Some readers have posted requests on the “Sparrowhawk: The Project” comment page that I discuss “fiction writing in general,” and provide some insights gained from writing the series.
First, I will say that my principles of fiction writing differ not a whit from Ayn Rand’s. The difference is that she articulated them first, and then better than I ever could. (See her The Art of Fiction, edited by Tore Boeckmann.) There are also her notes on The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in The Journals. Years ago, I remember sitting with nearly open-mouthed astonishment when I listened to her taped course on this subject; virtually every point she made about dialogue, characterization, narrative, description, and so on, I’d thought of or was already applying to my own writing.
As for insights, those I needed to have before I could write a single paragraph. All the novels I wrote before beginning Sparrowhawk I considered training to write about the 18th century, and everything I learned by writing those novels in terms of economy and style enabled me to write the six titles of the series. I consider Whisper the Guns, finished in 1972, my first polished novel. I wrote two before that one, and actually found literary representation for them.
That being said, allow me to demonstrate one technique I’ve used to establish and maintain relationships between all the major and minor characters in the Sparrowhawk series, in this instance between Dogmael Jones and Henoch Pannell, two members of the House of Commons, and minor characters in the series. Both are accomplished speakers and are on opposite sides of every political question in Parliament. They are not so much rivals as antagonists. Pannell revels in the sordid, corrupt character of Parliament; Jones despises and fights against it. Their animosity reflects an intimacy possible only in politics.
Pannell most resembles Casper Gutman, a villain in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; he is a large, blustery man who likes to talk, hear himself talk, and waste people’s time (although I did not model him on the Hammett character; that honor went to the actor Charles Laughton). Jones is a career barrister and trial lawyer, introduced in Book Two at the Pippin trial.
Jones, member for Swansditch, a rotten borough, makes his maiden speech in the Commons in Chapter 25 of Book Three: Caxton. The subject is the House’s proposal to expel John Wilkes from the House for allegedly libelous remarks he made about King George the Third in a private political publication. Jones is defending Wilkes’s right to speak his mind, in or out of the House.
Henoch Pannell, member for Canovan, another rotten borough, sitting on the Treasury or government side of the House, remarks to another M.P. during Jones’s speech, “He is effective, very effective. I like his style. It may be his undoing. He stabs with words, and wounds, and shames, and invites a round of stone-casting.”
His companion answers that Jones has “a pile of stones to cast, while they [Jones’s enemies] are armed with soft, worn pebbles. Hardly an equal contest, sir.”
Pannell answers that against “his wounding words of stone will be the energy of inertia and what he calls ‘sheer funk.’ Together, they will wear down his stallion spirit! Yes, sir! For each stone he casts, a hundred emery pebbles will answer!”
Now, all that was preparation for their next appearance (but presumably not their first encounter, I leave that to the reader’s imagination) in Book Four: Empire, in the Purgatory Tavern, years later, just before another session of the Commons (Chapter 10). The literary device is stone, playing on the homily from the Bible (“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” — St. John, Chapter 8. verse7), although there are no religious references or innuendoes intended in the dialogue. Jones is “without sin,” while Pannell is boastfully and contentedly corrupt.
Readers may also recall the scene in Book One: Jack Frake, when a crowd of spectators tosses stones at Isham Leith at the Falmouth gallows, and the scene in Book Two: Hugh Kenrick, on the Charing Cross pillory, when Hugh hurls stones back at a mob in defense of his friends.
Jones is in the Tavern, taking notes and preparing to argue in the House against passage of the Stamp Act. Pannell, who has argued in the Commons for more stringent controls on the American colonies, and who knows that Jones could possibly harm chances of the Act’s passage, has hunted him down in order to apprise his opponent.
Pannell regarded him with smug jollity. “Composing more injurious eloquence, Sir Dogmael?” he asked.
Jones glowered up at him, not only because he disliked the man, but because he had interrupted a thought. “Yes,” he answered. “And, like Demosthenes, I shall spit stones.”
Jones, of course, is making an ironic pun on the Athenian statesman and orator, Demosthenes, who corrected his stammer by practicing oratory with pebbles in his mouth (and who also roused the Greeks to oppose the Persian Philip the Second), but not at Demosthenes’s expense, nor at his own, because he is not burdened with a speech impediment. He is saying that he plans to make some damaging points against the Stamp Act. Pannell is inferring that Jones’s skill at oratory and rhetoric can hurt the cause of the government party to secure passage of the Act.
That, in brief, is how to set up a meeting and a clash of minds, and a single instance of how to establish a credible relationship between characters. The fulcrum point, if you will, is stones; what Pannell and Jones say about stones is determined by their characters. The technique is repeated numerous times throughout the series, using devices other than stones, such as gorget. It was made possible by context and an organized subconscious geared to feed my conscious mind the right information, vocabulary, style of speech, and so on. My goal in most of the dialogue in Sparrowhawk was to accomplish precision and understatement at the same time. That’s the beauty of articulate, written and spoken British-English.
In answer to Chris, who queried about a new Merritt Fury novel: I wrote two more Fury novels, one of which, We Three Kings, finished in 1980, deals directly with what can now be called “Islamic totalitarians.” In it, Fury is pitted against a Saudi sheik, who is given carte blanche by our State Department to deal with Fury. Sound familiar? I can’t predict that it will ever be published. I have a suspicion that American publishers are still burdened with Danish cartoon funk.