Please help me welcome Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto, authors of The Duchess of the Shallows. Welcome!
It’s said that the most difficult part of a story is the end, but we think beginnings are just as challenging.
When writing The Duchess of the Shallows (http://peccable.com/duchess/), one of the biggest decisions we had to make was when to start the story. Too many novels, particularly in the fantasy genre, start with a thousand years of history, none of which ties directly to the beginning of the tale. Although it’s tempting to begin a fantasy story with a chapter on a great war between the gods or a titanic battle in the fabled past, it misses a simple truth about the way humans relate to events: scale matters.
Scale affects the way we experience both joy and tragedy, whether real or fictional. The news of 3,000 casualities from an earthquake in Pakistan can seem distant, but the death of a long-time coworker hits close to home. The news that the unemployment rate has dropped by 1% is good news for hundreds of thousands, but a video of the triumphant goal scored by our favorite team gets us right in the heart.
The same is true of stories. Opening The Hobbit with a chapter-long tale about the Last Alliance of Elves and Men would have left most readers cold. Instead, Tolkein introduces us to Middle Earth by sharing the surprise of a simple hobbit whose morning is disrupted by the arrival of a legendary wizard.
We agonized for a long time over how to begin the tale of Duchess’ adventures in the fog-bound, rumor-haunted city of Rodaas. Both Duchess and the city have a complex history and backstory, but none of that was important if the reader could not connect to our heroine. Finally, while laboring over a section that was just not working, one of us said, “Where does all of this start? What’s the moment where everything kicks off?” Both of us came to the same answer at the same time: the moment when Duchess presents a mysterious coin to the irritable pawn-shop dealer Hector. His look of shock and fear, and her own reaction are what set off all of the future events. Once we had that clear, the rest of the story flowed easily.
Obviously, the place a story ends is important, because that’s where all of the seeds the author has sown must ultimately bear fruit. But if you don’t get the beginning just right, no one will be around to see the harvest.
Smoke was not all she remembered from that night; there was also the darkness and the light, two extremes that burned each other to ash, leaving nothing else behind. The darkness had been a deep yet unrestful sleep. She was dreaming that old dream, of someone there in her room, hovering over her bed, only inches away, a gray shape that was insubstantial and yet there in some terrible way she did not understand. And then that figure reached forth and pushed on her chest so hard that all the air went out of her lungs in a rush and she could not gasp even a breath to scream. Several times before she’d woken Father, or Justin, or Marguerite when she’d fallen from bed, thrashing her way back to wakefulness; her brother had been annoyed to have been disturbed, her sister amused. but her father would only nod as if he understood and rock her until she fell asleep once more.
But when she thumped to the floor that night, for a moment she thought that she hadn’t woken at all. The gray figure was still there, barely visible in the flickering light from the hall, and in her mouth was a hot, acrid taste. Then she understood she was seeing great gouts of smoke pouring in her open bedroom door, along the ceiling and then down the walls towards her. Her father’s house was on fire.
The house had been large and rambling; the attics reached to the heavens and the cellars to the depths of the earth, and in her memory, always full: of furniture, of food, of people. But that night, all she could remember were empty rooms. Marguerite’s just next to hers, with the bed sheets pulled down and the windows open but no sister there to smile calmly and tell her it was all right. And the door to Justin’s, down the hall near the servants’ stairs, stood ajar but he was not there. And the kitchens were empty and the dining hall and the sitting rooms. All of them empty of everything but smoke and fear and silence.
And she was alone, a little girl in her white nightgown, and she stumbled through the rooms and corridors of that house and found no one. They’d left her all alone.
She found the foyer and the great stairs that lead to her father’s chambers – his bedroom and his library and his study – where he must surely be. He was just upstairs, maybe even still asleep and she would find him and they would flee together.
But the fire had completely engulfed the upper floors, and halfway up the stairs the smoke became a solid wall of black and the heat was like an oven, drying her still-flowing tears and making the skin on her face feel stretched and tight. She had tried three times to brave that heat, calling for her father, for Justin or Marguerite, for anyone. She remembered the moment when she knew that no one was coming to help her.
Had the fire that night tempered something inside her into Steel?
She didn’t remember stumbling back downstairs, but the next thing she knew she was in the cool dark of the garden. The night air was cold against her skin and needled through her nightgown even as she felt the heat of the house behind her. The light made strange, capering shadows across the grass, and she saw that every upper window of the house was alive with fire.
They could not have forgotten her, no. They could not have left her, here, alone, while the walls burned down around her. And yet somehow she knew they had, and she was all that remained of House Kell.
She’d run around the grounds looking for someone, mindlessly following the wall that enclosed the estate, but she only ended up where she began and none the safer. She fell into the grass, defeated, and never knew how long she lay there before Gelda found her. Gelda, who had been her nurse for as long as she could remember, the closest thing she’d ever known to a mother. There had been a wet nurse when she was little, they told her, someone to feed the child who had killed her mother coming into the world, but Duchess (no – Marina, she had been Marina then) remembered only Gelda. She was a spare, gray thing of gristle and sinew and hard angles, a paradox of much warmth and little patience.
Gelda had draped an old, musty-smelling cloak about her, pulling up the hood, and hurried a sturdy pair of shoes onto her feet. She bundled Marina close, and then out the garden gate.
She stumbled along through darkened streets. Gelda had brooked no questions, driving her on as silent as evening fog. The house was only their winter home, but surely the country estate had not burned. Had Father and Marguerite and Justin gone there? Why hadn’t they come for her? She’d asked Gelda all that and more, but the old nurse simply tugged her silently along, ignoring questions and pleas alike. Before long, Marina stopped asking.
She couldn’t imagine how Gelda passed Beggar’s Gate at night – she had no memory of that – but pass it they did, and gone farther and farther down the hill, until they reached the Shallows.Noam had answered at the nurse’s first knock, as if he’d been waiting just behind the door.
“Take her,” said Gelda, handing Marina to the baker without preamble. “And now we’re quits.” She remembered those words as if they were written on the inside of her eyelids.
“Wasn’t me you owed,” Noam had snapped, and taken her inside.
The bakery had seemed to her child’s mind impossibly small and cramped, but at least she was no longer alone. Gelda had gone and Noam had taken over for the old nurse, whom she’d never seen again. He’d sent his wife and daughters into another room and explained to her that things were different now, that she was no longer Marina Kell and that she should never again mention that name. She remembered large, coarse hands on her shoulders, hard blue eyes staring grimly into hers, the smells of yeast and sweat.
As a part of his family she’d have to carry her own weight. Everyone worked, down to the smallest of his girls, her “sisters”, the youngest of whom had been born only two years before Duchess (not Marina, anymore) had arrived. He had declared that she was Duchess who worked at the bakery and nothing more. There would be wool and cotton instead of silk and satin, and no room of her own but a loft shared with his daughters. He’d taught her how to knead dough, stack loaves, make pastries and count coins. He’d shown her how to survive in the Shallows, both with her wits and her knife, and after awhile even she started to forget she’d ever been anything else. She’d been Duchess for so long that the girl she had been before no longer seemed important. She’d had her life with Noam and his wife and the sisters who were not her sisters, and later Minette and Lysander and the market and gossip with Daphne and Lorelei at the Vermillion. And if there were nights when Duchess wept silently into her straw mattress after the family was asleep, nights when the grief and fear and anger threatened to overspill and send her running out into the Shallows…well, those were no one’s business but her own. No one saw the tears or heard the grinding of clenched teeth, or knew of the midnight oaths that one day she would have no need of any of them. She would be strong and rich and free, and no one would ever again send her running from fire into fear. She would never again be the girl who had huddled in the garden like a mouse, waiting for a family that would never come.
Only in rare moments would memories of that old life stir: in the smell of some high lord’s perfume in the market, or the swirl of a noblewoman’s dress as she climbed into a carriage, or the cultured laughter of one of Minette’s more upscale customers. Then, despite everything Noam had taught her and everything she had lived since that terrible, fiery night, she would for one instant remember who she had been.
Thanks for being our guest today!