Wednesday 4 January 2012

New Worlds - by Katherine Langrish

The Sacred Way
"Our house stood in the Inner Kerameikos, not far from the Dipylon Gate. ...The roof had a border of acanthus tiles and was not very steep.  If one straddled the ridge, one could see right over the city wall, past the gate towers of the Dipylon to the Sacred Way where it curves towards Eleusis between its gardens and its tombs.  In summertime, I could pick out the funeral stele of my uncle Alexias and his friend, by the white oleander that grew there.  Then I would turn south, to where the High City stands like a great stone altar against the sky, and search between the roof tops for the point of gold, where tall Athene of the Vanguard lifts her spear to the ships at sea.  But I liked best to look north at the range of Parnes, snow-topped, or scorched brown in summer, or grey and green in spring, and watch for the Spartans coming over."

This evocative paragraph is from Chapter 2 of Mary Renault's marvellous novel 'The Last of the Wine', and as her biographer David Sweetman points out: 'The hours of work involved in calculating that deceptively simple 360 degree vista is awe-inspiring'.  In a few sentences we are anchored in place and time.  Sweetman goes on to describe how at a late stage in the book Mary Renault checked her imaginative reconstruction, written at home in South Africa and based on exhaustive research, by a visit to Athens with her friend Julie Mullard in 1954.  Standing on the Acropolis, she discovered that she had made just one error. 'She had written of Alexias staring at the ships in the harbour when, in fact, it was hidden by the curve of the land.'  This was easily put right, and in the passage above Alexias sees no ships.

The remains of the Kerameikos

There’s no short cut to designing a world. Even fantasy worlds, if they are to be believable, require enormous amounts of consideration. Tolkien famously took decades to explore the history, languages, mythology and geography of Middle Earth (and even so missed out the economy), and we lesser mortals still must spend time deciding what lies north, south, east and west of the village or castle from which our hero or heroine sets out. Only fairytales, which are set as close as next door and as far away as the Mountains of the Moon and make the sophisticated assumption that the listeners will willingly join in and don’t need to be deceived, can afford not to bother with this effort to locate the story in a ‘realistic’ place and time.

My current work in progress is set in the future, and I’m finding the research for it just as rigorous and rather more difficult than researching the past. I’m very busy, in fact, creating the history of the next one hundred and seventy-five years or so – starting with the present, adding a disaster or two, and extrapolating from that.  Although the story isn’t directly about it, this history of the future sets the parameters - and suggests the possibilities - for my new world.

I find myself looking back with some nostalgia to the time when I was writing ‘Troll Blood’, the third part of my trilogy ‘West of the Moon’. Set in approximately AD 1000, it tells how my young Norse hero and heroine sail across the Atlantic in a Viking ship, a knarr, to landfall on the coast of Vinland (North America): and I had the Greenland sagas, as well as modern archeological evidence, to demonstate that Viking seafarers did exactly this.  Leif the Lucky, son of Eirik the Red, sailed from Greenland across what is now the Davis Strait and named three lands on his way south: Helluland, which means ‘Slabland’, a country full of rocks; Markland, ‘Forest Land’; and finally Vinland, a grassy, wooded peninsular where he and his men built houses and overwintered, naming the place for the grapes they claimed to have found there. These locations are now thought to be Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland respectively, and a small Viking settlement excavated at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland may even be the place where Leif built his cabins.
But North America was already full of people – and Leif and his crew met them: calling them ‘Skraelings’ (an obscure but contemptuous term). The sagas tell of battles. Leif’s brother-in-law Thorvald murdered eight ‘Skraelings’ whom he found sleeping by their canoes - paying the price for it when he died of an arrow-wound in the counter-attack. And so began the sorry history of European behaviour in the New World.

Iroquois warrior, circa 1812

I wanted to open my tale from a Native perspective. I was fully aware and have written here about the problem of cultural appropriation, so I won’t repeat that argument now, but it seemed to me important to show my Norse hero and his companions in the light of intruders rather than adventurers bold. And so the book opens with a brutal Viking quarrel – a massacre of one ship’s crew by another – witnessed from a high point in the woods by two Native Americans who are very much NOT like the simplistic image in this sonnet by J C Squire.

But then I needed to know a lot about the world. Exactly where was the bay where this massacre happens? It couldn’t be Newfoundland for the rather terrible reason that the Native American people who most likely lived there when Leif Eirikson landed – the Beothuk – are now extinct: the last woman of the race died of tuberculosis in 1829, and with her was lost the last chance of learning more than a few scraps of knowledge about her people's language, beliefs and customs. So since the Norsemen surely explored further up the Gulf of St Lawrence, I decided to set my story in a little invented cove somewhere in the great Baie des Chaleurs on the Gaspe Peninsular in New Brunswick: and this made my fictional Native Americans ancestors of the Mi’kmaq. Here is my sketch map of the cove, vital to me for visualising the terrain.

Because the civilizations and societies of North America went largely undocumented by themselves – without complex writing systems there were no indigenous written histories - what we know of them tends to come from European travellers likely to misunderstand even if they were sympathetic, agents themselves of change and destruction. Moreover, there are no records at all of the customs and beliefs of the Native Americans at the time of the Norse arrivals. ( The Greenland Norse went there repeatedly for timber, but seemed otherwise not much interested.) The earliest accounts of Native life in the North-East woods are from missionaries, such as Fr Chrestien LeClerq’s ‘New Relation of Gaspesia’.  LeClerq was a Recollet priest who spent twelve years in the area from 1673 on, and learned the Mi’kmaq language. Luckily he was a young man, for his life was often tough. Here he describes a winter journey in January from Nipisiquit to Mizamichis: he and his companions get lost and it takes them ten days in all:

The night passed with new difficulties. A wind from the North-West, of an extraordinarily keen and penetrating coldness, well-nigh froze us, because we had not been able to find wood enough to keep us warm during the night; so that, in order not to die of cold in our camp, we left it before daylight, with suffering that cannot be imagined. I came near being swallowed up in a deep gulch which was covered with snow... scarcely was I a gun-shot from this precipice but, wishing to cross a little river, one of my snowshoes broke and I fell into the water up to my waist.

So – yes, I took personal accounts such as these, plus all kinds of other geographical and historical information about New Brunswick and its flora and its fauna, and the 17th and 18th century culture and customs of the Mi’qmaq - what did they wear? what did they eat? what were their houses like? what were their beliefs? - and then extrapolated backwards, very much as I’m currently extrapolating forwards in time, to create an authentic world for my historical fantasy. Here is a war-band, setting out in winter accompanied by my hero Peer and his young friend Ottar:

By dusk next day, the war party had covered half the distance to the shore. Sinumkwe called a halt in an open glade, a tilted clearing on a hill shoulder, facing east towards the sea. A wind sharp as a skinning knife sliced between the trees, ruffling the black fur of pines and spruce, moaning through the skeletal arms of oaks, chestnuts and maples.

Peer looked at the war band. Nearly fifty men had set out from the village for the two-day walk to the shore. All wore red on their faces. All were wrapped in thick clothes against the cold: double layers of beaver robes, long leggings and hide boots. All moved quickly and easily over the snow on wide flat snowshoes that they tied to their feet. 

"There's no shelter here," he said in a low voice to Ottar. ..."There soon will be," said Ottar confidently.  He kicked off one of his snowshoes and started using it as a shovel to scoop out a hollow from the snow.  ...All the men were digging shelters.  They broke branches from the fir trees and threw them in to layer the bottoms of the holes with a springy criss-cross.  Larger boughs partly roofed the shelters.  And soon, small fires were spiralling upwards.

A simple enough couple of paragraphs? Sure. But with a whole world of research behind them.

Visit Katherine at her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles or follow her on Twitter


Caroline Lawrence said...

Wonderful post, Kath! Not least because you quote from the book that changed my life by sparking my interest in the Classical world. The Last of the Wine is probably my favourite fictional book. Every line is wonderful. Her books, like yours, absolutely transport the reader to that world, thanks to her imagination and research (like yours). If Patrick O'Brian is the king of historical fiction - and he is! - then Mary Renault is the queen.

Gill James said...

I know exactly what you mean about creatign worlds in the future needed as much rigour if not more than creating past worlds. I spent months creating my Peace Child world before I started writing.
I'm going the other way now: I'm now writing a novle set in the 1940s.

adele said...

This is a brilliant post and I agree with Caroline about The Last of the Wine...
It also makes me feely guilty about my LACK of research...oh dear!
And can't wait to read your novel set in the Future....

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating, Kath. Am hugely impressed by the map, in particular!

Linda B-A said...

How brave to imagine a whole new world. Historical research presents its own problems but is arguably more straightforward. Novels are always the tip of the iceberg that lies beneath and the research and composting down of the story is perhaps the most crucial aspect. Good luck with your exciting venture.

Katherine Roberts said...

A very topical post, Kath, since I have just spent most of the day struggling to draw a fantasy map of Wales, trying to reimagine it in the 6th century for the 3rd book of my Pendragon series - and that's somewhere I've actually lived, yet I still have a first draft full of dodgy geography! (To say nothing of angry dragons...)

alberridge said...

This is such a brilliant post, Kath - and very humbling. I wish my sketches were good enough to be posted on a blog, but I can't usually even work out what they're meant to be myself :(

But it's so true to say you're creating a whole world with your research, and I think it's particularly important that you've included the different mindsets and perspectives with it by showing your Norse heroes from the outside. I simply have to read 'Troll Blood' now.

And you're right, writing a novel set in the future must be involving many of the same skills - as well as a whole lot more I can't even imagine. It's all world-building in the end, and I've often thought sci-fi and fantasy writers are really our sisters under the skin...

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou all - and Louise, I so agree that the skills to build a convincing world in fiction are all one whatever genre we're writing - and I ought to add that everyone goes about it in their own way. I just happen to be one of those writers who can't proceed unless I can see everything in minute detai, but I'm not sure it's always a benefit!

Leslie Wilson said...

I have just bought The Last of the Wine to read. Yes, it is amazing how much one has to do that doesn't actually come out on the page - or rather, apparently not, and yet, as you say, it's the creation of a world, and your knowledge has its effect on every word you write and every speech the characters make.