02 August 2007

Introducing a red sky and purple grass

I knew I was in trouble when my kindergarten teacher told me I could not color the sky red.

"Why?" I asked, staring at my beloved crayon. "Fire engines are red."

That says something about me. Don’t tell me how to create or to write what I know. I find no fun in that. My passion lies in research and understanding something that confused me before. I love finding a tid-bit of information that I never knew, or discovering a part of history that is under-appreciated.

I was thrilled to be invited to a blog devoted to writers of unusual historicals. These authors craft true labors of love. We write stories requiring a bit more research and time than most. I bet I am not the only one who runs with scissors around here…

My back story? I work for a small museum devoted to birds and the art of bird carving. There, I teach environmental education. I am also a ranger for the National Park Service. I married the man I loved since I was twelve and just had my first child. (Abigail Sage--8 months and the next Pulitzer winner.) Natural childbirth is far less painful than writing a novel...

My historical, Adelrune, is set in 1866 Austria during the brink of the Seven Weeks War. I blame a lot of it on the research for my trilogy (which continues a work of classic literature). While working on that I was slowly crafting the idea of a heroine whose emotions are expressed through music. I chose the musical theme because I used it extensively in my trilogy. I was comfortable with adding those aspects to my writing. For years I had an image in my mind of Adelrune, but I was too intimidated to place her in any of my novels. Exactly where do I use a heroine who by today’s standards would be viewed as having Asperger Syndrome?

I did not set out to design Adelrune as autistic. Some time ago a stranger read some of my work which included this character. I was asked why I created an autistic heroine. I scowled. Autistic? I thought she just viewed the world locked in her fantastic imagination. Much like I did. When I heard an interview on NPR with Dr. Temple Grandin, unarguably one of the most accomplished and noted adults with autism, I was left stunned. The way Dr. Grandin described her visual means of thinking, (by doing so in pictures) was precisely the way I had always envision Adelrune, except her world is perceived in music. Temple Grandin mentioned in this interview that she would not understand the phrase 'My neighbor did something nice for me today' until an image rose in her mind of a man holding out a bouquet of flowers. I nearly fainted. How could I have crafted a heroine so similar to this without ever knowing a thing about autism and visual thought? For example my heroine is asked at one point what loneliness is. Her reply: Schubert. Pianoforte Trio No. 2 in E Flat Major D 929 Opus 100. Second moment... the cellos... those hauntingly unhappy cellos...

Adelrune had Aspergers. Now I had an explanation for why she seemed so unique. I was never able to put my finger on it, but it made perfect sense.

But I didn't know a thing about autism and I was not a contemporary writer. I write historicals and autism is a modern doctrine. Dare I write her this way? Obviously the frame work was already there. How it got there I can never explain. Where can I set it so her genius could shine? How can I create an historical romance with such a character? At the time I was reading a book by Alan Palmer: Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis-Joseph. I came across a passage about a mentally disabled member of the family who lived in the secluded rooms of the Schönbrunn palace.

I think my brain exploded.

My heroine is by no means mentally disabled, but she would have been viewed as such in the mid 19th century. She would have to be convincing to be believed as a high functioning autistic. I would need one hell of a dynamic hero to play off of her. But who would he be? My gaze kept sliding to Palmer's book. The Habsburgs had a rich, romantic and tragic history. The Habsburg family was plagued with illness and mental disorders. There is something romantic about Austria and the Alps. Vienna was one of the centers of musical culture. Not to mention there is a certain husky allure to the music of the German language...

The rest as they say is history. Research for this book is constantly on going: Aspergers and its role in relationships and social settings, music and music theory, composers of the 19th century, and the history of the Habsburg Empire. I am not an expert in any of these fields. Like many I am simply a writer with a gift of crafting a story. Looking back to kindergarten I realize that my comment regarding the sky could be viewed today as having autistic traits. I liked the color red. I liked fire engines. So in my mind, if I liked red then the sky could be red. Why couldn’t it? It was not logical to me that the sky could not be red because it was in reality blue.

Prior to World War II, and even more so in the mid 19th century, Austrian children with severe handicaps spent most of their time in clinics or asylums. The sentence, the life, was hellish. It was Hans Asperger, a Viennese doctor, who reformed these children and made the world take notice of their unique views of the world. It was he who first suggested that everyone is a little autistic, a little 'Aspergerish' and the line that separates the normal or neuro-typical people from those with Asperger Syndrome is a little more than a line drawn in the sand. I keep that in mind as I write this book.

My trilogy is also out of the norm, and I will mention it only briefly. If done correctly, expanding upon a work of classic literature it is met with great success: Brooks’ March, Rhys’ The Wild Saragasso Sea, Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife and Susan Kay’s Phantom. To market such a book a writer must be an authority in their genre and understand the focus group embracing the original storyline. As a child I loved Poe, Stoker, and Leroux. And it was my love of the brilliant and mysterious writing of Gaston Leroux that drew me to join the ranks of the authors who dared to continue a well beloved classic. A fascinating and amazing man, Gaston Leroux’s books chronicling his hero, Joseph Routabille, are still viewed today as a standard for all mystery writers to achieve. Leroux’s loves of the macabre and his monstrous villains have fascinated readers for generations.

One does not pick up a pen and write a trilogy continuing Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera without an impending sense of doom. As a writer you are dickering with well established character and readers who fiercely defend their images of those original heroes and heroines. I have met an amazing assortment of people in my journey to craft that trilogy, from the support of best selling authors to experts in the field of gothic literature and Freudian thought. I am amazed at how embraced the idea is so far.

So with that I will ask what makes your heroines unique? In a world where pages leap with heroines who are feisty and independent, what do you consider a sympathetic character trait and how do you ensure the readers care?

Now if you will excuse me, I need to run like hell with my scissors.

Bis später! (see you later)


Camilla Bartley said...

I tend to create heroines whose lives are put through the wringer--so perhaps I'm drawn to heroines with damaged pasts who don't succumb to it?
And can I say that I'm envious of your plot? A autistic heroine set in Austria? Great idea!

And welcome to the blog!

Kristin-Marie said...

What is that ole saying about red skies and sailors' warnings? Terrific blog to introduce your work in progress.