Saturday, June 17, 2006

Stalking Alfie

All novelists worth their salt must work their way under the skin and into the minds of their characters; it’s a necessary step on the way to thoroughly inhabiting the novel’s world. Some try to create a character by listing his likes and dislikes, by asking how he behaves while eating with a group of people, how he reacts to rain or sun, how he reacts to someone much poorer than him, or to someone much richer? And so on, and so forth. One is reminded of the attempts of phenomenologists to describe and catalogue their sensory experiences - the relationships between ideas in their minds and the things in the world that they represent. Others, especially comic novelists, borrow extensively from people around them, exaggerating and mixing traits from a variety of acquaintances. My approach is probably the most common, and is much less systematic. It’s rather like stalking a bird through a dense forest. I know that it’s small and brown, and sometimes I can hear its song, but I need to see it entire, just for a moment, before I can know what it is.

In Mind’s Eye, I had the name of the main character from the first. (Names have a talismanic importance - they must strike the right chord in the memory.) Alfie Flowers: a sturdy London name. I knew that Alfie lived in London, and I knew a good deal of his family’s history, and knew that he suffered from an atypical form of epilepsy - it’s a necessary part of the story - and that this made him cautious, made him look at the world at a slant in case it surprised him in the wrong way. After a false start involving trading old Airfix kits on eBay, I knew what he did for a living too: he was a street photographer, following in the footsteps of his missing father, a 1960s hip fashion photographer turned war documentarist.

It took a little while longer to find out where he lived. I find that walking helps to loosen knotted thoughts and joggle ideas together; I walk a lot, when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. On my way back from a long ramble one day, about a hundred yards from my home, I realized that I standing across the street from where Alfie Flowers lived: a narrow plot of land beside the North London railway, with a small, old bus garage and a couple of caravans. He lived in one of those caravans, and had his darkroom in the other. In summer, he ate his meals outside, at a picnic table. And so on.

But I didn’t see him clearly until he was returning home on a crowded train:

Alfie slumped in his corner, a large, somewhat shapeless man, like a bear that hadn’t been properly licked into shape by its mother, his blond hair a disarrayed halo, wearing a red check shirt and baggy black elephant cords, his bag clutched to his belly, his big feet in strap sandals. He had prehensile toes, long and double-jointed, thatched at their second joints with pads of dark hair.

At last, I was on the inside.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sidewise Award Nominations

This year's Sidewise Award nominations have been announced. The award, which has been been presented since 1995, recognizes excellence in alternate history.

Long Form:
Ian R. MacLeod, The Summer Isles (Aio Publishing)
Sophia McDougall, Romanitas (Orion)
Paul Park, A Princess of Roumania (Tor)

Short Form
William Barton, "Harvest Moon" (Asimov's September 2005)
A.M. Dellamonica, "The Illuminated Heretic" (Alternate Generals III, edited by Harry Turtledove, Baen April 2005)
Kim Newman & Paul J. McAuley, "Prix Victor Hugo Script"
Jason Stoddard, "Panacea" (SciFiction, September 14, 2005)
Lois Tilton, "Pericles the Tyrant" (Asimov's, October-November 2005)

It’s rather cool to find our little jape up there with stories published in traditional venues.
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