I’m deep into revising the next Graceling Realm book (starring Hava), which is why I haven’t been here on the blog. It’s also why over on Twitter, mostly I’ve just been tweeting pictures of candles. I am Very Absorbed. Also, we moved to a new apartment last month. Also life. Also the pandemic and self-care. I hope you’re doing well.
Gareth Hinds’s adaptation of the Graceling graphic novel comes out in November! He’s been tweeting some lovely stuff on Twitter, and Graceling: the Graphic Novel is now available for pre-order wherever books are sold. Including at your local indie.
I’ll be back when there’s more news and/or when I have a minute for blogging, whichever comes first. Until then, leaving you with a few of my recent candles…
Just an announcement that I think I’ve successfully migrated all email subscribers to a new working email service (MailChimp). I tried my best to transfer all verified subscribers to the new list — and not to transfer any unverified subscribers. Time will tell whether this blog post goes out successfully as an email. (There’s a box in the dropdown menu on the left of my homepage for anyone who wants to subscribe to my blog posts via email.)
If there are problems with the new service, I expect I’ll realize it pretty soon, and I promise I’ll do my utmost to rectify them quickly. Apologies in advance if anything goes amiss!
In the meantime, I have another craft post planned, and a few other thinky posts too. So, more soon. Thanks for your patience with all of this, everyone!
Just a note to those readers who receive my blog post via email: The service that provides this, Feedburner, is shutting down in a couple of weeks, so I’m going to be migrating my subscribers to a new service. If you get an email from me in the next couple of weeks, please pay attention, because you may need to reconfirm your subscription with the new service!
The question I get most is: “Where do you get your ideas?”
Generally, when I’m asked this question, it’s at a book event where it’s difficult to answer, because… Well, the answer is long, and complicated, and hard to pin down, and most of the time, I don’t really remember how it happened. When an idea starts to arrive, I get to work. I’m not paying attention to how it’s happening, or how it would look to an outsider.
But — a few weeks ago, a new book idea started knocking on the door of my mind. And this time, I decided to pay attention!
What follows is probably the most detailed explanation I’ll ever give of where my ideas come from. More specifically, where this particular idea came from, because it’s not always the same. But my experience of the past few weeks has been fairly typical for me, and I’ll add that there are a few activities I need to engage in every single time, if I want an idea to take root. Namely: PATIENCE. LISTENING. And, LABOR. Book ideas require a certain honed receptiveness, and they require a LOT OF WORK.
I’m yelling because I’m trying to push back against the idea that ideas simply come to writers. Yes, some parts of ideas come to writers. But when I first get a book idea, what “comes to me” probably comprises about 0.1% of what could properly be called a book idea. Often, it’s little more than an inchoate feeling. With patience, listening, and labor, I transform the idea into something I can grasp, and work with.
I’ll add that yes, we do hear sometimes of writers whose ideas “simply came to them,” fully formed. I’m going to take a guess that (1) this doesn’t happen very often, if ever, with books that have complicated structures or plots, and (2) writers who are blessed by ideas in this way probably have a long-honed practice of receptiveness.
Anyway. Warning upfront that this may be a little unstructured, because the process is a little unstructured. It’s challenging to describe, and I’m still in the middle of it. But here’s what my last few weeks have been like.
A few weeks ago, while watching a TV show that had a certain mood/aura that’d really sucked me in, I found myself drawn to the idea of a story involving three characters. I’m not going to tell you what TV show I was watching, and I’m not going to tell you anything about my three characters, because story ideas are intensely, intensely private. The first time I say anything publicly about it will probably be years from now, if and when this book is ever scheduled for release. But let me try to explain a bit about that moment when the first glimmering of the idea appeared.
Like I said, I’d been watching a TV show when it happened. But my three characters weren’t characters in that TV show. Nor did anyone in that TV show relate to each other the way my three characters seemed to want to relate. Nor did my three characters seem to live in a world like the world of the TV show. The TV show helped to launch the idea at me because of the show’s mood and its feeling, and how much I cared about the people in it. But my idea? As is often the case, my idea came from something I saw missing in the TV show. Not missing because there was a flaw in the TV writers’ story; I loved their story! But missing (for me and possibly only me) because their story was not the story I would have told.
I think that a lot of my idea seeds come from my adoration of other people’s stories, but also from my noticing what’s missing in those stories, for me. What story I would’ve like to have seen told; what characters the story lacked.
Anyway. So this idea of these three characters came to me. But when I say “idea of these three characters,” already that sounds more substantial than it was. I knew they were three humans (or humanoids; I didn’t know what genre the story was, so they could’ve been aliens on another planet, for all I knew. In fact, I actively considered whether they might have different biology than ours). I knew they cared about each other, but I didn’t know in what way. I knew they were facing a challenge that would strain all of their relationships. I thought they might be grown-ups, but I wasn’t sure. I thought I knew at least two of their genders, but I wasn’t sure. I knew they lived in a world with magic, but I didn’t know what “magic” meant in the context of their world. I didn’t know where they lived, or when they lived (past? future? futuristic past? postindustrial future? any of about a hundred other possibilities). I knew a whole lot of things that the characters weren’t, and that the world wasn’t — which is another way of saying that my sense of what this story was was actually more defined by all the things I knew it wasn’t. (Apologies if this is vague. I’m not being intentionally vague! I’ll try for some concrete examples: I knew I didn’t want to write a story where partway through, someone suddenly discovers they have an inborn power they didn’t know they had. I knew I didn’t want to write a love triangle. There’s a certain kind of high-handed fantasy tone that I knew wasn’t right for this story. But I didn’t know what I did want yet at this point.)
Really, all I knew was that I seemed to be having an idea.
So, like a writer, I did what I needed to do:
I made space in my mind for receptiveness. (I scheduled uninterruptable alone time. I stopped listening to podcasts while I was out walking, and instead, just walked, so my mind could wander. I put aside non-urgent tasks for a while so that I didn’t have the feeling of a to-do list hanging over my head. I gave myself permission to wool-gather, to become vague and absent-minded. I set three timers any time I cooked anything so I could feel free to forget I was cooking, but also not burn the house down. I remembered to thank my husband frequently for being willing to live with a space cadet.)
I thought about what fertilizer might help the idea to grow, especially fertilizer in the form of books, TV, and movies. I put all other books, TV, and movies aside. (I kept watching that same TV show, and I also began reading almost exclusively one writer who had a narrative tone — and also subject matter — that helped me sustain a mood that felt concurrent with the mood of my own idea. Why does this kind of intake help? It keeps my mind in a story space, while also giving me something to bounce my own ideas off of. It’s a kind of reading, or watching, that involves a state of constant interactivity and reactivity. Everything I’m consuming becomes about something else that I’m looking for. It’s difficult to explain, maybe because it gets back to that inexplicable moment when new ideas form.)
I made sure that every single time I had any new thoughts relating to my idea, I wrote them down. (This meant making reminders on my phone; sending strings of emails to myself; choosing a notebook where I began to jot things down; sending texts to myself on my husband’s phone, if his phone was closer to hand than mine.)
I looked at my schedule to give myself a sense of if and when I might have a few days soon to put my current writing project aside and give some true, devoted time to this new idea. (I was, and still am, in the middle of revisions of the next Graceling Realm book when this happened, and that was, and still is, my absolute first priority. As exciting and intense as a new idea can be, it can’t unseat me from my current object of devotion.)
By chance, last week, I did in fact have some time away from my revision while it was briefly with my editor. I was able to devote an entire week to the new book idea. So, next, I’ll try to describe what a week of intense idea-gathering looks like for me! (Though I should say that this will differ from book to book. It’s been pretty clear to me from the beginning that this new idea is going to be slow to grow — planning this book will take way more than a week. In contrast, last fall, I found myself with a new and sudden book idea that coincided with the end of another project, so I had some free time and was able to sit down and hammer out the entire book plan, which took only a few days. I think this is because that book was shorter and less emotionally complicated than this new book will be, and was set in a less complex world. Also, at the time, I was absolutely thrumming with the adrenaline and momentum of having just finished a writing project, so book-planning became a way to channel that energy. Often these processes are subject to whatever else is going on in my life.)
So. My week of intense idea-gathering looked a lot like what I’ve already described — reading, watching TV, but now also with long hours of sitting staring at a blank page and/or lying on my back staring at the ceiling — but with a more specific goal. Namely, I was trying to figure out what my main questions were. For me, every book starts (and continues, as I write) with an extremely long list of questions that I’m trying to find the answers to, but it takes work to figure out what the questions are. The questions can be very different from book to book. And it’s essential, at the beginning, to identify what the main questions are.
When I’m first idea-gathering, I use very short notebooks in which I scribble down all my random thoughts as they come (I like using these twenty-page notebooks from Laughing Elephant, because they’re short enough not to feel intimidatingly important). Then I have one longer, thicker notebook which is for my more coherent thoughts — my more serious book planning. During my week of active idea-gathering, I came up with the following list of major questions, worthy of being written down in my thick, “serious” planning notebook:
What is magic?
How does bad human behavior manifest in this world? (for real *)
Where/what culture does each of them come from? What family?
How is society governed?
Who is each of them — as a person and as a power manifestation?
How is the narrative positioned?
What is the plot?
How do humans relate to the rest of the natural world?
What is gender? (for real *)
* and by societal definition
So. I’m not sure how closely you looked at those questions — but they are pretty gigantic questions! It took me a week to identify all of them. It’s going to take me much, much longer to answer them. Which goes back to my point that ideas don’t just “come to me.” The merest seed of an idea might come to me, and after that, I make the space, and do the work.
As I began to hammer out my questions, I continued to read, watch things, and wool-gather, but with more intense focus. Because now I was also trying to answer these questions as they came. It was interesting to observe the order in which I began to find the answers. Not surprisingly, probably since my novels tend to be character-based, it was the character-based questions that drew me in first. “What is gender” in particular, because I have a sense that in this story, my characters’ relationships to gender are absolutely integral to who they are, and I can’t get very far with a book plan if I don’t know who my characters are. I also started to gather some clues about their personalities and their strengths. Enough that after a couple of days, I got to the point where I suddenly knew I needed their names. Names ground everything, and they can also change some things; at a certain point, I can’t make any further progress without names. I spent one entire day last week mostly just trying to figure out three people’s names. Once I had the names, I was able to return to my questions.
Then, not too long after that, a moment arose where I knew, again quite suddenly, that what I needed next was at least the broad strokes of a plot. If I’m a little scornful about the concept of inspiration — because it’s a concept that dismisses how hard I work! — I do believe in intuition, and also in experience. Intuition and experience told me that I’d reached the point in my planning where the needs of my plot would hold the answer to a lot of my other questions. Like, how this place is governed; what constitutes bad behavior; and even some character things, like what culture each of my characters is from. Sometimes, once you know what needs to happen in a story, it becomes easier to picture the structure of your world. Because a plot comes with needs; once a plot exists, it limits some of your other options. For example, let’s say your plot involves a particular kind of government-based corruption. Well, thinking about that corruption will probably start to show you some of your options for the structure of the government. Once you know the structure of the government, you might begin to understand who holds governmental power — which can lead to answers about how families are structured. Which can lead to answers about culture, which can lead to answers about the societal definition of bad behavior, etc.
So. I reached the point where I needed at least a sense of my plot. But: plotting is a HUGE job. I knew it wasn’t something I could do in just a few days, and at this point I also knew that I was going to need to return to my revision soon. So, intuition told me that it was time to stop. Not stop being receptive; not necessarily stop reading or watching the helpful things; not stop sending myself emails, texts, and reminders; but stop trying to make any real, meaty, major progress on this book idea. I needed to save the job of plotting for when I next had a stretch of uninterrupted worktime. Maybe another free week or two somewhere, between other projects.
So, I did some final organizing of my notebook. I transferred things into it from other notebooks and I designating a huge number of empty pages in it for future plot thoughts and future character thoughts. I did this even though in this book, as in most of my books, I sense that character and plot will ultimately end up being the same thing, so it’s not going to matter much which thoughts I file where. (In other words, most of my plot is going to spring from who my characters are, and many of my characters will spring from the needs of the plot.) But at this messy stage in planning, it’s important to me to feel organized. The illusion of organization stops me from feeling as overwhelmed as I probably should be feeling. So I label things, and delude myself that I can contain this messy process inside a nice neat notebook 😊.
I organized my notebook, and then I put it aside. Today I’m still open to thoughts about my new book idea, but it’s not my entire worklife anymore… it’s more of a promise for the future. It’ll probably be good to have it simmering on the back burner for a while. I’ll be able to approach it with a new freshness when I sit down with it again one day.
So. I’m not sure how satisfyingly I’ve answered the question “Where do you get your ideas?” After all, this idea is still very much in progress. I figured out a lot of stuff last week, but mostly what I figured out is a long list of all the things I don’t know yet. There will be many, many more workweeks to go before I’ll be able to claim that I truly have an idea for a book.
But this is my best shot at an answer to the question of where my ideas come from! I guess the point I want to convey is this: I don’t necessarily believe in inspiration. But I believe that sometimes a writer will start to get the merest sense of a story that’s missing from the world, and find herself wanting to write that story. At that point, if circumstance allows her the time and space to enter a state that is extremely internally-focused and possibly involves a lot of intake (reading, watching other stories), or if not that, at least an extreme level of sensitivity and receptiveness, of seeing, of listening… And if she puts in the work… her idea-seed will start to take root, and grow into a real, workable idea that might one day be the beginnings of a book!
And of course, every writer does this differently. Many writers don’t plan or plot ahead of time. They figure out the idea as they write. So there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is one of my favorite books, and also one of the best books ever written. It is a masterpiece.
It’s also extremely sad, and happens to be about deadly epidemics. So I’ll start by saying that depending on what you’ve experienced in the past year, this may not be the book for you right now. Alternately, it might be exactly the book for you right now. I think it depends on whether and how much you’re grieving, whether you’ve been traumatized, and whether it helps you, as you process, to share those feelings with people inside a book. For me, this can be a touch-and-go sort of question… When is a book comforting, and when is it exacerbating my difficult feelings? I’ve read this book before, so I knew what I was getting into last week when I sat down to reread it. For me, it helped me access, and settle, my own overwhelmed, confused feelings from the last year. But I say that as a person who is not a COVID nurse or doctor and has not lost a loved one to COVID-19. I am, however, a person with PTSD. As such, I’d advise that if you’ve been spending anxious time at someone’s sickbed — or not been allowed to spend time at their sickbed, only allowed to imagine it — or if you’re one of the overworked caregivers — this might be a book to save for another time. Among other things, it contains a lot of graphic descriptions of human sickness and suffering. It also puts you inside the head of a character who’s gradually being traumatized by the sadness and death around her. Please spare yourself, if that’s not a good headspace for you right now. (This post, on the other hand, will contain no graphic descriptions, and I don’t linger on the trauma.)
I’ll also say that, maybe moreso than the other posts in my craft series, this post will contain some plot spoilers. Not all the plot spoilers! Willis does some excellent weaving that creates surprises for the reader I won’t reveal. But it’s impossible to talk about this book without revealing some important plot points. If you don’t want to know, stop reading now. (If you’re undecided, I can say that it’s thrilling reading even if you know what’s going to happen.)
First, a little background: The conceit of Connie Willis’s time travel books (each of which is wonderful) is that in the mid-twenty-first century, historians in Oxford, England conduct fieldwork by traveling back in time to observe other eras. This is not the kind of time travel story we’re all used to in which the plot hinges on the time traveler changing the course of history, or the story getting wound up in complicated paradoxes. The “net,” which is the machine that makes time travel possible in this book, doesn’t allow time travel that will alter the course of history. And though some of Willis’s other time travel books do deal with the paradox issue (sometimes hilariously), that’s not the point of Doomsday Book. This is a different kind of time travel book.
In Doomsday Book, Kivrin, a young Oxford historian in December 2054, is set to travel back to the Oxfordshire of December 1320, to observe the lives of the locals at Christmas in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, on the very day of Kivrin’s travel, a new influenza virus arises in 2054 Oxford, and the tech responsible for running Kivrin’s travel coordinates (or, “getting the fix”), Badri Chaudhuri, falls ill. He doesn’t know he’s ill — no one knows Badri is ill — until it’s too late. In the disorientation of his illness, Badri gets the coordinates jumbled, and Kivrin is accidentally sent to December 1348 — which is when the bubonic plague reached Oxfordshire. The circumstances of Kivrin’s passage ensure that it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get her back to 2054. Kivrin is trapped.
The novel then alternates between 2054/55, where a frightening new influenza epidemic is arising, and 1348, where Kivrin is gradually coming to realize what’s about to befall the people around her. Connecting the two timelines is an Oxford historian named Mr. Dunworthy, a deeply caring and pessimistic man who is desperately trying to figure out how to rescue Kivrin from her accidental fate, and bring her back to 2054/55. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to keep referring to the future timeline as 2054 from this point on, even though the year turns to 2055 partway through the novel.)
Incidentally, that plot twist I just casually revealed — the one where it turns out Kivrin is in the year 1348 instead of 1320 — isn’t revealed to the reader until page 384. Willis’s slow and brilliant pacing, her careful, drawn out reveal of the horror that has happened and the horror that’s coming, is one of the magnificent accomplishments of this book. It’s not what I’m planning to talk about today, though. In truth, I could write a long series of craft posts about “Things a Writer Could Learn from Doomsday Book.” But today I’m going to single out one of the things I took from my latest reading: namely, her construction of parallel characters in separate timelines.
All page references are to the 1992 Bantam Books mass-market edition, though I’ve also listened to the 2008 Recorded Books audiobook narrated by Jenny Sterling, which is excellent (and deliciously long!).
Before I dive deep into Willis’s construction of parallel characters, I want to speak more generally about the potential for parallels — echoes — inside a book, when that book takes place in multiple timelines. Many books do take place in more than one timeline, of course, whether or not they involve time travel! And there’s so much you can do with that kind of structure. As you can imagine, life in Oxfordshire in 1348 is dramatically different from life in Oxford in 2054. But Willis weaves so many parallels into these two stories, big and small things, connecting them deftly, and showing us that some things never really change. I suppose the most obvious parallel in this particular book is the rise of disease. The less obvious is some of the fallout that follows the rise of disease, no matter the era: denial; fanaticism; racism and other prejudices; isolationism; depression and despair; depletion of supplies (yes, they are running out of toilet paper in 2054). She also sets these timelines in the same physical location, the Oxfords and Oxfordshires of 1348 and 2054 — the same towns, the same churches. Some of the physical objects from 1348 still exist in 2054. She sets both stories at Christmas, and we see that some of the traditions are the same. She also weaves the most beautiful web between timelines using bells, bellringers, and the significance of the sound of bells tolling.
Simply by creating two timelines, then establishing that some objects, structures, and activities are the same and that some human behaviors are the same across the timelines, she can go on and tell two divergent plots, yet create echoes between them. These echoes give the book an internal resonance. (Are you starting to appreciate why it was so thematically smart for her to bring bells to the forefront of her story?) They also give the book a sense of timelessness. It becomes one of those masterworks that presents the best and worst of humanity in all times, for the reader to see and recognize. Epidemics lay us bare. In all times, people are bound by the limitations of their scientific knowledge. In all times, people (the good ones and the bad ones) struggle to find a bearable framework, a way to conceive of the horrors without succumbing to despair. And in all times, some people respond with kindness and generosity, working themselves to the bone in order to help others; and some people allow their fear to turn them into selfish, craven, unfeeling hypocrites, striking out at others in defense of themselves. By letting these echoes ring across the timelines of her book, Connie Willis captures her themes magnificently.
And now I’m going to focus on the echoes in her character-building: on the way she creates characters who are unique individuals, yet who strike the reader with extra force because of the ways they parallel each other across time. I’ll offer a range of examples. Some are small, isolated moments in which characters from 1348 and 2054 perform similar activities. Some are people who have similar attitudes or spirits, even as they perform different roles. Most of them are loose parallels, drawn with a light touch. One of the parallels is quite clear and deep, two people who are characteristically similar, to the point where you feel like one could practically be the 2054 version of the other. This is one of Connie Willis’s special skills: she draws her parallels lightly in some places, heavily in others, never hamfisted, none of them tied too tightly, all of them open to interpretation, and all of them reaching for her larger, more timeless themes about what it means to be human.
Smaller Parallel Moments
I’ll start with a few moments that are brief, but also plainly deliberate.
Here’s one: There’s a moment when Agnes, a five-year-old girl from 1348, tries to feed hay to the cow, but is clearly afraid of the cow. First she holds the hay out “a good meter from the cow’s mouth” (304), then she throws the hay at the cow and runs to safety behind Kivrin’s back.
Skip ahead to page 551, where Colin Templer, a twelve-year-old boy from 2054, is trying to feed a horse. He offers “the horse a piece of grass from a distance of several feet. The starving animal lunged at it and Colin jumped back, dropping it” (551).
Moments like this are brief and might seem insignificant, but they do a lot of heavy lifting in the text. This particular parallel is funny, but also sad, because while Colin Templer is one of this book’s bright gifts to the reader — he’s incorrigible, he’s funny, he lives — by the time we see him feeding that horse, Agnes has died of the plague.
Here’s another detail that resonates within the book, and will also resonate with present-day readers: Both in 1348 and 2054, people with medical knowledge implore laypeople to please, please, put on their masks. (This happens here and there, but see pages 345 and 440 for a couple examples across timelines.)
And here’s one last small behavioral parallel: In 2054 Oxford, Mr. Dunworthy’s assistant, Mr. Finch, is stuck caring for a team of American bellringers trapped in the Oxford quarantine. The bellringers, who start out as pretty annoying characters, gradually begin to endear themselves to Finch (and to the reader), and Finch begins to practice bellringing with them. He gains a true appreciation for how heavy the bells are and how challenging the art of bellringing is. Then we see the bellringers begin to come down with the influenza, and cease to be able to ring their bells (Chapters 21 and 24).
At the very end of the book, this is echoed when Kivrin, still in 1348, is trying to toll the church bell to send the souls of the dead to heaven, and Mr. Dunworthy, who’s traveled back in time to find her, is trying to help her. She’s injured. He’s having an influenza relapse. Between them, they can barely manage it (pages 566-567). The physical challenges of bellringing connect across time.
Broader Character Parallels
There are also some broader parallels drawn between characters, especially between characters’ roles in their respective pandemics. For example: In Oxford 2054, Dr. Mary Ahrens is at the head of the effort to locate the source of the influenza, sequence it, and find a vaccine. She cares for her patients tirelessly. Her 1348 parallel is Father Roche, who of course has none of her scientific knowledge, but has a similar fervent devotion to helping other people. Roche hardly sleeps in his efforts to care for his parishioners as they fall sick with the plague.
The reader cares deeply for both of these characters, probably because of their tireless competence and their selfless dedication to other people. When first, Dr. Ahrens dies of the influenza, and then, Father Roche dies of the plague, it is, at least for this reader, the book’s most heartbreaking echo.
I’ll note that one of the things that makes this parallel so effective is that it doesn’t map perfectly. Dr. Ahrens and Father Roche are drastically different in their approaches — one is pure science and one pure religious faith — and also, they aren’t each other’s only character parallels. Kivrin, too, tirelessly cares for the plague victims in 1348, with a lot more scientific knowledge than Father Roche has. In 2054, many different kinds of doctors and nurses are caring for lots of patients, in lots of different ways. Twelve-year-old Colin is also caring for people, in his cheerful and forthright way. Mr. Dunworthy’s overburdened and tireless assistant, Mr. Finch, is constantly in the background of the 2054 timeline, moving mountains to turn college halls into infirmaries, find food and supplies for everyone stuck in quarantine, and care for the American bellringers. A lot of varying people step up to become caretakers, differing from each other and paralleling each other in all kinds of fluid and inexact ways.
Also, the book is chock-full of characters who don’t necessarily map onto parallels with anyone, but have other important functions in the book. In 2054, a young Oxford student named William is having liaisons with practically every female nurse and student in the quarantine perimeter. Also in 2054, archaeologist Lupe Montoya is excavating a historic site nearby. A secret love story is unfolding between a married woman named Eliwys and her husband’s servant, Gawyn, in 1348. Also in 1348, Rosemund, Agnes’s twelve-year-old sister, is struggling with her obligation to marry a leering older man. All of this character development matters, but often for purposes other than creating echoes and resonance.
When done well, this kind of layered, complicated character development — some characters paralleling others, some not, and each character having more than one function in the text — goes a long way toward making a fictional world feel real. It also allows the author to touch on themes without beating them to death. And yet, sometimes this kind of light touch is one of the hardest things for a writer to achieve. In my experience as a writer who often writes complicated plots, it isn’t until later drafts of a book, when my structure is more solidly in place, that I finally have the space to sit back, breathe, and look for places where I can create little connections, or spots where I’m pushing a theme too hard.
Deeper Parallels: Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne
There’s one character parallel in this book that I find to be drawn with a heavier pen, and appropriately so.
In 2054, Mr. Gilchrist is the acting head of the History Faculty. Self-important, self-righteous, ignorant about how time travel works, and focused on his own glory, he supervises Kivrin’s travel to the Middle Ages with little care for Kivrin’s safety. Ultimately, it’s largely Mr. Gilchrist’s fault that Kivrin ends up in such a dangerous and traumatizing place, and gets stuck there.
When Gilchrist’s culpability becomes clear, he blames and threatens everyone else. For example, when the tech, Badri, collapses onto the net consul, clearly ill, Gilchrist decides, out of nowhere, that Badri must be a drug user. Here’s the way he talks (to Mr. Dunworthy): “You can’t wait to inform [actual head of the History Faculty] Basingame of what you perceive to be Mediaeval’s failure, can you?… In spite of the fact that it was your tech who has jeopardized this drop by using drugs, a fact of which you may be sure I will inform Mr. Basingame on his return…. I’m certain Mr. Basingame will also be interested in hearing that it was your failure to have your tech screened that’s resulted in this drop being jeopardized…. It seems distinctly odd that after being so concerned about the precautions Mediaeval was taking that you wouldn’t take the obvious precaution of screening your tech for drugs…” (64-65). Agh. Every time he opens his mouth, he says something pompous, repetitive, obnoxious, and untrue.
In 1348, Lady Imeyne is part of the household where Kivrin ends up living. Self-important, self-righteous, sanctimonious, selfish, and ignorant, she ignores the imprecations of wiser people, and, for the sake of her own status, invites visitors to the household — who turn out to be carrying the plague. It is essentially Lady Imeyne’s doing that the plague comes to her town.
When this becomes clear, Lady Imeyne blames everyone else. While others in the household are working themselves to exhaustion trying to care for the sick, she kneels in the corner, ignoring the need for help, and praying. “Your sins have brought this,” she tells her daughter-in-law Eliwys, the one who’s in love with her own husband’s servant (432). Later, she turns on kind, patient Father Roche. “You have brought this sickness,” she says. “It is your sins have brought the sickness here.” Then she begins to list his sins: “He said the litany for Martinmas on St. Eusebius’s Day. His alb is dirty…. He put the candles out by pinching them and broke the wicks” (444).
“She’s trying to justify her own guilt,” Kivrin thinks. “She can’t bear the knowledge that she helped bring the plague here”… But Kivrin can’t summon up any pity. “You have no right to blame Roche, she thought, he has done everything he can. And you’ve knelt in a corner and prayed.” (444-445). Similarly, Mr. Dunworthy sees right through Mr. Gilchrist, even at one point considering him Kivrin’s murderer (484).
Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne are UNBEARABLE. They’re the characters in this book that you most hate, or at least that I do — maybe especially in 2020/21, when we’re plagued in real life by dangerous people like them. Later, in possibly the book’s most satisfying moment, we learn that Gilchrist has died of the influenza. The book doesn’t revel in his death; none of the characters revel. But I sure do. Good riddance, you harmful, self-important, lying hypocrite. This is one of fiction’s safe spaces: the intense, guilt-free satisfaction of an asshole being punished.
Similarly, Lady Imeyne dies of the plague. It’s a relief. But it’s also a bit harder to revel, because with the exception of Kivrin, who’s immune, every character in the 1348 timeline dies of the plague. Every single character. It is so desperately sad, not least because it’s exactly what happened in 1348. As the book reminds us repeatedly, entire towns were wiped out. There was no one left to toll the bells, or bury the dead. No one is left but Kivrin. Our hearts break for her.
I’m glad that Connie Willis teases out the parallel between Mr. Gilchrist and Lady Imeyne more than she does with a lot of the other character parallels. I think it’s important; I think that these two characters embody a clear and recognizable type of human who will always exist in eras of human suffering. I’m relieved she kills them; and I’m relieved she doesn’t kill everyone we love. In particular, she doesn’t kill Mr. Dunworthy and she doesn’t kill Kivrin… Which leads me to one last powerful character parallel in this book.
Mr. Dunworthy and Kivrin, God and Jesus
This character parallel is in a different category from the others. It doesn’t stretch across the 1348 and 2054 timelines, or not exactly, anyway. It exists on a different plane: It’s a parallel between the story of Mr. Dunworthy and Kivrin, and the story of God sending his son, Jesus, down to earth to live among humans.
The people of 1348 believe the story of God sending his son down to earth. They believe it literally; it’s one of their guiding principles. Kivrin, Mr. Dunworthy, and many of the people of 2054 do not believe that story in the literal sense. Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy don’t believe in God.
And yet, there are times when the vocal recordings Kivrin is making for historical purposes begin to sound like pleas to God: “Over fifty percent of the village has it. Please don’t let Eliwys get it. Or Roche” (467). “You bastard! I will not let you take her. She’s only a child. But that’s your specialty, isn’t it? Slaughtering the innocents? You’ve already killed the steward’s baby and Agnes’s puppy and the boy who went for help when I was in the hut, and that’s enough. I won’t let you kill her, too, you son of a bitch! I won’t let you!” (493).
And Father Roche, who finally reveals to Kivrin that on the day she arrived, he saw the net open and Kivrin appear, believes with all his heart that Kivrin is a saint, sent by God to help his parishioners in their time of need. “I feared that God would forsake us utterly,” he says, as he’s dying. “But in His great mercy He did not… But sent His saint unto us.” He says, “Yet have you saved me… From fear.… And unbelief” (542-543). He means what he says. Kivrin’s ministrations to the sick and to Roche do save him from despair.
And back in the Oxford of 2054, Dunworthy lies sick in his hospital bed, considering Kivrin, whom he’s sent to a terrible place. As a rather unbearable character named Mrs. Gaddson stands at his bedside “helpfully” reading him Bible verses, Dunworthy thinks to himself, “God didn’t know where His Son was…. He had sent His only begotten Son into the world, and something had gone wrong with the fix, someone had turned off the net, so that He couldn’t get to him, and they had arrested him and put a crown of thorns on his head and nailed him to a cross…. Kivrin would have no idea what had happened. She would think she had the wrong place or the wrong time, that she had lost count of the days somehow during the plague, that something had gone wrong with the drop. She would think they had forsaken her” (475).
I love the questions these moments raise for the reader. Who represents what here? What is God, really? Why, when Badri became ill, did the net send Kivrin to that particular time? Who, or what, are we talking to, when we shout our fury to the universe? Maybe Mr. Dunworthy, sending historians into the past from his lab in Oxford, is a kind of god. And maybe Kivrin is a kind of Jesus, or a kind of saint. Maybe Father Roche has the right idea when he believes what he believes, even if he has some of the particulars wrong.
Near the very end, Kivrin speaks into her recorder addressing Mr. Dunworthy: “It’s strange. When I couldn’t find the drop and the plague came, you seemed so far away I would not ever be able to find you again. But I know now that you were here all along, and that nothing, not the Black Death nor seven hundred years, nor death nor things to come nor any other creature could ever separate me from your caring and concern. It was with me every minute” (544).
And then, with great difficulty, Mr. Dunworthy comes for Kivrin. He finds her in 1348, heartbroken and surrounded by the dead, and he brings her back home. “I knew you’d come,” Kivrin says (578). There’s a way in which the justified faith of these characters — Father Roche’s faith in God’s saint Kivrin, and Kivrin’s faith in Mr. Dunworthy’s care — show the reader that even in the darkest, most death-ridden times, love doesn’t forsake us.
That’s a pretty timeless theme.
If you’ve made it to the end of my post about character parallels in Connie Willis’s magnificent Doomsday Book, I hope I’ve given you a sense of what a powerful tool this can be. It’s pretty closely related to some of my other writing lessons here on the blog. Creating webs like Tiffany D. Jackson did in Monday’s Not Coming; creating connections like Victor LaValle did in The Changeling. Writing is often about finding the internal connections that’ll best support the themes of the story you’re trying to tell. I think that especially if your book takes place in multiple timelines, character parallels can go a long way!
Usually I end my craft posts with a photo showing the book filled with post-it flags from my careful rereading, but this time around, I reread by listening to the audiobook. My paper copy is flag-free — but I took eight pages of notes while I was listening! So here’s a different photo of my process.
Today I finished a draft of a brand-new writing project. I started it on December 14, which means that I wrote it faster than I’ve ever written anything. And though I already know a lot of its revision needs, and though the draft isn’t really done (because I still have to transcribe an entire notebook of handwritten scribbles), and though I’m feeling that unsettled sense of not being sure yet where I’m going with it… And though I expect it to be a while before I can focus on it again… I feel hopeful about its potential.
I’ve recently (maybe in the past year or so) entered a writing pocket that I call Less Angst. I don’t think my writing is any better or worse than it ever was, but I’m enjoying the work more, and worrying about it less. I can probably list a lot of reasons for this, but I suspect the biggest factor is experience. The feelings of doubt and worry, anxiety because the book isn’t right yet, uncertainty about how many attempts it will take to get it right… Those feelings have become so deeply familiar to me over the years. I think their familiarity is finally making them easier companions. They don’t rock me the way they once did. It’s really nice. And maybe this is temporary; maybe I’m in a sweet spot; but I’ll take it while it lasts. 😊
In other news, the release of Winterkeep went so very well, and now it’s possible to watch videos of all my virtual book events online. Here are the links:
I’m also delighted to announce that with the release of Winterkeep, the Graceling Realm hit both the Indie series bestseller list and the NYT series bestseller list, for which I am very grateful. 😍
Finally, these days, most of my announcements and musings take place over on Twitter, which means that readers of the blog may be missing things… And I feel it’s imperative that none of you miss being introduced to my writing companion, February Spiffington. I made him myself, using this sewing kit. Of course I substituted blue felt for his body, because naturally, like all Keepish foxes, he is not red, but blue.
There’s still time to register for my virtual book events happening today and tomorrow. For those of you who receive my blog post as emails, your email got weirdly cut off yesterday right before all the event information. You also missed some photos of my notebooks while I was writing Winterkeep. Sorry about that. For event details and to catch up on what you missed, please visit yesterday’s post on my Blog Actual! https://kristincashore.com/winterkeep-ish-stuff-for-release-week/
Winterkeep is now out in the world, and can be purchased at your favorite book retailer. I am happy for you to buy the book wherever you prefer, but do keep indie retailers bookshop.org, Libro.fm, and Kobo in mind!
I have two more virtual events to round off book release week, and you’re invited. The first is Sunday at 5PM ET (2PM PT), with Malinda Lo, moderated by Tui Sutherland, and presented by Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego. The nice thing about this event is that Malinda, Tui, and I are all in the same book group. So we’re used to getting together to talk about books. Just not usually our own books! Of course, our last eleven meetings have been virtual, but normally, the group meets in one of the homes of our lovely members. If I were hosting book group in January, I would have a fire roaring in the fireplace… So I’m going to light a fire for Sunday’s event.
It’s free to join us, but you do need to register ahead of time. Also, note that though I’m not personalizing books via my local indie during the pandemic, you can purchase books through this event and get signed or personalized bookplates. But you need to do so pretty soon, so if you’re interested, follow the links! Instructions for ordering are here.
My final event, on Monday at 6PM ET, will be a conversation with my agent Faye Bender, moderated by editor Andrew Karre, who is my new editor! So this conversation will certainly involve some publishing talk. This event is hosted by Books & Books and the Miami Book Fair. This event is free, but you do need to register ahead of time.
Finally, for those of you not on Twitter, I’ll share some pictures of my Winterkeep-writing process. Here’s a drawing I made on November 10, 2013, while I was planning this book while on a writing trip in Akureyri, Iceland. At the time, I’m pretty sure I imagined that this picture encapsulated the entire plot of the book. (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers! Especially since most of the stuff didn’t make it into the final draft…)
Next up, here’s a picture from the first page of my first draft, started on April 21, 2014. I wanted to share this because at the top, I’ve written, “I am writing a book and today I will write 2 pages.” That’s something I learned from Linda Sue Park, who gave a speech about writing once years ago in which she talked about the emotional weight of trying to make progress through such a long and gigantic project. You don’t sit down thinking to yourself, “I need to write this entire book.” You sit down thinking to yourself, “today I will write two pages.” When Linda Sue said those words, it changed my writing life. So much pressure disappeared! (By the way, if you enjoy seeing pictures of my notebook, you might like the detailed post I wrote about writing Bitterblue.) (Oh! And if you read that post, then read the writing carefully below, you will notice that ONCE AGAIN, I tried to write an earthquake into a book. Like the earthquake in Bitterblue, this Winterkeep earthquake did not make it through to the final draft. Why am I obsessed with earthquakes?)
Finally, years later — almost 3 years ago, in February of 2018 — I was far along in the writing process, but I still hadn’t figured out what this place was called, what this book was called, what the undersea beast was called…. At a writing retreat with friends, I kidnapped this gigantic easel notepad thingamajig and started writing down possibilities. Everyone voted. You’ll note that “Winterkeep” isn’t even on this list (though some pretty silly things are; I wrote down every possibility, no matter how bad), but you’ll also see that I was getting pretty close to “Winterkeep!” I don’t remember exactly, but I must have come up with “Winterkeep” while we were at dinner one night, and everyone agreed it was the winner. (For a while after that, I was calling the book Winter Keeper, but when it came time to decide for sure, my team at Penguin decided to go with Winterkeep, so that the title would line up nicely with the other single-word Graceling Realm titles.)
And that’s my Winterkeep update for today! I hope we’ll get to see you at one of my upcoming events!
Hi, everyone. In the midst of all this difficult news, Winterkeep is about to be released. So it’s time to share the dates and details of my virtual tour events. If you’re looking for a happy escape from all that’s going on — and let’s face it, probably some conversation about how books help us absorb/understand/frame current events — please join us! I’m going to be talking to a lot of super interesting people: Author and podcaster Sarah Enni. Authors Malinda Lo and Tui Sutherland. Agent Faye Bender and editor Andrew Karre.
Next, on Sunday, January 24 at 2PM PST (5PM EST), Malinda Lo & I will talk about Winterkeep and Malinda’s beautiful new release, Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Our conversation will be moderated by Wings of Fire author Tui Sutherland. You can probably expect some craft talk! This event is hosted by Mysterious Galaxy. Details and registration here: https://www.mystgalaxy.com/cashorelo124
All events can be attended virtually for free. If you’re purchasing a book as part of your registration, limited signatures and personalizations are available in some cases, so please do check the details.