Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Origin Stories -- A Summer in Amber

Evening, Maig Glen

I suspect that I had begun working the first “episode” or two of that would become The Bright Black Sea prior to starting A Summer in Amber, but since A Summer in Amber ended up being published first, I’ll discuss it first.

Perhaps I should begin by saying that I blame it all on Edgar Rice Boroughs. Boroughs was experiencing a great revival back in the mid-1960’s when I started reading science fiction, and I was a big fan of his stories as a teen. Still, I never realized just how much of an influence he had on my tastes in stories until I started writing my own. All his stories had an element of romance in them. There was always a princess to fall in love with and rescue, usually many times. I realized, only after I started writing my stories, that I always wanted that element in them as well. They didn’t seem complete without one, nor would they be as fun to daydream about. I am, however, very careful to make certain that my princess are usually the ones doing the rescuing. They’re more fun that way.

The Maryfield Road
Now on to A Summer in Amber. The first files I find for the story, then titled The Rhymer’s Gate, date back to March 2013. This fits with my time line, since I know that watching the first two seasons of Downton Abbey on Netflix sparked my desire to write this story. I enjoyed the atmosphere it created, both visually and with the music, and the romance. I was, however, certain that I could write a better one using the same theme – a commoner’s intrusion into the world of the upper classes – while avoiding that show’s soap opera entanglements. i.e. no dead bodies need be hauled around the house.

My first thought was to write it as a period piece, like Downton Abbey. But I rather quickly rejected that idea. First, because it would require a great deal of research to get all the little details of everyday life in England in 1910 right, since I know that historical fiction readers are very picky about getting those things right. This would mean researching all sorts of things, from train schedules and times, to how telephones worked, as well as the manners and speech of the English of all classes of the time. And a thousand other things. It could, and no doubt has, been done. But it would involve a lot of work. I don’t really like work. And, well, in the end, I would mean that much of the backdrop of my story would reflect the research, work, and writings of other people, which made me uneasy.

Glen Road
I can offer two examples of this phenomena from my experience. Many years ago I started reading a fantasy book that featured a sailing ship. As I read the description of this ship, I experienced a sense of deja vu. It seemed that I was reading an almost word for word description of the tea clipper Cutty Sark. Tea and tea clippers where an interest of mine in my youth, and so I happened to be quite familiar with such ships – in words, anyway – and the passage struck me as something I’d read before. Maybe it wasn’t. I never bothered searching for the description in the Cutty Sark book that it reminded me of, but it just seemed so eerily familiar.

And then there is Connie Willis’s Blackout. I was also an avid reader of life in England in 1940, and the blitz. So that when I was reading her story, I got the distinct feeling that she had read, and incorporated into her story, incidents related in the sources I had also read. I know that she had spent a year researching the books, so this is not surprising. And while this is just a sense of deja vu rather than any suggestion of plagiarism, the fact that I could see, as it were, the bones of her story from my own reading in the history of the period, made me leery of doing something like that myself. I feared that if I wrote the story as a period piece, the work and writings of others would inevitably creep into my story. I didn’t want that. I wanted it all my own.

Bridge over the Maig River
The other reason I decided not to write it as a period piece is that history is an iron master. If I set it in the same time period, all the young men would be going off to war in a couple of years, and the world would change in ways that are well known. So, unless I wanted to make a historical fantasy out of it, the future of my characters would be dictated not by me, but by history. I didn’t care to cede control of my characters and story to history. And if I was going to write a fantasy, I might as well make it all my own.

However, since I wanted that old-time feel to my story, I decided to set the story in a post apocalyptic future. One that would allow me to bring in all the old-timey stuff I wanted. Not only I could then mix  old stuff together with some modern stuff as needed, but I could give the book a vaguely haunting, nostalgic air to it, like Downton Abbey had.This would also give me complete freedom to make up whatever I wanted, without a tremendous amount of research, which is to say, it saved me from having to work. It would be my world, and I’d call the shots. I figured that a story like this could fit – more or less – into the steampunk genre that was fairly popular at the time, and might still be. Sort of.

Road to the Highlands
The second major ingredient of A Summer in Amber was Scotland. The locale was inspired by the work of John Buchan and the stories he set in the Scotland of the first several decades of the twentieth century. Stories like The 39 Steps, John Macnab, and Huntingtower, plus the Scottish stories of Compton Mackenzie like Monarch of the Glen, Keep the Home Guard Turning, Whisky Galore and Hunting the Fairies. All these stories and their vivid description of the Scottish countryside brought that land to life in my imagination, and I wanted to revisit them in my story. I had traveled about Scotland on an extended holiday after I graduated from college, so I could bring a bit of personal experience to the stories as well. I should also credit the 1959 movie The 39 Steps with Kenneth More and Taina Elg. It is one of my favorite movies. It offers a rather romantic version of Scotland of the 1950’s. No low, grey skies to be found in its Scotland. The bicycle weekend in the story was inspired by a scene in the movie.

So I had a theme inspired by Downton Abbey, and a setting inspired by the books of Buchan and Mackenzie. What I needed was a story to get my narrator to Scotland and on to the estate, if not into the house of the wealthy upper class laird.

Evening in the Glen
I set out to write a mystery/thriller centered around a legendary invention. I explored many ways the story could play out. At one time the secret was a theory that would lead to a great scientific revolution which was devised by one Hugh Gallagher who stayed at the estate – owned by the department head of the college that he taught at – during the Storm Years. There, with the aid of his wife, Selina, he had perfected this theory, or so legend had it. It was lost, and would be found… Another version, closer to the final version, had a lot more industrial spying, intrigue, and action in it. Rival firms were actively attempting to steal the secret that Sandy Say was deciphering, including waylaying him, stealing the papers, along with chases through the countryside. But… after working on it for a year and more, I realized that I wasn’t that type of writer. I couldn’t get that type of story to work. And so, in the end, I just decided to write a simple “What I did during summer vacation” romance.

To compensate for the elimination of the industrial espionage elements, I made the “The Rhymer’s Gate” more central, mysterious, and dramatic to the story. And for this element of the story, I was inspired by a Popeye story by E.C. Segar. He drew and wrote a story entitled The Mystery of Brownstone Hill, which ran in the newspapers as a comic from early June 1930 to early November 1930. It featured a mysterious house on Brownstone Hill, where one Doctor Wattey rented. He took with him only a few boxes, and then, well he was never seen again, and for 20 years not only did nothing grow within half a mile of the house, but no one was able to get within a quarter mile of it before they fled for their lives. While E.C. Segar's story is quite different from mine, I used some of the elements from it, the mystery surrounding it, and the inability to get close to it, for my Rhymer's Gate. 

So A Summer in Amber owes its existence to such diverse inspirations as the TV show, Downton Abbey, the old thriller, The 39 Steps, the Scottish stories like The Monarch of the Glen, and a Popeye comic. Go figure.

The story is actually based in a real place, though I changed all the names, slightly. If you find it, you can see, on Google street view, what the countryside looks like now. Though, of course, after the Storm Years, it looks somewhat different in the story – more overgrown and abandoned.

My goal as a creator is to bring something new into the world. And yet, as you can see, the seeds for whatever is new to the world in A Summer in Amber, were in the world already – brought there by creators before me.

The aurora over the highland
NOTE: The illustrations for this post are samples of the chapter heading art I had created for an early version of the book. Art in ebooks is somewhat problematical (for me) and I decided that black and white versions for the print book wouldn't be worth the effort.

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