running with “joy” in my title today but I think the best word might be “stunned”. Thought I’d ruminate on why, and see if anyone else has the same feeling.

Not Writing Anymore!

Astonished1That’s the first thing, the breaking of a habit that leaves me feeling as if I’m constantly stumbling forward against a vanished resistance. I was writing this thing for so long. If you work on several WiPs simultaneously, you may not get this, but I dropped my “other” tale long ago. Every day walking around not hearing the first of half of anything my lovely wife says, every time I miss my turn driving to the store because I’m distracted, every half-hour before sleep, every night: the tale, the chapter I was on, where the characters were and what was going to happen next.

Sure, I knew the tale in the sense of the big picture. I knew it intimately in fact: I have for decades. But I don’t outline, or character-map- there’s no bridge between in-the-head and on-the-paper, just a big leap across that space. It’s a little like having seen Star Wars twenty times: you know it, right? But now you have to sit down and replicate the screenplay, shot by shot.

Anyway, that was an intense level of involvement, and I couldn’t believe how long I went on with it.

Two years.

Of Long Standing

Yes, I was writing The Eye of Kog at that pace for nearly two solid years, and I can prove it. Whenever my author friends and I finish a chapter, we lob it up on our mutual comment Lecturing2board over at Write Stuff Extreme, and then exchange feedback on each others’ work. If you don’t do this, start. Seriously, not one word to me, not one shaken finger about outlining or note-taking or anything. Get a beta group. Don’t make me come over there.

So my first post on the board for EK is dated July 14th 2014. I went back to start my revision and could not believe my eyes. Like Treaman’s party when they first sight the lost city of Oncario, I knew it had to be 2015, at most. Two years? All that time… but this was not a short tale like Fencing Reputation. And it involved several characters whose history I did not know as well as those in Judgement’s Happy2Tale. I bet many of you have felt this, the sense of re-acquaintance with things you wrote, characters introduced, action described. Like a chore you forgot you had done, you walk in and your heart shouts “bonus! winning!”

And then there’s the cousin of that feeling, with the same exultation and none of the recognition.

Really? I Wrote THAT!

I know other authors have felt this way because they’ve told me. Maybe it happens more often when you write longer books, I’m not sure. But there’s that paragraph, the section of 1k or 2k or more that is not yours. It’s just in your book. You know? Oh it’s part of the book alright– carries the plot forward, develops the character, balances dialogue with action. But no way I could have written this.

Usually, I feel that way because it’s good: and when I look at the posting date, more often than not it came out right away, on the next day after the chapter before it. Or even on the same day. That’s really hard for me to do, because I’m a day-job dilettante and can never count on steady time to write. Where did this burst of creativity come from? Too hard to figure out. Much easier for me to assume someone snuck in and tapped on my keyboard while I wasn’t looking. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Thanks, whoever you were, for stopping by. Come again.

The Dragon of Perfect

Bumps along the way, though? Oh hell yes.

Thinking1The Perfect Dragon rears her ugly head– well wait, it’s a gorgeous scaly head, the acme of draconic beauty, I’m sure, but the beholder’s eye in this case is mine, and she’s trying to consume me, so… ugly. She rears her head chiefly in two places. One, in the tiny cramped space within her cave, over wording. The other high in the sky as she flies and flames, at the level of chapters.

Different readers trip on different phrases, and you can’t say yes to everyone. I’m so proud of my grammar, my syntax (whatever the hell that is) my idioms and voice and tense-choices. Anyone, absolutely anyone points out a problem and the Dragon Perfect starts to growl and hiss. Did I mention how defensive I am? See, I ALREADY went over the wording. A lot, man! I re-read my chapters out loud, I swap adjectives, I Astonished1bounce out the present-tense verbs that snuck in when I wasn’t looking. And who does anyone else think they are, to post a comment (private board) telling me the way I wrote it was– I can hardly say it– wrong?

Down, Dragon. Every sentence can take one more read-through, where’s the harm. I have spent half an hour in the cave over a single paragraph, and when the smoke cleared I realized my lunging, clawing adversary was my reflection in a mirror. Back-space, tap-tap, fixed. Yeah, more often than not, they were right. Hey, almost like, like they were trying to help me when they posted it.

But up in the air, that’s harder. This is the part of revision where you have to entertain the notion that your chapters are in the wrong order. Or that there are too many. Dragon Perfect swoops in with a full head of steam against such offenders and again it’s Katie bar the door because my Defensive Shield is set to eleven. MY wonderful opus? Rearrange, clarify or even (gaspity-gasp) cut? Don’t you know that’s a three-letter word around here?

Jealous1Long and short, I usually fend off such suggestions. You have to stick up for your work and my brave beta-readers, as loyal as they were, couldn’t possibly hold the themes, the minor characters, the long breaks between visits, in their memory over the course of twenty-four months with clarity. I’m the guy who’s been walking around with this in his head for two years. I have to trust my judgment (inside joke!) on this one. So yeah, those themes, threads, added characters, and chapters pretty much stayed where they were.

One thing, though, I never expected and it even knocked out Dragon Perfect this time.

Add a chapter, my readers said.

And I was like– crazy beta-readers say whaaat?

Add a chapter. Maybe two.

The Creation Unlooked For

To coin Tolkien’s phrase, I could never have expected the result of feedback would be to Horrified2make my chronicles even longer. Maybe deep down I don’t have enough faith in my tales? But my good friends got to the heart of it. I just hate villains, is all. And I don’t show them much: I hint at them, feint and fake and mention them, or have folks find evidence of their passing, stuff like that. This is epic fantasy, it’s not like they have redeeming qualities!

But the reasons piled up, and I bet other authors know the feeling. Something kindles inside, you start to see possibilities. Nobody shows every second of a hero’s life– when they use the bathroom for instance, though I do show a prince and his squires seeking them. There’s a lot of mindless destruction and bad-doings my villains indulge in, before they finally get theirs. Plenty of stuff to draw on. I’m thinking now about how to advance the plot, increase the tension, improve the tale. AND, by the bye, give you all another much-needed glimpse of a powerful character doing what he does, well worst.

Thoughtful2So again, calm down Dragon. I got this.

Revising is a peculiar joy, with twinges of doubt, wonder and regret flavoring it. Maybe letting go of my daughter’s hand on her wedding day will be a bit like it. I might never think the tale is ready. Pretty certain I’m not. But here it goes all the same.

Have you experienced the joys of revision? Did you read something and wish it had another run before you bought it?