Sunday 6 September 2009

In a comment to “Condal learns a lot about a man”, maria wrote:

Lothere, why all these babies lately? And mostly in awful or negative contex? (killing babies, abortion, rape baby, demon babies) Is it intentional or just a coincidence? Or am I just more prone to notice that kinds of things?

It’s a good question, but the question within the question – “why mostly in awful or negative contexts” – is part of the answer, so I will tackle both of the questions together.

Consequence-​​based storytelling

It’s safe to say this story has become darker recently, and not in a mascara-​​wearing sexy emo vampire way. I date this period from “Maire wakes the wrong man”. This is in part because that chapter marks the beginning of another trend in what I’m trying to do with my writing – namely, exploring consequences.

To my mind, to have a story worth reading, both the characters and the plot must have an internal logic and consistency and must give a sense of unseen depths, so that even though they are imaginary (and even though there are magic and elves and so on) they can be believed.

Now, I think I am getting pretty good at creating characters that fulfill those requirements – I don’t often see my readers mentioning that characters are doing things that seem out-​​of-​​character for them. People were shocked when Egelric did what he did in that bed, but the warning signs were there all the way back into his twenties. So it was a shocking event, but not really out-​​of-​​character for him.

Therefore lately I am turning extra attention to the plot: I am trying to ensure that things don’t happen in the story that would be “out-​​of-​​character” for… “reality” or however you want to put it. In writing the events that arise out of all the complex interactions of individual people, even when the individual people are acting true-​​to-​​character themselves, it is nevertheless possible for an author to write a story that overall doesn’t seem true.

The Egelric-​​Maire encounter and all its consequences (for example) is a sort of meta-​​character of its own. Just like in a single person, there are all these conflicting and competing motivations and desires, embodied in individual characters like Aengus or Old Aed, or even in entities like Lothere as a kingdom or in Aed’s clan. These have to be weighed against each other, and consequences drawn.

What I don’t want is for readers to be thinking: “That would never happen.” Therefore my mantra in these last months has been: “What would really happen next?”

The darker tone

I believe this is why my story has taken the dark turn it has. Many times in the past I have introduced events in the story that ought to have been profound but seem to have had little effect. Sometimes this happened because I got bored and moved on to other things, or sometimes because I as a writer wasn’t capable of dealing with the weighty consequences. For example, the whole deal with Druze, Midra, and Hel popping into the story, doing horrific things, and then popping out and everything is back to normal. :concern: Or the church erupting: Sigefrith did his monkey-​​trapped-​​in-​​quicksand dance, and then he told Aelfden to build an abbey and that was that.

So I want to stop doing that. I am paying particular attention to the Egelric-​​Maire storyline, since Egelric is my flagship character, and I don’t want to dishonor him by conjuring up some Deus ex machina who is going to swoop in and save him from his folly – or worse, just go on as if it were no big deal – as if raping Daughter of Aed were no worse than stealing a kiss from Gunnilda without her leave. It does pain me to put Egelric through the hell I have made for him, but it would be cowardly of me to do otherwise.

I admit I have been merciless with these characters lately – perhaps overcompensating for having trivialized tragedies in the past. But these are some bad situations we’re dealing with, too. Even if I were trying to be gentle, when I ask the question “What would really happen next?” the answer is often, “Something bad.”

The ending of fairy tales

Heading back now in the direction of maria’s question, I’m paying special attention to Matilda’s character too, because I took some heat for Catan’s seemingly rapid recovery: going from surviving a gang rape and attempted murder to a fiery frolic with Paul in the space of six months. I still stand by Cat’s story (and I think she does have a few lingering issues), but with Matilda I wanted to make sure I didn’t open myself up to that again.

That’s not to say that I am going to torture her or anything, but she’s been through a terrible ordeal – the rape, the pregnancy – and unlike Cat she was lacking support from her family and the people around her. She’s also quite a bit younger. So I didn’t want to make Oswald come in, act adorably goofy and love her baby for three days, and solve all her problems.

“Oswald breaks something else” was a sort of letter to myself, since I have been asking myself lately whether I have not gone too far with the “dark” themes. I know that some people read books and stories to escape from the harshness of reality, and those readers really want the fairy tale endings. But I don’t think a fairy tale world is something that can be maintained for so many hundreds of chapters, and it isn’t something I want to write anyway.

With the theme and metaphors of “Oswald breaks something else” I could hardly have said it more clearly, unless I had entitled it “Matilda doesn’t believe fairy tales can come true.” In “Oswald breaks something else” you can watch live as Matilda dismantles the fairy tale possibilities that are implied.

This is probably scaring some of you, so let me assure you that I am not going to squash all spontaneous joy in this story. After many trials and tribulations there will still be Fwynn Everlasting; the butterfly love of Magog and Rua is just about to show up again; and I think there will even be a happy ending for Os and Matilda – albeit not by way of a bedtime-​​story-​​length fairy tale. Lo, there will still be much poetic rightness in the land of Lothere. If anything, I’m trying to write a fairy tale that could almost seem true.

So why all the babies?

So now let’s get to maria’s original question: what’s with all the babies lately? It is partly coincidence in that I didn’t think of the deaths of the Norse babies of Ramsaa as being in any way related to the other baby-​​themed story lines. I needed the Gaels of Ramsaa to do something unforgivably shocking against the Norse, and chasing mothers and children and babies into an icy estuary was an effective way to do it.

I also thought it fitting for baby-​​faced Njal to be forever scarred and disfigured – physically and emotionally – due to a baby-​​related tragedy. And it was something Baldwin can relate to, since his wife just suffered a miscarriage, though in the end that never came out in the chapter. (I had the idea that Baldwin would say something to Sigefrith about how Njal would be having dreams about searching for crying babies he could never find, his unspoken reasoning being that it was exactly what poor Freya was dreaming at the moment. I know, aren’t you glad I didn’t mention it? :-P)

The real theme

As for the others – Matilda’s “rape baby,” the abortion, and Connie’s vision – those are somewhat related in theme. I will try not to be too spoilery here, since the theme continues into the next chapter, though it will be allowed to rest for a while afterwards.

As you might have guessed, the juxtaposition of the birth of Matilda’s baby and Kraaia’s participation in an abortion is not coincidental. In the next chapter we will also get a glimpse (or a guess? or a hint? or a red herring?) about the meaning of Connie’s terrible dream, and it’s related too.

And, coincidentally (but poetically rightly), this theme happens to be coming to a head on December 28th, which in the medieval liturgical calendar is the Feast of the Holy Innocents – the day commemorating the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age, which was ordered by King Herod when he learned a king had been born to the Jews.

Also, later on we will probably see some consequences to Caedwulf’s little fling, with how Cecily is going to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.

Let me assure you, I’m not trying to make any political, ethical, or moral point with this story. Nothing could be further from my mind, really. What interests me is entering into the thoughts and feelings of these women and girls (and men, as we are about to see) who are in different roles and situations with respect to abortion and unwanted pregnancies.

There is Ffraid the healer who sometimes induces abortions, Fryth who is molested by her stepfather and chooses to abort, Cecily the victim of a one-​​night-​​stand who chooses to [redacted], Matilda the victim of an “interracial” rape who keeps her baby (perhaps because she never had a choice), Kraaia the virgin who seems to be sexually threatened from every side, Cearball the son of a woman who died during one of her many abortions, and Connie who is terrified of being raped or kidnapped, and who can [redacted].

The topic of abortion

Performing or having an abortion is of course a terrible crime in this time period, both civilly and religiously. Ffraid could hang – which is why she has never even told Aelfie the “secret ingredient,” hoping she might at least spare her.

But even then, there were gray areas. Ffraid’s euphemism of a “remedy for retention of the monthly bleeding” was not just her being coy – the medieval understanding of reproduction was such that it was not clear when conception occurred, when the soul entered the body, or when the fetus become a person who could not be murdered. Giving an herbal concoction to “restore the monthly bleeding” – at least at such an early stage that there would be nothing but blood to see as the outcome – might be considered acceptable by various authorities at various times.

And certainly in terms of folk medicine and real life, no matter what the Church said, people did use whatever contraceptives they could contrive to avoid having so many more mouths to feed. Ex post facto “restoration of the monthly bleeding” early in the pregnancy was considered by many to be morally more like contraception than actual murder.

Abortion, women’s health, and women’s rights in this (and any) period is a deep topic, and as a woman I’m interested in writing about it – more exploration of consequences, you see. I hope it doesn’t bother my readers too much. As I said, I’m not trying to subtly pass any messages or make any judgments here. It’s a difficult subject, and that’s why I haven’t felt strong enough as a writer to take it on until quite recently. I don’t want to trivialize the subject by making a “MOAR abortion storylines” poll, but if you have any strong feelings about this, either for or against what I’m doing here, I’m quite interested in hearing them.

The end

maria, I hope that answered your question. You see it required an understanding of my “consequence-​​based” approach to storytelling, the recent darkening of the mood, and my introduction of the themes of medieval abortion and women’s reproductive rights. This would have been a painfully long comment to read. Thanks again for giving me an occasion to think hard about what I’m doing here. :-)