25 July 2012

Setting & the Importance of Place - Mauritius

Image courtesy of D33p1x, Creative Commons, Flickr
This is the first of a number of posts dealing with setting and the importance of place - and with the specific settings that appear in The Adventures of Henry Innes.  I begin with Mauritius because it is the setting I am writing about at the moment.

In the genre of realistic historical fiction, setting is a crucial element.  There are genres in which you can dispense with setting almost entirely, but historical fiction is not one of them.  Fans of the genre demand not only a realistic setting, but also one interwoven believably with the plot and characterization.  This does not mean that the setting needs to be described in intricate detail.  What historical fiction fans look for is authenticity.  This is a tall order:  for the writer, it means your characters must seem like real people, behaving in believable ways in a place that was real.

In the second novel of The Adventures of Henry Innes, called The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, my protagonist finds himself  on the island of Mauritius.  It's January of 1790, and although the inhabitants of this French colony have heard rumors of tumultuous goings-on in France, they have yet to receive any official notification of the outbreak of the French Revolution.  For Henry and his fellow travelers, Mauritius is another unexpected port of call during a long, eventful voyage to India. 

In the case of Mauritius - which will be featured in more than one Henry Innes novel - political complexities are only one layer of what I call "setting."  The political background of Henry's stay on Mauritius is itself rooted in a peculiar historical and socio-economic context - the Anglo-French rivalry in the region, the French Revolution, and so forth.  This larger context pervades the story, since it is central to understanding the long-term conflict into which Henry is being drawn, and some of the key figures in that on-going battle.  But all this is abstract, and could be conveyed by means of dialogue and simple narrative.  Conjuring into being the Mauritius of 222 years ago requires a lot more than a thumbnail understanding of history and politics.

Today, the majority of Mauritians are of Indian descent, but in 1790, the majority of the population was African or Malagasy, consisting mostly of slaves brought by the French to labor on the sugar plantations.  One estimate is that African captives comprised 83 percent of the population of Mauritius.  Clearly, if one represents the Mauritius of Henry Innes's time accurately, one must portray a society with a different ethnic balance than one finds today.  However, contemporary accounts suggest that the culture of late-18th century Mauritius was strongly influenced by India, partly because of the prevalence of Indian servants and traders in Port-Louis and other towns, but also because most European residents either had come to the island from India, or had extensive business dealings with South Asian markets.  Slave culture was fractured and suppressed, finding new outlets in the selective adoption of a Creole French language, Sega music and dance, and a Franco-Indian material culture.

A French map of Mauritius, c. 1791
Writing about the Mauritius of 1790, for me, meant trying to comprehend the social dynamics and physical realities of a "tropical paradise" that was - beneath its verdant surface - one of the most deadly working environments in history.  In 1787 there were 33,832 slaves on Bourbon (Reunion) and Mauritius according to Richard B Allen (Slaves, Freemen, and Indentured Laborers in Colonial Mauritius).  However, during this same period some 3,000 slaves were being landed annually.  The slave population increased to 49,080 in 1797, an increase of 15,248 since 1787.  However, during that period approximately 30,000 slaves were imported.  These numbers point to an unusual demographic situation - large numbers of relatively young people dying early and failing (or refusing) to reproduce. 

In fact, this was a demographic trend that continued on Mauritius even after the gradual abolition of slavery in the 1830s.  As slaves left the plantations, indentured workers were imported from India and - to a lesser extent - from China, although conditions on the European-owned farms remained hellish.  Year after year, the number of deaths almost equaled the number of births, growth rates suppressed by endemic malaria, in particular.  However, the island also suffered serious population setbacks until about 1919, mostly due to tropical storms, subsequent starvation, and outbreaks of disease, which could double, even triple the normal, already high death rate.  There is no reason to believe that these conditions, carefully recorded in the 19th century, did not also exist in the late 18th century. 

Understanding demography was just the beginning of my quest for the real Mauritius of 1790.  Although the colonial regime regulated slavery, punishing slave-owners for illegal "abuses," thousands of captive laborers died on the island's plantations.  To comprehend this, I decided to find out why, exactly, working on a sugar plantation was so deadly.  I did this by reading a guide to plantation management written by a sugar plantation manager who had worked in the West Indies in the 1780s.  This book helped me realize that large-scale sugar-growing and processing was really an industrial enterprise, involving long hours of brutally noisy, sweaty, dirty labor constantly surrounded by razor-sharp canes, crushing iron gears, raging fires, and the incessant swing and slash of machetes.  As this research progressed, the sugar plantation described in The Voyage of the Trade's Increase became real to me.  Having seen for myself how hard agricultural and industrial workers toiled in India, I could imagine the level of exploitation that existed in early colonial Mauritius.  I also had an opportunity to visit the rural Hawaiian islands - remarkably similar to Mauritius in some ways - where I saw for myself the environmental and social impact of sugar planting and colonialism. 

Port-Louis waterfront, c. 1835
Sometimes you have to make decisions about how you want to deal with a subject like slavery.  In my novel, I opted to establish a mood - a pervasive feeling of fragility, the tension of a world that could fall apart, so easily, at any moment.  Given the history of slavery on Mauritius, it would be easy to create a stereotypical, mean white planter and a barbaric overseer.  I decided not to do that.  Instead, I researched a family of landowners in order to come up with a plantation manager who would be a sympathetic character - someone readers could relate to.  Marie Lamont, a resourceful spinster and planter, exploits the slaves in her charge like any other colonial capitalist, but also tries to protect them - from desperate slave rebels on the one hand, who raid isolated farms like hers, and also from the authorities, who have passed laws so draconian that it is almost impossible for a freed slave to find work and survive.  Marie is not a character I expect readers to admire - at least not at first.  She is aware of the moral implications of what she is doing, and she is trying to do the least harm in an impossible situation.  It will take her time to realize that she must make a choice. When she finally reaches the tipping-point, however, the stakes are much higher - to do the right thing, she must herself face the guillotine. 

The plantation in my story is fictitious, although loosely based on a real place.  It is situated (in my imagination) just east of Chamarel Falls - also called Tamarin Falls - the dramatic waterfall depicted above, at the beginning of this post.  The plantation house I modeled on descriptions found in the memoirs and diaries of early 19th century travelers and residents.  These accounts were invaluable, including detailed descriptions of what happened when Mauritius was struck by a massive hurricane - accounts of how people prepared for storms, how they took shelter, how they dealt with the mass destruction, afterward.  I never would have imagined, for instance, that the islanders built hatches into their roofs and literally tied their houses down, inside and out.  According to the Mauritius Almanac of 1869, no hurricanes visited the island between 1786 and 1806, so I had to conjure one into being for the sake of my plot. 

Port Louis, image courtesy of NLA, Map Room 1928/1
As is often the case, the National Library of Australia's fantastic online collection of historical maps came through for me when I needed a period plan of Port-Louis in order to imagine the town as it must have looked in 1790.  I found a map from 1776, which - used in tandem with other plans - gave me an idea of the layout of the city.  I also compared the old maps with modern photographs and digital mapping tools such as Google Earth.  The image to the left is actually a close-up of part of a larger map.

An example of a descriptive passage that emerged from this map, period accounts, videos, and other resources is the following little scene, in which Eliza (carried in a palanquin) proceeds into the town, followed by Henry, who is on foot.  This is their first close-up glimpse of the town.  

Waved through the gate of the custom’s house, they proceeded at a rapid jog which Henry – afoot – could match only with difficulty.  The street extending into the town from the wharf was paved, its gutters three feet deep, lined with slabs of stone, and bridged with wooden planks, at intervals.  Colonnades fronted the buildings, wood being the favoured building material, Henry noted, although masons and brick-layers had erected the more substantial structures belonging to the colonial government, all gleaming white with chunam plaster.  Projecting eaves cast verandas in perpetual shadow, while powder-blue shutters stood open, offering glimpses of gloomy interiors. 
Period artwork is another important source for me.  There are very few paintings of Mauritius in the 18th century, but quite a few drawings and paintings were made in the 19th century.  In particular, I paid attention to images from the first half of the 1800s, which depict the island much as it would have appeared to Henry Innes and his friends.  An especially fine painting of Port-Louis from the Champs de Mars - a horse track built by the British after their conquest of the island in 1810 - was exhibited in Paris in 1867 and recently sold at Christie's auction house for nearly nineteen thousand pounds.  An earlier image from 1835, from Cyrille Pierre Theodore Laplace's Voyage Autour du Monde, shows the Port-Louis waterfront, scarcely changed at all since the 1790s.  Although I may only write a few descriptions, I usually examine dozens of images like these, which help me build a strong mental image of the setting - an image that helps me evoke an authentic mood. 

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
Another source of material for the Mauritius of 1790 is the novel Paul et Virginie, published in 1788.  The novel's author, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, had visited Mauritius and had paid close attention to its multi-cultural society.  He describes a hurricane - almost every traveler to the island wrote about these horrendous storms - but mostly he revels in descriptions of the rampant beauty of the island and idealized depictions of its settlers.  Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's vision of racial harmony was far from the truth, but it is an important source nevertheless, because it indicates to some extent how at least some of the French settlers preferred to be envisioned by the outside world.  Of course, Paul et Virginie, although it uses Mauritian scenes and themes, is more of a critique of France than an accurate image of the island colony.  However, all locations have an imagined existence that plays an important role in shaping their overall reality.

Language, of course, plays a major role in shaping the feel of a place, but I want to deal with the problem of non-English languages in a separate post.  In any event, there are a great many other aspects of setting one must take into account in the quest for authenticity.  For all my settings, I try to establish what the major existing flora was, trying to be careful not to include cultivars imported during a later period.  I study plants and animals, and in the case of blossoming trees and flowers, I try to make sure nothing is in full bloom out of season.  Since the setting is the 18th century, I also try to put seasonal foods on the table.  Describing cuisine is a wonderful way of evoking a setting - especially in a place like Mauritius, which has such a rich culinary heritage.  One of my favorite scenes in The Voyage of The Trade's Increase is where the retired French spy-master and alchemist, Francois Lamont, regales Henry and Eliza over his dinner.
"Some idealize woman," he said, "or country - or religion, or personal honour.  Me?  I am moved by taste, smell, texture."  His brown hand slapped the edge of the table, rattling the dishes and silverware.  "Food, my friends, is the most honest institution in the world - the most essential, perhaps even the most pleasurable!"  Lamont wagged his right index finger, for good measure.  "And it is worth fighting for - perhaps the only thing worth fighting for."

Researching a setting is one thing, but infusing a sense of place into your story is quite another.  I certainly don't use all the information I gather when I do background research.  Primarily, I include details pertinent to the story.  If Henry walks through the jungle, he may hear the sound of a parakeet.  I may employ this sensory image to build the image of the forest in my reader's mind - along with the odor of damp earth and luxuriant foliage, or the tickle of swarming, buzzing insects.  Dozens and dozens of details can be slipped into the story in just one or two chapters that yield a deeply-textured setting without interrupting the flow of the story.  Much can be conveyed in dialogue, too.  For instance, when Major O'Connor asks Eliza how she slept, she mentions how mosquitoes buzzed all night outside the netting around her bed, but expresses relief that none of them found a way to get at her.  Thus, I give Eliza an interesting response to the question that tells my reader, "Oh, this is the sort of place where beds have mosquito nets."

Your novel doesn't have to read like a travel guide.  This is a trap even skillful veteran authors run into, especially if they are unfamiliar with a setting.  But perhaps the worst pitfall of all - and one I have seen  experienced authors tumble into - is employing the voice and even the vocabulary of your sources.  In the excerpt above, my description of the main street of Port-Louis is taken, at least in part, from an account written by the American consul, Nicolas Pike, published under the title Sub-tropical Rambles in the Land of Aphanapteryx, in 1873.  His tone is very negative, however, while I felt that Henry - coming from 18th century London - would have a positive response to what he saw, and would hardly think Mauritius was "dirty."  However, Pike eventually spent a long time on the island and paid close attention to what he saw, and I found some of his descriptions useful - especially his account of the Port-Louis bazaar.

I suppose the important thing to remember, when you're reconstructing a historical setting, is to recall that it is not the present-day, touristic locale with actors running around in costumes.  Mauritius under French rule, dominated by slavery and privateering, was not the tropical honeymoon destination of today.  A writer of historical fiction should realize that what may be interesting or picturesque to us might not seem that way to someone actually living in the past.  For instance, Henry and his friends must face Mauritius's tropical climate during a period of frequent rains with no electric laundry facilities to dry their clothes, no air conditioners, no fans, no refrigeration, no cool drinks filled with ice, not even punkhas!  Eliza Graham could not wander around in shorts and a tank top, never mind parading along the beach in a bikini.  She arrived wearing a corset and a long gown with petticoats.  These simple facts put the concept of "tropical island paradise" in a very different light.    
© William Lailey, 2012.  Copyright applies only to text.  Images are from Creative Commons sources.

23 July 2012

"The monsoon arrives, and it floods...." - Honorable Mention in Last Week's "Writer Unboxed" Contest

Below is a short story (250 words) I submitted to "Writer Unboxed" last week.  Out of sixty-one entries, I managed to garner an "honorable mention" based on votes and the editors' choice.  This version is slightly altered, but remains within the word limits.  It imagines a rickshaw driver, in Chennai, contemplating what probably will be a hair-brained attempt to rescue a homeless girl from the streets during a monsoon downpour.  I should note that rickshaw drivers in South India are among the most proactive segments of the working class population, especially when it comes to things like family planning.  I imagined this scene occurring on Triplicane High Road, near where I usually stay when I'm in Chennai.        


The monsoon arrives, and it floods.  Rain descends in whipping sheets so dense you hold your breath, as if you might drown. 

The gutters are deep and open – three quarters of a meter deep, to carry away the torrent.  Yet, it’s never enough.  The drains jam with the dust and litter of the dry season.  That is why everyone scrambles when dark clouds gather to the west, and the first rumble tells us that this one, surely, will change the seasons. 

On a narrow slab of cement, she sits, shivering.  Buses, trucks, Maruti cars, lorries, Ambassador taxis, and bicycles splash through muddy brown water, horns raising a cacophony between sooty, mildew-stained buildings festooned with signs she can’t read.  She is dressed in her usual grimy frock.  Who knows how old she is?  With these street kids, you can never tell. 

Dr. Ambani, a regular, told me three hundred thousand people sleep on the streets of Chennai, but how can a number that big be real?

Inside my auto-rickshaw, with the torrent thundering on the plastic awning, I watch Mallika squirm, edging her grimy toes higher as the flood rises.  I’ve never seen her cry, or look this scared.  Something is wrong. 

Within me, I feel an unfolding.  It’s thrilling, and I wonder if today little Mallika is coming home with me.  My wife has always wanted a child, but fertility clinics cost a fortune.  More than what a rickshaw wallah earns.  Petrol is expensive. 

I wonder if Mallika will agree?  
© William Lailey, 2012.

21 July 2012

FGC #20 - "A Gift for Vela"

            Passion is the only reason.  This oxymoron is my mantra.  After all, what else can justify this venture, from which there is no return.
            Gliese 370 is a K-type orange dwarf star, discovered by the primitive sensors used for deep space research two hundred years ago, before the Collapse and the Water War.  But everyone knows about Gliese now.  It’s hard to imagine that once it was known only to a handful of scientists.  Everyone knows about Vela – both the constellation and the planet.  Vela is like paradise, they say.  You have to be reborn to see it.  Most people will never see it, but they will dream about its warm plains and sunny skies, or perhaps ponder the abstract material riches of the Eight-burst Nebula.          
            But a handful of us will not be reborn, and we will see Vela – this threatened paradise, this world so new to our species, yet ancient to its native inhabitants.    
            Our ship, the Halsewell, was constructed for one voyage from the Earth to the Gliese 370 system, thirty-six light years away.  I would make one voyage, too.  Neither Halsewell nor I were capable of making another.  All voyages from Earth to Vela are one-way. 
            I think about all this as I contemplate the enormous array of the magnetic sail from my roundhouse cabin window.  I gaze upon the larger of the two sails, the one that has accelerated us to our present velocity.  Forward, beyond the complicated sensor array, is the foresail, which will decelerate the ship as we approach Vela.  It is packed away in its protective housing for now.    
            But the sails are not what concerns me.  Everything about Halsewell conforms to the design approved by the Directors.  The fact that I know nothing about interstellar navigation is part of the design.  Having someone aboard with that kind of knowledge would be too risky.  So, instead, we have our computer – or, rather, a system of interconnected computers and robots.
            No, the sails are not my responsibility.  They take care of themselves.  My primary job is to make sure the children are ready for the roles they must play, when they grow up.  I also carry out other functions, but socialization and training are the most important things I do aboard the Halsewell.  If that goes wrong, then everything else is for nought. 
            “D’you ever think about it?”
            I glance across the table at Mila.  She is rather severe, and on occasion she talks about the unthinkable in the most casual way.  After you’ve known Mila for a while, you realize that’s just the way she is.  I know she has the same weaknesses that I do, deep down, but like me she is trained to think rationally. 
            “Of course.  How could you not?”
            Mila sighs, running a thin, pale hand through her short, blonde hair.  She has beautiful eyes – exotic, but difficult to read.  Not like me.  She says she can always see what I’m feeling or thinking. 
            “Are you scared?”  She doesn’t need to ask, but she does. 
            “Yes.”  There is no other answer.  “But it’s what we have to do.  We knew that when we agreed to this.”

*          *          *

            The task of preparing the children is becoming more difficult.  The foresail has been deployed for a few months.  We are decelerating, and the children are seventeen years old, at least by the ship’s clock.
            “In about a year, we will reach Vela, and you will begin your new lives as Company servants.  More importantly, you will represent your species to the indigenous inhabitants of the planet.”
            It is a lecture, and the children are students.  I used to be amazed, standing in this cabin, even when it was empty and dark.  I marvelled that here I was, presiding over the most expensive classroom in history.  But now all I think about is the lesson and the kids, these kids who are about to take on very adult responsibilities. 
            “The subject of today’s lesson is balance....”  As I speak, I pay attention to their faces. 
            The classes are small.  There are only thirty children aboard the ship, but even so, we divide them into groups of no more than five.  Each child has to be very closely monitored, but it is better to instruct them in a small group than to provide one-on-one tutoring.  They must learn how to work together, after all.
            “Professor?”  Divya raises her hand, in which she holds her smart-pen, with its blinking lights.
            She intrigues me, Divya.  I like her, and I worry that she is a bit of a favourite, although we are not supposed to make such distinctions, not until the end.  She is pretty.  The boys have noticed that.  Interstellar travel does not trump hormones, and the fact that Divya turns heads means that our acculturation programming has been successful.  It’s all designed... but a few things have gone awry, and Divya is one of them.
            She expresses it mostly in her hair, that wild, tangling, glorious mass of hair.  We did not expect that, based on the files submitted by her parents.  Nor did I ever think the sprite-like spark in her eyes, that I saw when she was tiny, would still be there when she was a young woman.  After all, with Klara it was not like that.  Her spark died, at some point.  Mila noticed it, too, but assured me I should not be worried.  Klara was just a serious girl by nature.
            By nature, I find myself thinking.  Nature is not part of the design.  We are here to cheat nature. 
            “I’m sorry – I spaced out.  Could you repeat the question, Divya?”
            “How can we represent Homo sapiens when we’ve never been on Earth?  I mean, we’ve seen the vids and all, but....”
            “Most people on Earth know less about our planet than you do.  I’ve said it before.  You’re special.”

*          *          *

            For nearly eighteen years, Halsewell has been home.  I was twenty years old when this mission began.  So was Mila.  We all were.  Kids – but carefully selected kids.  A lot happens over the course of eighteen years.  Even on Earth, any thinking person changes between the age of twenty and thirty-eight. 
            Those of us who form the so-called crew have experienced everything our environment allows.  We can say, honestly, that we have lived, despite our confined existence.  I have a lot of memories.  Sex in zero gravity for the first time – that was hilarious, and I certainly did not expect to try that out with Xiao Yue.  When this all started, I was sure she would be sensible, a moral compass.    
            And then there was the time a malfunction in the electrical system made us think the crèche unit had shut down.  Imagine our panic.  I think we all shared the same dreadful thought during that split second before the backup unit lit up the monitors.  And in the end, Mila, in her usual thorough way, discovered that the crèche had been fine all along.  Only the monitors had been impacted – the foetuses were all just fine.    
            The small asteroid that punctured the acceleration sail, now that was exciting.  Normally, the ship is a remarkably peaceful environment.  We go out of our way to spice things up.  But when an undetected rock as big as that asteroid comes within a few yards of taking out your navigational sensor array, I think you can say, “Damn – that was exciting.”  And, fortunately, you don’t have time to be afraid until the danger is over, when you begin to wonder why the asteroid wasn’t detected.  Why didn’t the ship alter course?  All that is supposed to happen automatically, by design.  Well, it didn’t.   
            We’ve had problems with the hydroponic gardens.  I wonder just how many kilometres I have crawled through maintenance shafts, in hazard gear, looking for a leaking hose or degraded cable.  We’ve all been out on the sails, too, although it’s terrifying.  The robots that do most of the external repairs are very good, but even they sometimes malfunction.  I hate floating at the end of a lifeline.  Over the course of eighteen years, almost everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
            I am beginning to realize that it’s the unexpected that makes up a unique life.  In interstellar travel, at least in theory, you don’t want any surprises.  But out here, this far from Earth, the occasional risky moment is all you really have.  It reminds you how alive you are, the adrenalin and the fast-beating heart, the warm blood pulsing through your veins.
            But no more horsing around.  We must set good examples for the children.
*          *          *

            “Oh, no – this isn’t good.”  Xiao Yue stares into the monitor, her brown face lit up by its pulsating glow. 
            “What’s wrong?”  I hurry to where she is sitting, and she points at one of thirty rectangular vid-feeds on her screen, enlarged with the flick of her finger.
            “Sammy’s at it again,” she says, and I can see it for myself.  I watch him scream and yell, marching round his cabin, hurling things.  Ayesha is cringing, in a corner, instinctively shielding her head, screaming herself – it is muted, but I can distinctly hear her.
            “Go away!”
            “Your call,” Xiao Yue says, but I can tell by the subtle strain in her voice that she’s out of patience where Sammy is concerned. 
            “You know what you’re asking me to do,” I say, leaning close to her, so that only the two of us will hear.
            “It’s got to be done,” she hisses.  “You know that.  We’ve put it off too long.  We should have done it the first time this happened, with Klara.”
            “Alright, then.”  It’s easy to say the words, but I’m not sure I mean them.  Glancing at the monitor, I wonder if we should intervene.  That would be disastrous.  We simply don’t do that.  It would wreck the whole dynamic of the ship.  But fortunately Ayesha is quick, agile, and small.  She escapes Sammy, who is an overgrown, lumbering ball of rage by now.  Not what the Directors wanted – not part of the design. 
            Xiao Yue presses several buttons, his cabin door shuts, and we watch Sammy pound on it, impotently, securely trapped in there. 
            I flick the intercom switch, contemplating what I need to say.  “All members of crew please report to the wardroom.”  It’s simple, formulaic, and fraught with meaning.  I struggle to make it sound matter-of-fact, as if this meeting is going to be just like all the others.
            But it’s not.  Xiao Yue looks at me and takes a deep breath.  Perhaps she’s remembering that silly night we ended up naked, giggling and laughing, trapped on the ceiling of her cabin.  Or perhaps she’s remembering our breakup, later, when I realized she was interested in Sanchez.  We had been confused, angry, maybe even a little scared, curious... but none of us had come from a perfect world.  We solved our problems.  We had time.  No one had ever sat down, round a conference table, to decide whether we would complete the mission. 
            “This isn’t supposed to happen,” was the first thing Mila said, as soon as the wardroom door was sealed.
            “What d’you s’pose the problem is?”  This is Gary, who is in charge of M&O.  He is very concerned.  The only time I’ve seen him more concerned was when there was an unusual build-up of power in the life support system generators.  We all have a favourite amongst the children, and Sammy is his. 
            “Look, we know the donors were screened.  The most extensive possible background checks were made.”  I’m trying to see this rationally – trying to lay it all out and isolate a cause. 
            “How is Ayesha?”  Sanchez looks grave, too, but this is his nature.  He rarely reveals what he’s feeling inside.  He never has.  That’s why I failed to notice what was happening between him and Xiao Yue, all those years ago.
            “Rattled, but she’s fine,” Mila says.  “We talked.  She’s confused, but she says this is the first time Sammy’s been like this.”
            “What about Klara?”  Kumar would have to remind us. 
            “Should we give him a chance?”  Gary is speaking.  He sees in Sammy a little of himself.  I see the same thing in Divya, and I try to imagine what I might be feeling if this conversation was about her.  I like Gary, sadly.
            But Sammy isn’t Divya. 
            “Your call, Doc.”
            Sanchez would say that.  I know I’m not supposed to hate anyone, but right now I hate Sanchez for pushing me like that, the smug bastard. 
            “Executive Order 371.”  I speak robotically, quickly – I know I need to force myself through this.  “Instituting security protocol with respect to Samuel Booker.  Copy and send.”  I hear the beep.  We all do.  It’s done.
*          *          *

            We made it look like an accident.  That’s what the security protocol manual told us to do.  We had been trained to follow orders, and we did, even though it was the most gut-wrenching thing we had ever done.  Three of us were involved, sharing guilt.  When that airlock door rolled back into position, Sammy panicked.  For all his bravado, despite all his muscles, and all his charming good looks, the freezing radioactive hell of interstellar space just didn’t care.  For a moment, blown outside, he probably thought the lifeline would hold.  He was wearing full protective gear, after all.  You could survive for about four hours in that suit, but not if a robot cut through the lifeline.  Not if you went flying, spinning and whirling, away from the ship like that.  The ship didn’t know, couldn’t care, and in any event was not designed to turn around.
            I told myself it really was an accident.  It was not Sammy’s fault.  Something had gone wrong.  The important thing was to teach our charges that things could go wrong, that they weren’t invincible just because they were young.  We also knew it was important for them to grieve and come to an understanding and acceptance of death.  That, too, had been part of the design, but ideally the lesson was not supposed to be taught by one of the children. 
*          *          *

            I had been staring at the pale blue smudge of the Eight-burst Nebula on the monitor for a long time, contemplating the journey’s end.  Vela sprawls below the fragile structure of our ship.  We float in orbit, completing our mandatory quarantine high above a cream-coloured desert that once was a sea.  Almost done.

*          *          *

            “Are you ready, Divya?” I ask.
            We are in the greenhouse, where we have been working since she was a little girl.  Like the others, she is a specialist now.  I was the one who decided, after careful consideration, that botany was her calling.  She loves plants, and so do I.    
            “How can you be ready for this?”
            “Good answer.”  I smile.  I might have said something similar, at her age, in her shoes. 
            “There’s a lot of work to do,” she remarks, looking through the greenhouse window at the planet’s arid surface. 
            She’s right.  After years of instruction, I know she understands fully what that work entails.    
            “On Earth, we idealize the Mediterranean biome.  It’s pleasant.  Problem is, it’s not good if your whole planet’s like that.  If the civilization here is going to survive, Vela’s equatorial belt needs rainforests again - biodiversity.  That’s our mission.  You can do this, Divya.”
            “I don’t understand the Company’s purpose.”  Divya sighs, glancing at me.  “Why are you doing this?”
            “You’ve heard the lectures,” I smile.  “It’s a little late to be asking questions like that, isn’t it?  You know the answer.”
            “Tell me again,” she says, softly.  “I want to hear you say it.”
            “The Iroquois believed they should consider the impact of all decisions down to the seventh generation.”  I speak in a gentle tone, remembering clearly that lecture, the first time I saw the intellectual spark in Divya’s eyes, the birth of wonder and a new, disciplined, mature curiosity.  “The Directors take a similar view of profit.  This is sustainability – the only way we can survive as a species.”
            Divya takes a deep breath.
            I wish I was twenty years younger, one of the youths preparing to enter the shuttle with her.  But perhaps she would catch the eye of one of the colonists already living down there on the surface, among the Velans?  Divya has never looked more beautiful, although there is sadness in her eyes.  She is crying, I notice, and sniffling.    
            “You’re not sick?” I laugh.
            “No chance,” she says, smiling through her tears. 
            “Well, good.  Now, Divya, here’s a present.  I want you to share it with the Velans.  I hope they like it.  The Council cleared it, so don’t worry.” 
            I hold my hand, in a fist, over her outspread hand and pour tiny seeds into her palm. 
            “Poppies, from California.  They’ll grow best in sandy soil.”
            “Plenty of that.”
            She grins, but tears flow very fast from her eyes, now.  I lay a steadying hand on her shoulder, and she looks up at me, sniffing again, trying to compose herself.
            “Why me, sir?” she sobs.
            “It’s part of your training,” I tell her, taking a deep breath.  “The final step.”  I choose not to say what I’m thinking.  I keep one secret for myself.
            This is by design. 
            You don’t say that to someone who loves you.  Instead, I hand her the hypo, and she takes it in trembling hands.  I nod, and she sobs once more, but curls her slender fingers round the gun-like handle.  A thrill courses through me as I watch her, because I know it’s all paid off.  And then she pulls the trigger, injecting me. 
            The poison is quick, warming.  I smile, satisfied, overwhelmingly numb – kneel, and fall.  Divya holds my hand in hers until the last.       
Challenge word limit:  3,000 words
Actual words:  2,996 words        
© William Lailey, 2012.

17 July 2012

Having a Ball with Your 18th or 19th Century Period Novel - The Challenges of Writing a Dance

For many of us, the romantic feel of the Georgian and Regency periods is reduced to its essence in the formal dancing of the time.  Small groups of dedicated dance enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic have in recent years researched, rescued, and revived the songs, musical scores, and dance steps of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Costume designers, meanwhile, have invested tremendous effort into researching and reproducing the clothing of the period, working from surviving fragments, or extrapolating from the evidence contained in period paintings and fashion plates.  However, for the writer trying to portray the period accurately, the ball scene poses serious challenges.  In this post, I will share some of the ways I have addressed this problem while writing The Adventures of Henry Innes series.

The image you see above is a page from Longman and Broderip's Compleat Collection of 100 of the Most Favorite Minuets, probably published in the 1780s.  The music is arranged for harpsichord, violin, hautboy (oboe), and German flute.  The Italian term oboe was just beginning to supplant the older French-derived word, hautboy, when the above score first appeared.  Although I have not been able to find videos or even midi files of any of the minuets in this collection being performed, I can read music well enough to "hear" what the piece must have sounded like.  Thus, I have some idea how to describe the dances I select for a particular ballroom scene.  It is relatively easy to find collections of 18th century music, but imagining how men and women danced to that music presents quite another level of difficulty.

Most of the "Dancing Master" books of the 18th century appeared in the Baroque period, two generations prior to Henry Innes's time.  However, popular culture changed slowly, and quite a few of the dances of the early part of the century were still taught and learned in the 1780s.  To better conceive of such a slowly changing world, imagine teenagers today still listening to 1950s music and swing dancing.  However, I don't want to imply that there was no change.  If you look more closely at the subject, you will find that there was incremental change in both music and dancing, especially after the 1770s, with the process accelerating after the French Revolution. 

I'm sure most of us have seen the famous ballroom scenes of period series and movies like Pride & Prejudice, Becoming Jane, and so forth.  Very often in these movies we hear music from Purcell or Handel, but this was not the standard fare of the day.  More commonly-heard were tunes like 'Cupid's Minuet,' above - music that has all but vanished.  Still, some of the flavor of the popular music of Henry's time comes down to us in songs such as the 1790 hit, "Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill," which has continued to be sung and performed continually right down to the present day.   

A late 18th century ball was a very complex event.  First, musicians were needed.  In Europe, finding musicians usually was not difficult, but in the colonial world that I write about the situation was different.  If your Georgian or Regency novel is set in the colonial world, you need to do considerably more research, for while many of the refinements and pastimes of bourgeois life in Europe were reproduced overseas, local conditions introduced unique variations.  For instance, the Portuguese had introduced a whole range of European instruments into India in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by Henry's time Western music usually was performed by Indian Christian musicians - the same class of people who also provided the musicians for the Indian regiments of the East India Company's army.  In fact, most regimental bands were quite capable of providing musicians skilful enough to play dance music.  However, we must not imagine that there were no professional Western musicians in Asia in those days.  In the early 19th century, entire groups of musicians - often Italians - sailed to India aboard East Indiamen, providing entertainment for the passengers before seeking their fortunes at Bombay, Madras, or Calcutta.

Many balls were organized by subscription, those who planned to attend subscribing to a fund to cover the costs.  After all, a formal dance on this scale was by no means inexpensive.  In cities like London there were regular dance halls that were much like modern clubs, where one paid an entrance fee.  Known as "hops," these establishments often were places of assignation where courtesans could meet likely clients and yet rub elbows with respectable men and women.  Most people, however, attended small-scale, informal dancing parties, or else local balls organized by a mayor, a landlord, or some other distinguished resident.  In Madras, in Henry's day, the European inhabitants subscribed to support a social club that served as theatre, banqueting hall, and ballroom.  This kind of "assembly room" was, in fact, a ubiquitous feature of Georgian and Regency urban life, and it was reproduced in the colonies.

Once a ball was planned, a more or less elaborate system of organization determined how the different dances were to be arranged.  To avoid confusion (and arguments), ladies sometimes handed in dance cards.  If the dancing master was a real stickler for order, these cards might even have the names of all the dances for that evening listed.  Gentlemen then could sign up for dances with particular ladies, knowing in advance precisely when they would be dancing, and what to expect.   Even if arrangements were not this well-managed, usually there was a master of ceremonies who called each dance.  This was important because songs were paired with specific dances.  There was no semi-generic, free-for-all dancing in those days.  Alternatively, some masters of ceremony permitted couples, in turn, to choose which dance they wanted, discreetly sending a note to the musicians.

Most balls lasted quite a long time, and might begin with socializing, followed by a banquet.  The actual dancing was divided into two phases if the ball was a formal one.  During the first phase, minuets and other courtly dances were performed.  These relatively slow, stately dances gave people a chance to show off their skill, and they also were not too vigorous - probably a good thing, given that people had just eaten.  I have read, however, some accounts of formal (indeed, royal) entertainments in which the phases of a ball were interrupted by a midnight supper.  These affairs could go on for hours, in any event, but the final part of a formal ball was usually the time for popular country dances.

It is important to understand the difference between a minuet and a country dance.  Minuets were a French dance form, coming down to Henry Innes's time from the late 17th century.  However, the baroque minuets one often sees performed by period dance troupes today were almost identical to the minuets of the 1780s.  Courtly tradition was an integral part of the minuet.  Indeed, the movements of the minuet choreographed the stylized gestures of the courtly greeting, sometimes incorporating some stylized coquetry, as well.  For instance, in the minuet that Henry and Eliza Graham dance in The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, when they step apart, she turns away from him, her right arm crooking so that she holds her fan level with her forehead in a pantomime of modesty.  For the male dancer, the footwork and the flourishing removal of the hat were the key elements.

A minuet was usually a dance by two people - a man and a woman - although I have seen one example of a minuet for two couples.  Minuets were far more amenable to conversation than country dancing.  In a minuet, the couples hold hands, albeit at a respectable distance, and walk in a circle two times, facing each other.  The mincing steps of the men often look a little odd to modern eyes.  In general, male dancers actually cut a better figure, in the minuet, if they're short.  If you are writing conversation into your dance scene, note that each person only has time to make one very brief comment before their discussion is interrupted.  There will be a short delay until they can speak again.  This is one of the reasons why elders were so horrified when the waltz became popular.  Waltzing was considered nearly obscene by many people because not only were young couples holding hands continually, their bodies much closer together than in the old dances, but they also could talk at some length, in relative privacy.  Young men and women loved waltzes, when they became popular - for obvious reasons.

A country dance was an often boisterous, frequently complex dance involving multiple couples, with the dancers arranged in lines, forming squares and circles - indeed, all sorts of interweaving patterns.  In these dances, frequently accompanied by old, well-known, rollicking tunes, men and women danced together, but often broke away to link arms and circle, for instance, with partners of their own sex.  Thus, the country dance was a community dance rather than a couples' dance, and with everyone in constant motion, and partners often separated, conversation was impossible.  These were dances one danced for the sheer joy of it, and they were so vigorous that many women considered them a form of exercise.  It should be noted, too, that the country dance tradition emerged first in the British Isles, but became popular throughout Western Europe during the 18th century.

I have only discussed minuets and country dances, here, but be aware that there were many other forms, as well, such as the hornpipe and jig, not to mention the allemande, or "German" style of dance.  Often forgotten or overlooked, the allemande was considered a courtly dance, yet it had some features of a line dance.  The hand-holding and close turns of this particular form, it is thought, may be one of the sources for the waltzes that became popular in the early 19th century.  Polonaises - the Polish court's contribution to the 18th century European dance repertoire - also were popular in the Georgian and Regency periods, with tunes being composed for such dances by most of the eminent composers of the period, including Bach and Mozart.

Since the hero of my series, Henry Innes, comes from a poor background, I had to make sure he had proper dancing lessons before sending him social-climbing.  In King & Company, Lady Moira hires a down-on-her-luck, middle-aged Frenchwoman - a refugee from the disturbances of 1789 - to teach Henry the courtly dances.  However, Henry already had picked up some knowledge of dancing from his years working in the theatre, and he already was well-versed in deportment, his job at the theatre being to teach elocution and aristocratic refinements to working-class actresses.  Thus, by the time I began writing The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, I could feel fairly certain that Henry would be able to dance without tripping over his own feet.  

When I write a ballroom scene, I try to make sure that the songs and dances of the period are described or depicted accurately, without interfering too much with the narrative and dialogue.  I also try to match the music and dancing to whatever is being discussed.  For instance, a serious and romantic exchange would not occur in the middle of a jig, or even an allemande, probably, and as for country dances... well, nothing was likely to happen, during a country dance, except a lot of laughter and horseplay.

All well and good, you say, but how do you depict all this in prose?  Even if you watch an 18th century dancing scene in a film, for instance, putting that on paper is not going to be easy.  It becomes a little easier when you learn about the dances of the period, and even practice some of the movements yourself.  However, reconstructing a historically accurate ballroom scene takes a lot of effort.  I spend at least a few hours researching each ballroom scene I write, covering everything from the venue to the instruments, music, and dance steps.  By the time I actually begin to write, I have floor plans for buildings, midi files of music playing in the background, and notes taken down while watching videos.  I forward through the videos one movement at a time, writing down the key features of each.  This way I can incorporate realistic body language and movements into the story.

However, advancing from the pile of notes and the music to a scene that "works" is tougher than it sounds.  I recently encountered a man whose experience of reading is far less dynamic than mine, who claimed that gestures, sound, and so forth are not real except to the author.   He claimed that writing cannot convey these things - in other words, that writing cannot provide all of the sensory elements of film.  The individual in question clearly has never read or heard hip-hop poetry, which brilliantly evokes the pace, gestures, and even the music of a particular type of setting.  Perhaps one of the best examples of music in writing, however, is the opening scene of Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels, in which Jack Aubrey is getting a little too carried away listening to Locatelli's C major quartet, and is in danger of annoying everyone in the room.  Stephen Maturin is especially annoyed.  Indeed, throughout the novels that follow, a wonderful musical relationship develops between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  You don't have to be a sailor or a musician to appreciate O'Brien's work, because he does his job well, but knowing something about sailing and music - believe me - opens up amazing new layers of meaning in the Aubrey-Maturin series.

At the end of the day, you don't want to overwhelm your ballroom scene with technical detail, of course.  O'Brien's technique is one I find especially effective.  He offers suggestive brushstrokes, telling us about the sound of a single instrument, or describing a particularly poignant or expressive note.  He often speaks of the instruments as if they are engaged in a dialogue of their own.  Adding the movements of a dance to this, however, is a tall order.  And yet, if you remember that Georgian and Regency dancing was the choreography of graceful movements and gestures, you at least keep hold of the essential thread.  Like music, dancing also can be described with impressionistic strokes and flashes.  Significantly, even 18th century novelists sometimes depicted the balls and informal dances in their stories this way.  Jane Austen, in Pride & Prejudice, however, scarcely even describes the assembly where Miss Bennet first sees Mr. Darcy.  The whole affair is reported in an unadorned, journalistic style, the entire focus being on the first impressions made by the new gentry as they walk into the assembly room.  In Vanity Fair, William Thackeray also merely mentions the actual dancing at the Duchess of Richmond's famous ball in passing, focusing instead on the machinations of his characters.  However, Austen and Thackeray were writing for audiences who themselves attended balls not unlike the ones they were reading about.  Someone writing about clubbing, today, for a teenage audience might not have to say much about the scene, either.  You could keep it simple - and sometimes you need to - but you would be missing out on an admirable opportunity to bring atmosphere and depth to your story. 

Finally, there is the venue to consider.  So far, I have written four ballroom scenes in The Adventures of Henry Innes.  The first one occurs in the Crown & Anchor, a coaching inn that used to be situated just off the Strand in the Savoy neighborhood of London.  This building no longer exists, but I was able to find a description of the drawing room, as well as references to other features of the hotel - enough to be able to give my readers some idea of what it must have been like.  The second ball is the one held at the French ambassador's mansion, in London, after King George's recovery from his first major bought with mental illness.  Here, again, I was faced with a no-longer-existing building, but I was able to reconstruct an impression from period descriptions.  The third ball I write about actually doesn't occur in a ballroom at all - it takes place on the quarterdeck of a frigate, moored in the harbor of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  Yes, balls were frequently held aboard warships.  A ball is mentioned taking place at James Town, on Saint Helena, in The Voyage of the Trade's Increase, but I won't count that one.  The fourth ball scene (also in Trade's Increase) occurs in the drawing room of the Tuynhuis, or Governor's Mansion, in Cape Town.  Although floor plans of this building exist, they were not accessible to me at the time I wrote this scene.  However, I found an external sketch of the building, dating from 1790 - only months after the time period of the scene - and this was enough to help me see where the drawing room would have been.  I also could see that it had tall windows with louvered shutters - much like many other European colonial buildings of that period in the Indian Ocean region.
So, are you writing a ball scene?  If you want to go all-out, be aware that this can be a challenge, but also fun and rewarding.  Writing a scene that invokes multiple senses is tough, but not impossible.  If you can do it, though, you can probably write about almost anything.  However, I would argue that it is crucial to remember that writing is interactive.  Your reader isn't passive:  let their imaginations do some of the work.  Indeed, a good reader wants you to spark their imagination.  When writing your ballroom scene, don't overdue it.  Provide sparks, and the reader's imagination will kindle the fire.
© William Lailey, 2012.