In my June 6th post “Taking Us There” I discussed settings from the standpoint of the character-like role they can play in a story. Marilyn Todd comes at the subject from a different angle—seeing setting as a source of inspiration. The author of books and stories set everywhere from Ancient Greece and Rome to America’s Wild West to Britain in the fifties and sixties—not to mention current-day stories set in France, England, and the U.S.—she is as versatile as anyone you can name when it comes to conveying place in fiction. For an overview of her range, check out her website (www.marilyntodd.com).—Janet Hutchings
They say, hard work never killed anyone. I say, why take the risk? Because if, as The Troggs say, love is all around, then so is inspiration—and writing is a tough enough road without having to lay it yourself. Luckily, inspiration can strike from anywhere. A face, a gesture, a piece in the paper. A photo, a building, a song. Indeed, Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” kick-started my story “ 667, Evil and Then Some” (EQMM May 09). But some of my greatest sources of inspiration, and the ones that stayed with me, have come from places I’ve visited.
Take Jerome. Jerome, Arizona. One mile up and what feels a million miles from anywhere, it was a thriving mining town. Thriving as in three million pounds of copper a month coming out of those hills—and that’s not counting the gold, silver, and zinc. The eye of the gold-rush hurricane, Jerome promised riches, a fresh start, and perhaps most importantly freedom. But. And there’s always a but. For every miner digging out a fortune, there were a dozen or more looking to lift the financial burden from his shoulders. And this is where the balance of control suddenly shifts.
One minute, you’re mooching round a ghost town, taking pictures, bumping into another English couple who live not far from you in France, and moaning about it being ninety-eight degrees. The next, the damn place has your ankle in a vice, and you know it won’t let you go until you write its story.
And what a story, eh? Short on churches, long on bordellos, Jerome was chockablock with card sharps, saloons, and opium dens, quickly earning it the reputation of being “ The Wickedest Town in the West” (the title of one of my upcoming stories in EQMM).
Unlike the old-timers, you don’t have to dig deep for the action these days. Take the night Billy the Kid relieved Wyatt Earp of his famous peacemaker. Same night Nora “ Butter” Brown opened her brothel and gave Wyatt peace of a somewhat different kind. Booze was cheap, life was cheaper. Butter was killed by her own husband not long afterwards. Throwing acid in a girl’s face was almost de rigeur. The murder of Sammie Dean, one of Jerome’s hundred or so “ soiled doves” remains unsolved to this day.
And if that’s not enough, spare a thought for poor old Headless Charlie, still haunting the abandoned mineshafts. The ghosts of the Kiowa are rumoured to talk to anyone who walks the fields outside of town. And who knew the love of Jelly Roll Morton’s life was one of Jerome’s most famous prostitutes? Or, blush blush, what Jelly Roll was slang for…??
For those of you who haven’t dashed off to find out—and don’t worry, we all know you’re going to Google it later—another place that will stick like chewing gum to the sole of your shoe is Sicily. Not simply because of Mount Etna. Though it did spew out some spectacular lava fountains a couple of months back. Not even because of that deliciously light Limoncello liqueur, made from fat, juicy Sicilian lemons.
For an island smaller than Vermont, it packs one hell of a picturesque punch. Rugged mountains. Sun- drenched plains. Rocky coves. And oh, those infinite, golden, sandy beaches. (Research is tough, but someone has to do it.) As always, though, the brighter the sun, the darker the shadows.
When did Sicily ever belong to the Sicilians? First, the Greeks, then the Romans. For a hundred years, it served as a Muslim emirate, before the Normans effectively kick-started the Crusades by invading the island and restoring Christianity. By the 15th century, Sicily had fallen into the hands of the Spanish, who treated the islanders so badly they formed a separate society of their own, which eventually morphed into the Mafia.
All this while being rocked by earthquakes, decimated by the Black Death, showered with volcanic eruptions, and attacked by pirates from the Barbary Coast!
Then there are the myths. Possibly the most famous is that of Scylla and Charybdis. Monsters, cannibals, and just an arrow shot apart, if Charybdis didn’t suck your ship down, then six-headed Scylla was on standby to snatch sailors from the deck, crack their bones, and swallow them. Jason and his Argonauts tangled with this pair of lovelies and lived to tell the tale. Odysseus encountered them on his way home from Troy, only he was not so lucky. Scylla seized six of his men, one in each mouth. Six more job vacancies open.
Were they monsters? Of course not. Were they monstrous? I’ll say. The Strait of Messina, separating Sicily from mainland Italy, is less than two miles wide. In a tempest, strong currents would be deadly for lightweight, wooden ships, while storm-force winds could dash them against the jagged rocks in an instant. For those early seafarers, “ Watch out for the undertow and mind the rock shoals” might well be good advice. But when you’re captain of a trading mission that runs into several months, and you have to put ashore each night, in often hostile territory, certain pointers can get overlooked. “ Beware the whirlpool and six-headed she-monster” is a warning you’ll never forget.
Which is what I find so fascinating about these myths. Not just their origins, but how they evolved and were perceived.
That Mount Etna was believed to be the Gateway to Hell during the Middle Ages is understandable. On the other hand, the legend that says any flower thrown into a certain river in Greece will wash up five hundred miles away in a Syracusan spring is stretching it a bit. Or is it? When you’re a Greek settler, far from a homeland and family you know you’ll never see again, what’s wrong with thinking the flowers that grow beside the spring are from the same plant as those in your native country? Or that the river god, who causes the flow to disappear underground in Greece, doesn’t surface here, to unite with his one true love? The nymph of this lovely spring?
Such is the pull of the Sicilian landscape and its legends that I’ve written about it twice. First, in Virgin Territory (in the Claudia Seferius series set in Ancient Rome). I ha read how the Greeks and Romans used to staunch minor cuts with spiders’ webs. So who actually collected these, I wondered? How did they preserve them? All of which led to my recluse of a huntsman up in the hills. The man who collects spiders’ webs.
The second time was Blind Eye (in the High Priestess Iliona Ancient Greek mystery series), which centres on another Sicilian myth. That of the giant, one-eyed cannibal, the Cyclops. Like my huntsman, here was another lonely, misunderstood outsider, feared and reviled thanks to the “ eye” in the middle of his forehead. A tattoo of concentric circles that was the mark of the smith in Ancient Thrace. A mark which set this big, shambling man apart from society, and made him what he was.
But then I like loners. And blood. And myths. Put them together, and I’m like a kid in a sweet shop. Throw in some romance, and I’m as close to heaven as it gets. And I always, always throw in some romance!
Which brings us to the challenge. Such is the intricate balance between character, plot, and setting, that it’s often hard to decide which comes first, the chicken or the egg. Now and then, though—rare, but not unheard of—they come together at the same time.
There’s a lake in southwest France, not far from where I live, which is close to the Atlantic Ocean, but at the same time sheltered by the pine forests for which the area is famous. One still, warm summer’s evening, I was sitting on the hotel balcony with my husband, drinking wine and watching the water turn blood red in the setting sun. Wondering how it must have been for people growing up in this isolated spot, before tourists, telephones, and TV transformed their lives. From such musings, a Peeping Tom was born. Georges, in “Dead and Breakfast” (EQMM March 09). A simple man in every sense—slow learning, unassuming, harmless—but so real in my mind that I shot the second deadlock on the door that night.
And the lesson to pass on from all of this?
Don’t drink wine so bloody late at night.
The latest story in the High Priestess Iliona series mentioned in Marilyn’s blog will appear in the November 2012 EQMM (on sale at the end of July).
There is a wonderful book explaining how myths were used to convey important information (like the whirlpool) in preliterate societies: WHEN THEY SEVERED EARTH FROM SKY by Barber and Barber. You will be amazed at how many familiar stories are really about volcanos!