Monday, April 27, 2009

Writing Alchemy

Dave Duncan, who writes fantasy novels, has a series set in an alternate-history Renaissance -- pretty much they all take place in Venice, Italy. In the books, which run to three so far, the protagonist is Alfeo, an impoverished young nobleman who works for Maestro Nostradamus, who, cranky and arthritic, has relocated to City of Canals.

The books are essentially murder mysteries, ripe with arcane history, and Alfeo, as Nostradamus's apprentice, does all the legwork and more than his share of the detective's reasoning, too.

They are fun reads. I won't detail the plot of the most recent volume, but ...

In the latest one, The Alchemist's Pursuit, there is a throwaway line, on p 106, in which Alfeo is doing research, digging in their files, and finds one, which he describes as " ... thinner than a portrait painter in Constantinople ..."

I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoyed that line. It presumes a knowledge on the reader's part that made me grin when I read it. It is from a writer who wants his reader to have done a little work, and presumes that s/he has.

Comedians sometimes talk about being too smart for the room, and it's a tricky line to keep from crossing, but sometimes I love being the only guy in the audience who laughs, knowing I was the one from whom the joke was crafted.

(One of the reasons I like talking to audiences at science fiction conventions: No matter how esoteric something I say might be, somebody in the group will get it.)

People here -- some of them -- will get it, too. Such assumptions are one of the reasons I do this blog ...

P.S. Oh, and an amusing link for writers ...

8 comments:

Formosa Neijia said...

The flip side is how often I get disappointed that no one got it or saw what I was trying to convey. Few people these days read or listen carefully. There's no focus. So puns like that are sometimes wasted.

Pearls before swine, and all that.

Steve Perry said...

I used to put all kinds of in-joke into my writing, thinking that people would get them.

Mostly, they didn't; but partially that was because of the size of the audience.

When I did a Star Wars book, it got read by a lot of people, and almost every one of the little word games I played got noticed and a response. Some college kid in New Jersey sent me a list of questions -- Did you mean this when you said that? that nailed ninety percent of 'em down.

I figure that anybody who gets the jokes I drop into a book -- like the famous Zelazny pun in Lord of Light -- is the kind of reader I want.

Too bad there aren't enough of them to make me rich ...

Dan Moran said...

I put Beth Davenport from the Rockford Files into one of my books -- only one person ever noticed, but it was worth it for that.

What's the Zelazny pun? Not sure I ever caught it.

Steve Perry said...

In Lord of Light, Zelazny has a character, the Shan of Ibek. Sam hypnotizes him, convinces him that he is Lord Kalkin, and sends him to collect what is supposed to be a new body, because he doesn't trust the gods to deliver a healthy one.

The Shan, thinking he is Sam, shows up after the transfer, new and apparently okay, and Sam thinks maybe he made a mistake. But he hasn't -- the dupe has an epileptic seizure, and falls off his horse. And the line is:

"And then the fit hit the Shan ..."

He spent half a chapter setting it up, and I never saw it coming.

Worg said...

"... thinner than a portrait painter in Constantinople"

Yeah, that's pretty esoteric. It's also very good period flavor, because people of that time would have known immediately what he meant.

Steve Perry said...

I'm not altogether sure people would have gotten it back then, not unless they were fairly well-educated

Such information about other religions is a lot more available these days, and I suspect that most non-Islamic folks would still miss this. Most Christians would, I bet.

Steve Perry said...

For those of you who wonder what the hell we are talking about here, have a look:

http://looklex.com/e.o/mus_iconoclasm.htm

Basically, in Islam, the notion of representing people -- especially the Prophet -- or even animals in art is considered by some interpretations of the Glorious Koran (Qu'ran) as forbidden. Farther away you get from the Middle East, the more watered-down this tends to be, but that's why you see all the wonderful geometric imagery in Islamic art -- that's allowed.

So, a skinny portait painter in Constantinople during this time, when the Ottoman Empire under the Turks held sway, goes to this. HIstorically, Constantinople was Christian, more or less, Roman and Orthodox Greek, but when the Turks took the city in the mid-1400's, the sultans brought Islam with them.

And that's the story ...

Dan Moran said...

fit hit the shan ....

Well, I'm dumber than I ever thought. Either that didn't amuse me to such a degree that it made zero impact on me, or I didn't catch it. I reread LoL recently, last year or two, too.