#LessonsLearned from #DianaWynneJones: Small #Family #Conflict Can Grow Into An #Epic #Fantasy

For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.

Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.

“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”

“Why does David go away to school?”

“Why is David’s family so mean?”

Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.

“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.

I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”

I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…

I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…

Anyway.

Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.

Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)

One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.

“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.”
David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)

Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.

Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)

While this cover also gives away Thor’s hammer,
there’s also a lot of magical whimsy with the way
Luke ribbons his fire amidst the garden.

The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.

“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.”
Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.”
“What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.”
“Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately.
“I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)

It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.

It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.

“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.”
It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did.

[said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)

David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.

This style initially reminded me of the mosaics of Rome until I scoped out ancient Norse carving.

“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)

****

Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)

Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.

And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.

Sound familiar? It does to David.

The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)

This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.

Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.

When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.”
“Run for what?” said David.
“Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)

Now this cover’s got more of a Young Adult feel, what with the spitfire of Luke standing defiantly with his arms crossed and his firey hair blending with the flames surrounding him.

Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”

I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.

Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.

Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.

David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”

“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.

“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”

Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.

It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)

Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.

Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.

~STAY TUNED!~

I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: In #Fantasy #Writing, Not All Rabbits Wear Waist Coats.

Cover_of_Fire_and_Hemlock“Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy?” My friend thumbs the book’s pages as a frown spreads across her face. “I mean, it’s good, kinda, but there isn’t much, you know, different, in it.”

Blasphemy! I think. But I know what she means. There’s no spectacle about Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. It’s a damn good fantasy, but it’s subtle with that fantasy. It’s not one of those sweeping epics with sky-burning battles of global proportions, powers that can wrinkle time and send us in one earth and out another, or characters filled with magic up to their eyeballs.

Now don’t get me wrong: these can be good fantasies. Heck, I’m in the midst of editing one for publication right now. However, a common trouble with such spectacular epics is that the character doesn’t often move the story along. We’re not reading for the characters so much as for the battle, the quest, the romance, etc. When the story zooms from the epic-ness to the characters and lets them dictate the story, we have a much more personal perspective, but we then we don’t sweep the epic.

47I’d like to focus on Fire and Hemlock‘s beginning to make this point. Let’s take a classic like Alice in Wonderland for comparison. Alice enters Wonderland because she follows a White Rabbit in a waistcoat down its rabbit-hole:

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoatpocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

1book1

(Gosh, what a long sentence.)

(Anyway.)

The image of a talking, clothed animal–who tells time!–running through our world snags a reader’s and promises some zany adventures to come. With Fire and Hemlock, the story opens with….wait for it…a girl not really packing for college.

Magic! Adventure! Alakazam, Alakazoo!

But there is magic already at work, if you listen to the heroine Polly:

And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet–here was the odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it….Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there…Why should she suddenly have memories that did not seem to correspond with the facts? (4-5)

This begins Polly’s journey back into the memories that had somehow been hidden within her. The “Rabbit-Hole” moment comes in her first memory, when she and her friend Nina are running around in black dresses for a game, get separated, and Polly stumbles onto the peculiar estate of town, Hundson House:

51lj8FZS+QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When Polly came out into the open, it was not a road after all. It was gravel at the side of a house. There was a door open in the house, and through it Polly caught a glimpse of Nina walking up a polished passage, actually inside the house…cautiously, she tiptoed up the passage. (12)

Polly finds herself in the middle of a funeral and wishes to slink out, but 10-year-olds don’t always know how to do that sort of thing. Thankfully a young man named Tom helps by offering to take her for a walk out back.

The sun reached the dry pool. For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of light filled the pool deep with transparent water. The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom were, just for an instant, floating, green and growing. (23)

Here readers get their first clue that this place is not as normal as her Gran’s. She may not be talking to blue caterpillars or playing croquet with flamingos, but Polly’s definitely stumbled into a group of people where “normal” no longer applies. By the novel’s end we discover that Laurel, the woman whom Polly mistook for Nina earlier, is none other than the Queen of the Fairies, and she wants Tom to sacrifice himself for the King of the Fairies.

It’s a slow build from funeral to Fairy Court, and almost entirely grounded in normal places like Polly’s hometown. But the beauty of such a subtle fantasy is that it makes you peer at the stubborn door at your own gran’s, or sneak down that one badly lit aisle of the supermarket, and wonder:

What else is going on back there?