Sunday, June 7, 2015

Writing A Summer in Amber


I think my initial idea for a story like A Summer in Amber came from watching the first two seasons of Downton Abbey on Netflix. I seem to remember thinking that I'd like to do a story like that – but with more adventure rather soap opera elements. I quickly decided not to write it as a period piece. First, because I always wanted to write science fiction and by placing the story in the future would make it, more or less, a science fiction story. And looking ahead, genre fiction is generally more popular than literature, so being able to list it as science fiction seemed the way to go. And secondly if I wrote it as a period piece I'd need to research the period to make it authentic and for that I'd have to rely on the work of others, at the risk of being less than original. And no doubt, the story has been told many times as well in the period and after it. So by setting the story in a future I could include the elements of the past I cared to include to give it the old-fashioned atmosphere I wanted, without the need for historical accuracy. Basically it allowed me to cheat.

I'd read an article about the potential threat solar storms pose to societies dependent on an electrical grid around that time and decided to use that idea to knock technological civilization back the several hundred years I need to give the future the Edwardian feel I was looking for. I did want a steampunk air to the story. The imposing of late Victorian technology on the 21st resulted in a different feel than imposing the 21st on the 19th century. A sort of mirror image. And I had no intention of including zombies which seem to somehow become a standard steampunk feature, nor airship pirates or mechanical men. Still, I hoped that the eclectic mix of old and new technologies would give the future a rather pastoral air to it that I rather doubt it will ever have again. Though, I should add that I know enough about the past to know that you'd not want to live it the way it was. 

I placed the story largely in Scotland because of my fondness for the Scottish stories of John Buchan, like the Thirty-nine Steps, John Macnab and Huntingtower series, and Compton Mackenzie's Scottish stories like, Monarch of the Glen, Keeping the Home Guard Turning, Whiskey Galore, and Hunting the Fairies. Plus the 1958 version of the 39 Steps with Kenneth More which is, for some reason, is one of my favorite movies – perhaps its on location filming that gives it the nostalgic look and feeling I wished to capture in my story. I spend several weeks traveling about Scotland back in the early 70's via a British Rail pass so I had a little sense of the country from almost half a century ago. This story is based, however, on my travels about Scotland via Google street view. The only way I care to travel these days. And as long as I'm mentioning inspirations, I should also add that E C Segar's Popeye comic strip story from 1930 called the Mystery of Brownstone Hill, served as an inspiration for one feature of this story.

I started writing this story some three years ago under various titles, including,  The Tick Tock Gate, and the Rhymer's Gate. The main thrust of the plot, and the semi-diary approach remained the constant throughout the process, though the nature of the central mystery, and the type of story changed. I don't think I ever seriously considered writing it as a fantasy, but I certainly tried to write it as a mystery or an adventure-thriller. The story is set up by Lord Learmonte insistence that the manuscript transcribed by an outsider in Scotland because of his fear of industrial spies within his organization. In the original version, I had those spies and their activities in Scotland be a driving force in the story. I had envisioned attempts to steal the secret, with perhaps kidnappings and chases across the Scottish countryside – in short, much more like a 39 Steps type of story. I could never quite get to work, however.  My writing style was just too slow paced, and I really like to have actions make sense, and those plots seemed to include too unlikely or unbelievable actions for my tastes. Guess I'm just not that type of writer. So last summer, unwilling to give up on the half-finished story, I decided just to write it as "a novel". A nice, generic novel. Sandy Say would just relate what happened during his summer in the highlands, both the everyday and the extraordinary events, as he slowly fell into the "magic" of those days and youth. Using this "what I did over summer vacation" approach, I was able to finish the story, and, with several revisions since then, losing something like 9,000 words in the process, get it to the point were I felt it was good enough to publish and bering the long project to it's end, in a sigh of steam, the grinding of the brakes, and clank of carriages.



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