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The craft of writing, part 2. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
wemyss
wemyss
The craft of writing, part 2.

Let us consider further the indispensability of research.  The past, famously, is another country.  So is another country.  You cannot go to the past.  There is quite likely a limit as to how many other countries you can stop in, and certainly as to how many you can stop in long enough to acquire anything even loosely approximating the most superficial of the sensations known to a native thereof.

Behold the power of research.

God, He knoweth, that the UK is probably the most thoroughly written-about, surveyed, mapped, chronicled, be-annaled, painted, poemed, photographed, and recorded country on earth.  An appalling amount of this is online for your perusal.  In addition to cultivating An Ear, you want to cultivate An Eye.  After just at five years in my fandom, I have written and posted some 375,000 words of fiction, or perhaps 400,000, not accounting for one-offs and essays and the like.  This is in fact rather a slow rate of production, although it’s not bad for a hobby, and I shudder to calculate the number of words I’ve written and published for more proper purposes in that period.  Yet there is this to be said for that footling and hobbyist’s output.  I have never written a place that was not as real as I could make it.  (That this has slowed my output is unquestioned: I will pause to look something up, and five hours later will have gone down a labyrinth of byways too fascinating to resist, and still not written what I set out to write.  I don’t even repine: it’s been great fun, and I cannot and don’t wish to resist the temptations of learning, for the sheer pleasure of it, and utility be damned.)  If I tell you that such and such a tree or flower is to be found at Potterne or Huish Champflower or Aviemore or where have you, it’s damned well there.  If I place a character in a landscape, you can go to that landscape and see precisely what I have had her see there – and scent the same odour of flowers, and hear the same dawn chorus, and feel the same air.  If I tell you what wood is best used for the cog of a spur wheel in a mill (apple or hornbeam), you may be assured that this is so.

Why ever, you may well ask, does this matter?  Well, it does and it doesn’t.  That is to say, you, for stylistic reasons, may well feel that your reader neither wants nor wishes to know anything at all of Somerset flora or Moray fauna, of the history of Woodhenge or of how to trim a sail on a first-rater of the Channel Fleet in 1807, but you want to do if you’re to be any good at all as a writer.  Particularly when a writer takes as his province the past, or the realms of Faerie far from the fields we know,[i] it behoves him to know thoroughly how his province is different to those same fields we know.  Your characters ‘live and move and have their being’ in a world, either recognisably like ours or recognisably and by intention different to ours, neither of which can be apprehensible to your reader unless you know our world and our known and familiar fields, and how precisely these are different to what you give your characters as a world to live in.

Now, there are varying ways to do this, all of them having as their justification the only justification that matters, that they drive the story: either in its plot, in characterisation, or in its theme.  If, for example, you realise that you cannot conjure the mood of a place in the way a native would do by invoking its texture, its sounds and sights, you may resort to other sensory experiences – food is always good, and music – and its history; and set it off by making it something your characters also see from an outsider’s vantage. Tell it through the visitor’s, the alien’s, eyes, then, if not the native countryman’s: as these examples from Under a Dragon Moon[ii] may show:

The authorities in Vienna had offered them every consideration: they were too embarrassed not to do. They had offered, as well, meeting places ranging from palaces to Heurigen. Harry had declined them all, even the warded, Muggle-repellent, Unplottable lodge in the Prater: not without regret, as previous journeys to Vienna had converted him into a discerning fan of the Heuriger in particular, with its Liptauer spread and what could only be called Viennese tapas, with its strolling Heurigensänger singing the old, old songs of easy tears and caught laughter, the sweet and sentimental plangency of the Wienerlieder that veils all things in the purple eventide of memory, conjuring an intimate and cosy Vienna that has never been and is always, as the fresh, crisp wine flows and the stars come out against the mountains and the distant city and beloved Steffl, the tower of the Stephansdom, and the last Vierterl is brought to the table and stretched out in glass after lingering glass of Gspritztn.

But that easy gemütlichkeit was not apt. The high-stepping horses and whistling fiacre-drivers rolling easily between the horse chestnuts lining the ancient streets, the coffeehouses, the Imperial and Catholic City, the Wurstelprater viewed from the Riesenrad, the woods and the Donau, the Heurigen on the winding lanes: these were not apt. War lowered yet upon the horizon, and treason was abroad, in the very air.

And so Harry had chosen their meeting place, in Leopoldstadt, in a cramped cellar just off Große Schiffgaße.

*** ‘No,’ said Tony Goldstein. ‘A moment, if I may.

‘It was not only, I think, for convenience’s sake, that Harry has had us meet here, in Vienna. It is most assuredly not for convenience’s sake that we are met here, in Leopoldstadt. You, Hermione, have but lately been in Debrecen. It is a city that has learnt tolerance, in a hard school. The Habsburgs, their Hungarian predecessors, the Turk, the princes of Transylvania, all have held it, and it has changed hands many times. It has been pagan, Catholic, and Calvinist, and it has come to understand the supremacy of the free conscience. It suffered under Grindelwald and the Muggle accursed, and under the iron rule of the Muggle Communists as well.

‘But you are not in the peaceful library of a now free Debrecen. You are in Leopoldstadt.

‘This is not the Vienna of waltzes and archdukes and operettas. This is not the Vienna of Mozart and Haydn, of Beethoven, of the cafés and the pastry and Sacher and the sweet life. It is not even the Vienna of the siege, of the end of the Ottoman advance and the salvation of – Christendom. Nor is this the Vienna of Freud and of Karl Kraus, of Klimt, of Klinger and Schiele, of Kokoschka and Frankl, Wittgenstein and Zweig.

‘This is Leopoldstadt. A waste, a heath, a sometime park for coarse hunting, the place where Vienna put its non-Viennese, its non-Austrians, its poor, its Slavs. And always, where it put its Jews – for a time, until there was profit in pogrom and plunder, and profit again in letting the survivors come back after a time. Odd how it was the Christians and not the grasping Jews who profited, eh?

‘This is Leopoldstadt, and it became the Vienna of Frankl in a way. Time and again, the expulsions and the licence to return. Time and again, the dumping of the Jews and the Slavs and the poor, of industry no one wished to see or smell of; and to cover it all, the tracery of an amusement park, and a boy’s choir, that never covered or concealed in full what was Leopoldstadt at its heart. And throughout the expulsions and the returns, there managed to remain a community. Leopoldstadt was known also as Mazzesinsel, the Isle of Matzo.

‘In 1625, the Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann ben Nathan ha-Levi Heller brought the scattered Jews of Vienna together in a community, here. The emperor Leopold expelled them, and the honest Christians of Vienna named the district in his ... honour. Yet the Jews returned; in the 1920s, some four in every ten Leopoldstadters were Jews.

‘But there were good Viennese Christians in the Innere Stadt. What were Jews to them? What are Muggles to Dark Wizards, one might as well ask. There was the mayor, Karl Lueger. There was the Knight of Rosenau – and of Walpurgis, also – Georg Schönerer. And there were young men, one adrift in the city, coming initially from Linz, the other from – everywhere: he, like the Habsburgs, took his surname from German Switzerland, and his forename was Hungarian, he epitomised the Empire: Gellert Grindelwald.

‘When Grindelwald came, and that young man from Linz – you know his name, I need not repeat it – Leopoldstadt had been peaceable, its Jews as safe and secure as could be in the midst of those honest Christians. Harry has brought us to meet, here, just off Große Schiffgaße. And what is special about Große Schiffgaße? Oh, nothing at all. Before Grindelwald and his Muggle counterpart, it was a street in Leopoldstadt. At Große Schiffgaße 8 was a place of worship. It was commonly called the Schiffshul. It was properly Khal Adas Yisroel, and it was the main Orthodox synagogue in Vienna. You can imagine what happened to it, and to its congregation. If you listen closely, you will yet hear the very stones cry out, softly, softly. What do they say? “Yitgaddal v’yitqaddash sh’meh rabba...” The stones of the street that only Wizards can hear yet say Kaddish, the Mourner’s Kaddish, unto the ending of the world.

‘For this is Leopoldstadt, and Grindelwald and his minion have come – and gone. Frankl ceased to be Viennese, a respected man, when they came: he was only another Jew from Leopoldstadt. To the camps with him. Why not? Schönberg; Meitner; all these Jews of Leopoldstadt, they fled and lived. Those who did not flee?

‘Old terrorists turn to crime, for they are criminals, in whatever banner they once wrapped themselves. Leopoldstadt had ceased to fear the respectable people until the criminals came; and then found that the criminals were the respectable people.

‘You are clever, Hermione, and often wise, and you have a great heart. You will draw the moral for yourself. I ask only that you remember. This is not the sweet and sensual Vienna of the waltzes and the good life, of sophistication and charm. This is Leopoldstadt, this is Große Schiffgaße, and the stones cry out, remembering.’

And,

They were billeted in one of the sites created for the Cup, a typically Croat Wizarding fantasy of hunting lodge rusticity, finicky woodcarving, and dragon motifs. It needed no glance outside through the vast windows to know that Hagrid was referring to the charms that had been used to create a late Springtide or early Summertide in the hidden areas of the Park, away from Muggle eyes, now in the depths of January. It naturally buggered up magiforensics, particularly forensic herbology and forensic magizoology.

Harry needed no glance outside to recall this fact; he rose and walked over to the window nonetheless, and brooded, staring out at the landscape. The meadows in which the famous Lakes of Plitvice were set, between the forested mountain slopes of the gorge, to either side, seemed lush, with a pure, fresh green for carpet, patterned with a riotous profusion of wildflowers. The lakes themselves attracted the eye, in all their jewelled colours, each separated by its dam of travertine – travertine one could almost see being built and deposited as lake spilt into lake. The mixed forest, in turn, appeared just at that stage when the delicate watercolours of Spring were poised to be over-painted with the glossy oil paints of the Summer.

And all of it as false as the lie upon which the Wizarding world had built its paranoid secrecy regime. Behind and beneath the mask – and masque – of Springtide, there was the strong, true, Winter landscape and the fauna of the karstic basin, its thunderous waterfalls echoing amidst bare boughs or muffled by snow, its beech and fir and pine bending to wintry winds or still with a wintry stillness. Delve but a little behind the charms laid upon the land, and it would emerge as it truly was, the snow-snug vale beneath its white coverlet, the haunt of bear and marten and wolf, otter and wild cat, boar and stag and lynx far-seeing, and, soaring over the heather and the hornbeams, the sumac and juniper and Italian alder, and the willows of the watercourses, free and high and far flew the eagle and the eagle owl and a myriad of other birds, even as the capercailzie boomed from wintry wood and forest. And deeper in, wyverns and dragons were still to be found, and cockatrices denned, drowsing through the months when the lakes were frozen and the air bit like iron. Deep beneath the ice, in the unfrozen waters of the ponds, dugbogs hibernated; high upon the mountain slopes, Graphorns dug for vegetation beneath the snow, their breaths clouding the bitter air. In those strains inhered the true, wild, deep-throated music of the place, mighty and free, the deep pedal and the thundering diapason: not in this meretricious, music-box lyric.

And,

Seamus shook his head, with a wry grin, as he looked down upon Salzburg, all cream and cadmium, crowned in verdigris dome and roof, set against the Alpine slopes, now umber and sienna and grave olive in their winter garb, frosted here and there with snow like cream: alps mit Schlag. Below him, the River Salzach was steely in the fading light. A passing friar – for his Apparating point had been the Kapuzinerberg, where the monks were well used and welcoming to passing Light Wizards – nodded to him as he began his walk towards the river and the crossing to the Old Town, the Altstadt around the fortress Festung Hohensalzburg, and thence to the high-baroque cathedral, the Salzburger Dom, with its domes like verdigris agaric, Stropharia æruginosa, in a wood.

And,

Wherefore it was the rather unlikely team of Molly, Andromeda, Narcissa, and Hermione who had arrived – after an incomprehensible comment by Harry to the effect that he ‘now felt rather like David Audley’, which reference was nagging Hermione’s insatiable wits mercilessly – at a secluded spot not far from Tímár Street, the Street of the Tanners, that divided the Wizarding and Muggle quarters of Debreczen.

Narcissa sniffed – not haughtily: eagerly. The cold air was yet redolent, not of tanning – for it had been long since the tanners had occupied Tanners’s Street or the cobblers, Varag Street - but rather of lacquer and fired clay and honest wool and fabric (for the quarter is famous for its potters, now, and lacemakers and embroiderers of rich, sweeping cloaks, for all sorts and conditions of the makers of traditional wares and costume), and redolent most of all of the vibrant Magyar cuisine, stuffed cabbages, game and beef, rich stews, lágos bread, and, from every cukrászda, Dobos tortes, Rákóczi cheesecakes, and coffee, odorous and fine, and all borne upon the swirling, keen air that came to the city from the Puszta, the Alföld, the great Pannonian plain, the Magyar steppe, filtered through the Great Greenwood, the Forest Nagyerdő. It was a heady and wine-like air, sparkling, crisp, saturate with ancient magic.

I apologise for the length of these excerpts (I don’t apologise for their source: I’m not the greatest author in fandom, but I am the one whose permission I know I have to use his work as an example).  Yet – do you see what I’ve done?  In the Viennese section, I have used the picture-postcard Vienna and the culture of the wine-shops and the cuisine of Vienna to set a mood and distance the British visitors from the reality of any large and consequently grotty city; and then, through Tony Goldstein, have advanced plot, characterisation, conflict, and theme through contrasting the chocolate-box image with horrific history.  In the section set in Plitvice, geology, weather, fauna and flora do something very similar, and again, the unfamiliar is likened to the familiar, dragons and basilisks are slipped in amidst wolves and bears, sights are likened to music.  In the snippet from Salzburg, metals, stone, colours and hues, and botanical similes carry it off; in the Debrecen section, the incidents of shops and cafes and the sprinkling of Magyar words set the mood.



[i] A formulation that is all but sacred writ, as it is that of the godfather of us all, Lord Dunsany.

[ii] Chapter Seven, ‘And I Tiresias have foresuffered all’, http://www.fictionalley.org/authors/wemyss/UADM07.html

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