I’ve noticed recently an increased use (mostly by young people and mostly spoken rather than written) of the word ‘gotten’. I consider it to be an Americanism as I would be surprised to read a modern American novel that failed to have it in there, either as speech or narration. And I have to admit to being somewhat judgemental about its use: I think of it as a mark of poor education or intelligence. (So what? Shoot me for it!) However, it was these slightly uncomfortable feelings that made me look up its origin. Imagine my surprise when I found that it was, in fact, from twelfth century English. It went over to America, where its use continued, but was dropped in England and replaced by ‘got’. Its origin is from Middle English ‘geten’ and Old English ‘gietan’. So there you go…
And, of course, let’s not forget that we still use ‘forgotten’.
Old things being used in modern times. There’s a lot of it about. In fiction, there is a preoccupation with the past, especially the mythical past. From Homer to Thomas Mallory right through to modern times with the likes of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or American Gods. The current fascination with all things Marvel and DC draws on this same hunger for the fantastical. It used to be cheap, schlocky escapism and existed only in the realm of schoolboy comics and socially-challenged older males. It is now mainstream entertainment with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on creating these worlds on cinema screens. I can only think that it is a product of the time in which we live: uncertainty, post-factual, politicians openly lying and a society in which none of us are guaranteed a safe or prosperous future. All the things that we used to take for granted: a living wage, a safe job, somewhere to live, peace and stability, all seems a bit old fashioned now. Any one of us are only ever a few disastrous steps from sitting on the pavement with a black beanie in front of us.
I’ve contributed slightly to the idea of escapism by providing a photograph of a dying dinosaur that I spotted recently in Mahon. If you can’t see his head and arm then you have no soul.
Part of the magic of writing, both doing it and enjoying it, is the creation of characters, events and places that don’t actually exist. When a reader feels that the story is no longer believable or that it is stretching the ability to suspend disbelief then it is rarely the fault of the story or the idea. If the thought, ‘but trees just can’t fly’ or ‘fish can’t talk’ or ‘new-born babies can’t do quantum mechanics’ then it will be the fault of the writer. The writer has not given his or her readership the correct level of respect. The writer has taken the audience for granted and expected them to simply accept whatever implausible idea they’re throwing out at them. It won’t work. You have to earn the trust of the reader and then you have to keep that respect. It’s easy to lose and one sure way is by treating the reader like an idiot. There are plenty of very popular and very successful authors that are guilty of this. Think, as a reader, how many times have you put a book down half-way through a chapter and thought, ‘No, I’m not having that. I was doing my best here and now it’s just gone too far.’? It will, I’m sure, be many times and yet it’s not simply because the idea is trying to sell something that just can’t be there. That is not a barrier to a good story: the Ents walk and speak; young Arthur was the only person who could pull that sword out of that stone; Frankenstein was made from spare parts of dead bodies and reanimated by lightning; Dracula lives forever feeding on human blood and can turn into a bat and fly. We don’t question these things even though they are absurd. We don’t question them because they are presented in a convincing and respectful manner.
The two pictures above are of the same horizon. Majorca is simply not visible in the first but there is no hiding the solidity of the island in the second. It appears not to exist and yet is in full sight.
And, above all, the story needs structure. The ideas need supports. They must not show though. Too many modern thrillers are spoilt by having the scaffolding on full show. The writer has concentrated entirely on the twists and the red-herrings but has neglected to hide his or her working. It’s not an exam. You don’t get more points for showing exactly how it was done. If you can see the supports then the magic is lost. Although, in this picture of the Talaiotic Cave that I wandered into recently, the supports are truly magical. How this hasn’t collapsed at some point in the last three and a half thousand years is completely beyond me. I fully expected to be crushed before I managed to scurry out again. However, it’s a great illustration of how you don’t want the structure of your writing to be on show. It undermines confidence (and, in this instance, truly terrifies). The only way to work towards this is to have reliable readers and editors that take no prisoners. Maybe that’s why some of the more famous writers are often guilty of these crimes: the editors or the publishers or the agents simply don’t have the courage to hand a manuscript back with red ink on the bottom that says, ‘Must try harder.’
Here’s a lovely picture of the moon. You probably can’t get to here but you can definitely get to my Web Site!