Monday, November 9, 2009

"Look dad, glorious, glopsious mudd!"
I almost forgot I was posting here today. The last while has been very fraught, worrying about my cats and dogs - writing has been in the toilet. Normally I settle my head with a game of free-cell and the book’s theme track. But to be honest the last while has been more of a emotion-storm than I find easy to to focus on anything but the chrises and worries of the moment.
So that’s what I wanted to write about: emotion - how we elicit it, should we elicit it, and what does it do for the book.
From a personal point of view, I believe a book which does NOT stir the emotions is only marginally worth reading if you really can’t sleep. If it can’t stir my emotions then I can’t really care that much about the characters.
How: well that’s a difficult one. I do most of mine from the gut, bringing up things I really do care about, showing aspects of myself to the reader that are frankly uncomfortable for me. I’m a really softy. If it can’t upset me, it’s bloody well not good enough. It’s not easy or pleasant. This was one of the more difficult scenes I ever wrote:

It was the old dog that finally did it.
Signy came down late in the afternoon, after the other stable-thralls had gone, her hand on the old dog's neck. Cair was standing in a dark corner of the stable, next to feed-store, carefully loosening a rock, which would give him a hiding place for the things he needed to steal for his escape. Now he stood dead still. It was dark back here.
Cair had noticed how, over the last week that this, her most faithful companion, had abruptly stopped coming down here with her. Now he could see it was only loyalty that had made it make the effort to walk. Something was plainly very wrong with the old dog. The beast shivered slightly as it leaned against her, pausing. Then she led it to an empty stall, and it lay down with a little whine.
Cair could swear that he'd made no sound, but somehow the Princess knew that he was there. Princesses did not belong in stables. They did not wear old -- if once good -- garments. They did not walk around unaccompanied by anyone but their dogs. She used to sneak out in the predawn and ride alone too, Cair knew -- something she was almost certainly not supposed to do, by the care she took to have the tack back in place when the thralls came to work. A Princess wasn't even supposed to touch tack! She was, by any definition, odd -- a breaker of the rules of her society. And Princess Signy added to her oddness by an almost inhuman ability to know where people were. She called him.
She was kneeling next to the dog, her face oddly white -- she was always a little too sun-browned for a noblewoman, and her eyes glittered strangely.
"Will you hold her still? I can't miss and I don't want her to know what I intend to do," she said in a dead-flat voice.
So Cair sat with the old bitch, gently stroking her. He had had an old grazehound back on Lesbos when was growing up who had been a bit like this old girl. She'd also followed him everywhere. He'd spoiled her, or so his brother had said.
"It has to be done," she said in that same voice, lifting the ear to expose the ear-hole.
Horrified and fascinated he watched as she drew the the knife from her sleeve and stabbed hard, pushing the blade in through the ear-hole.
The old bitch never even whimpered.
But Signy did. And then, as she pulled the knife out, tears were streaming down her face. "She couldn't swallow any more... a canker in her throat," she said hoarsely.
The hand that didn't hold the knife stroked the white-flecked muzzle. "I grew up with her. I..." she choked and let the shaking hand on the dead dog's flank say it all. She bent over and kissed the dog's nose, ignoring the blood.
"But couldn't someone else do this for you?" he asked. No noblewoman would do such a thing!
She stared blindly at him, not seeing past the tears. "She gave me all of her love and loyalty. How could I give her anything less? How could I let someone else kill her? It had to be done as quickly and cleanly as possible. How could I not be with her?"
He nodded. It was an attitude he simply had to respect. He sought for words of comfort, without any thought but to ease her distress, speaking not as a thrall to his noble mistress, but as one dog lover comforting another. "She is young now, free from pain, chasing down the deer in the eternal fields," he said quietly.
"Are there dogs in Odin's host?" she asked obviously desperately seeking reassurance -- even from a thrall.
That was a hard one. One he had debated and decided on long before, at the death of his own childhood hound. He gave her as honest an answer as possible. "Princess, I am not of your faith, but if a God cannot recognize and reward such love and loyalty, how can he be a God? If there are no dogs in heaven, let me rather go to wherever they are."
He took the knife from her hand and cleaned it on one of his rags, and gave it back to her. Signy sniffed. "I don't know what do with her now," she said in a small voice. "She just hurt so. I had to do it."
Cair touched her, awkwardly, on the shoulder. He hadn't lived here for this long without coming to realize that to do so held possibly fatal consequences. "I will deal with it, Princess. I will bury her down at the edge of the paddocks. The dogs all love that spot. Let her always be there."
She nodded, blindly. Sniffed. Bent over and kissed the dog's grey head once more and stood up. "Thank you," she said guiding herself along the stalls with an outstretched hand, eyes obviously too blurred to see.
Cair knew then that he was, against all the trammels of logic and common sense, her man.
I don’t really know what it did for the book.


C Kelsey said...

Emotion makes your characters into "people" (even if the character is a dog, a fish, a Politician (well okay, maybe nothing can make a politician human), a ghost..). Placing emotion in a story builds the readers connection to both the words on the page, and the author's intent. As long as there's not too much emotion - which tends to turn a fun read into a battle for attention - it's always a plus in a novel.

What's "too much emotion"? I dunno. Different for every author and every story I suppose.

Anonymous said...

We all have a lot of experiences in common, and the emotions are lurking in our memories, waiting to be invoked by reading about a similar situation.

I'm only glad that so many of the lurking horrors are from imagining "what might have happened" rather than what really did.

That scene of yours rounded out Signy as a character, and made us believe in Cair's devotion to her. All while we were sniveling over the old dog.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I have to agree with Matapam over what the scene added to the book. I fought the tears when I first read it and I had to fight them again this morning. This scene really does tug at the heartstrings.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Made me cry, Dave.

It worked because the emotion is restrained. It is about doing what you have to do.

In a world where reporters follow people around after something terrible has happened asking 'How do you feel?', it is nice to come across something that handles emotion sensitively.

Kate said...

That scene left me wiping my eyes when I read the book, and did the same thing just now. It's so simple and restrained, and utterly heart-wrenching.

Emotion in a story tends to be one of those "I don't know what the right amount is, but I know it when I see it." things. When the author felt it, it shows, though.

Or to paraphrase Julie Czerneda, "Writing is easy. You tear your heart out and bleed on the page."

Dave Freer said...

Thank you. I worried when I wrote it that it would not come across as I intended. And, as I have been in both Signy and Cair's shoes as have many of us, it was tearing to write. (it's even more difficult when you can't see the keyboard or the screen). You cannot describe how you feel. You can only open window into your own mind for them to look into and thereby open up places in the reader's mind.

Anonymous said...

That was a great scene, Dave. I found it deeply moving. The way I figure it is, if you can't feel the emotions you're putting down on paper, how can the reader? It's like being a chef and never tasting what you cook.