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First (Poison) Fruits of NaNoWriMo

We’re roughly at the halfway point for the NaNoWriMo writing challenge.  I’m a bit behind on word count (only about 11,000 out of 50,000 words), though not critically so.  I’m not too worried because I will go through at least one bipolar cycle between now and the end and on the up cycle I can average 5,000+ words per day.

In my last post I mentioned that, instead of writing a novel, I wanted to write some essays on moral philosophy.  I have a couple of first drafts done, but I don’t want to post them until I’ve rewritten them a couple times.  Have no fear, though, they’re coming.  In the meantime, I do have something that is ready:  The following will be packaged as bonus features for a webcomic that I am creating.  Please imagine that it is contained in multiple tabs on a sidebar under a menu button called “About”.  Have the visual?  Good.

Oh, if you want to see a preview of Poison Fruit, the webcomic, you can click here for the first half-dozen pages.  Keep in mind, though, that this is still early days and I may decide to change things before I go live.


A Little Background

Poison Fruit was meant to be a movie.  Ever since, several years ago now, I first read Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, I have wanted to create an adaptation that would make it accessible to 21st century audiences, while still maintaining the atmosphere and pathos of the original.  If possible, I also wanted it to be set in space. Those were the two things I knew for sure, all of the other details fluctuated as I kept the project on the back burners of my mind.  I considered different media: live action, stop motion, marionettes. Different formats: a feature, an OVA, a streaming television show. Different scopes: would it be just Duchess, or would I bring in material from other Jacobean plays?  I also thought about the world itself. For a year or more I was decided to make all the characters extraterrestrials.  If there were any humans at all, they would be in strictly supporting roles. But as I explored the concept, I realized that if I wanted to make them relatable, I would need to make them fairly human.  And, as much as I love Star Trek, we don’t need any more green-painted women or otherwise human characters with bumpy foreheads.  If I was going to have aliens, I wanted to make them alien, but Poison Fruit is a human story.

Around the time I had a pretty good conception of the project, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to make it work on video.  To tell the story wanted, I would need, at the minimum, a full season TV show. My production company is, for the most part, a one-man-band operation.  Animated productions typically employee dozens, if not hundreds, of specialists. Even if I could somehow raise the money to hire them all, and find a place for all of them to work, I have neither the experience not the administrative support structure to show-run that size production, which meant I would have to give up a lot of control to someone else.

I was a bit stuck until the webcomic idea occurred to me.  I like to joke that a comic is just an animated movie with an extremely low frame rate.  In a comic, as compared to a movie, I can dispense with all of the animation between keyframes, all of the audio and accompanying lip-sync, and most of the editing.  By going with more of a manga aesthetic I could use simpler backgrounds. By doing it mostly in grayscale I could eliminate most of the color design work and all of the color grading, while significantly simplifying my texture and lighting work.  And besides, the manga is almost always better than the movie, so why not just make the manga?

So there you have Poison Fruit, a movie adaptation of a play expressed as a web comic.  

The Lure of Italy

The period that we think of as the Renaissance was fleeting–sightly less than 200 years, depending on which start and end dates you choose.  Many historians consider it to have begun in the second half of the 1300’s, when Italian literature and art began breaking away from the medieval conventions which had circumscribed them for centuries.  It was winding down by the mid 1500’s, under the influences of the Spanish occupation and the counter-reformation, events which quashed the violence and vice, and the chaos and corruption of Italy at the expense of her creative and economic energy.  Hardly any Englishmen had anything to do with the renaissance, and few of the famous Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights were even alive when it happened. [There is a line in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics that seems apropos, though I am likely quoting it incorrectly: “The renaissance was just a bunch of Italians poncing around that the English didn’t hear about until 100 years later.”]  And yet, Renaissance Italy exercised an incredibly pervasive influence on early modern English popular culture. We know that translations of Italian books, especially the trashy ones like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, from which Webster adapted Duchess, were Elizabethan best sellers.  In Shakespeare’s comedies references to Italy and her cities can usually be interpreted as “a generically exotic foreign locale”, and he travels there frequently.  While some of his greatest tragedies are set elsewhere, even he can see that Italy is the natural background for Othello’s crimes of passion and betrayal, and Romeo and Juliet’s feuding noble families and semi-accidental double suicide.   By the reign of James I Italy was the preferred setting for the most horrific tragedies: Gothic murder-fests like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and White Devil, or sordid tales of incest, mental illness, and more murder, like Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.  These plays must have sold seats, because they kept writing them.   

What exactly was the English’s fascination with Renaissance Italy?  Vernon Lee, in her essay “The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists” in her book Euphorion offers some insight:

The crimes of Italy fascinated Englishmen of genius with a fascination even more potent than that which they exercised over the vulgar imagination of mere foppish and swashbuckler lovers of the scandalous and the sensational: they fascinated with the attraction of tragic grandeur, of psychological strangeness, of moral monstrosity, a generation in whom the passionate imagination of the playwright was curiously blent with the metaphysical analysis of the philosopher and the ethical judgement of the Puritan. To these men, ardent and serious even in their profligacy; imaginative and passionate even in their Puritanism, all sucking avidly at this newly found Italian civilization the wickedness of Italy was more than morbidly attractive or morbidly appalling: it was imaginatively and psychologically fascinating.   

Since it is now in the public domain, I have gone ahead and placed a copy of the essay here.  The full book is available from Project Gutenberg.  The author’s thesis is that since both the immorality and grandeur of Renaissance Italy so far surpassed anything to be found in England, the stories of them provided fuel to launch English literature to height never before (and perhaps never since?) attained.  

And so, we have two Italies.  One is the real Italy of the mid 1300’s through mid 1500’s.  We can never know exactly what it was like, since we weren’t there, but history and archaeology can give us a general idea.  The other is the Italy of the early modern English popular imagination, with it’s every crime and aberration sensationalized and blown out of proportion, loaded with casual anachronisms and, for all relevant purposes, eternal.  These two Italies have some character names and geography in common, but they are not in the same world.

And to these two I add a third.  Just as those old Elizabethan and Jacobean writers took their inspiration from the real Italy to create a world for their imagination, I have used the Jacobean Italy to create an Italy in the outer solar system, which I call Poison Fruit.

There, now that I have the really meta part out if the way, I can go into specifics.  That is, I’ll be as specific as I think I can be without dropping spoilers.

 

The World of Poison Fruit

 

History

No one knows who invented space travel.  It must be ancient, though, because spaceships are mentioned in Homer and the Bible.  They were cruder things than modern ships, though; just look at all the trouble that Ulysses and Jonah had.  

Throughout history, great empires have risen, conquering large segments of the solar system.  At its apex the Roman Empire ruled everything from orbit of Mars to the moons of Saturn. Not only did they enlarge existing orbital habitats and build new ones, but it is sometimes even claimed that they had the technology to land on planets and take off again.  No one entirely believes that last part, though, since it is well-known that entering such a large gravity well is simply a flashy way to commit suicide.

Alas, the Empire succumbed to internal stresses and waves of barbarian invaders from the outer system. A dark age began in which most people focused on subsistence, and it was too dangerous and expensive to stray too far from home.  Rome itself, one of the oldest and largest habitats and the seat of the Church, lost much of its population and much of its influence, except within its own immediate vicinity in the asteroid belt. At one point the French even forced the papacy to relocate to Avignon!  Other Italian habitats, or individual cities within habitats, did better, especially those like Venice and Genoa who managed to maintain their fleets and keep up a steady, albeit local, trade.

In recent generations, though, Italy has grown wealthy again.  Her popes, bankers, mercenaries, and merchant princes bring the treasure of all of Christendom to her coffers.  Her artists and engineers are the envy of the system. Granted, there are still threats to this prosperity. The recent conquest of the habitat of Naples by France has shown that the European powers have grown strong enough to be a threat.  Piracy is rife everywhere. The Turks, though humbled by their defeat a few years ago at Lepanto, are still a powerful force. And, worst of all, Italy herself is plagued by constant small wars between individual cities and factions. Lucky is the habitat that doesn’t have at least one war going on between its cities at any given time.  Lucky is the ruler of a city who can keep the local nobles from slaughtering each other in vendettas. Overall, though, things are going well and Italy is once again, for the first time in centuries, the center of the Christian universe.

 

Families and Factions

House Aragon is one of the most powerful royal families in Europe.  Not only do they control a newly unified Spain with recently established colonies in recently explored parts of the system, but the have extensive holdings in the rest of Europe, as well as a marriage connection with the current Holy Roman Emperor.  The head the family is King Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, but he isn’t in this story. The Aragons in this story are his second cousins, former members of the royal family of Naples, before its conquest by France. Now they are mere vassals of the French viceroy.  Granted, they still control the Duchies of Calabria and Amalfi, as well as a cardinalship in Rome, but these honors hardly compare with the rule of an entire country. They seek to mend their fortunes, remembering better days and more prosperous relatives.

House Orsini is an ancient patrician house of Rome, able to trace their roots to the founding of the city.  At least, that’s what they say. What is known for sure is that since the dark ages Orsini have been involved in Roman politics.  The other thing they are known for is their recurring feuds with House Colonna, another ancient Roman family. What some people have not realized, at least until it was too late, is that the  Orsini and the Colloni are quite capable of joining forces against any third-party that tries to muscle into their turf. Between the two of them they control the majority of the eternal city’s military assets, as well as numerous men in key positions of authority, both secular and religious.  

The senior Orsini are adept at walking the line between suave, cultured nobles and gangster bosses.  Not that they see any conflict between the two. Their current “Prince” is Paolo Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, near Rome.  Besides their seat at Bracciano, a junior branch of the family holds the County of Pitigliano, also near Rome.

House Medici is by far the wealthiest family in Italy, as well as the absolute rulers of the Tuscany Habitat and its capital city, Florence.  The current head of the family is Grand Duke Cosimo di Medici. He was a highly successful condottiere, or mercenary general until the main branch of the family died out and he inherited the throne.  

Rumors of crimes of brutality and lust attach to the Medicis as they have done to no house since the fall of the Borgias, over a generation ago.  Most of these stories seem to have been spread by jealous rivals. On the other hand, it is well-known that Cosimo does what he wants, without reference to the laws of God or man.

 

Technology

Habitats

While smaller habitats exist, built on different patterns, the majority of people in the solar system live in what, in another universe, are called Stanford Toruses.  They are gigantic (tens of thousands of square miles of surface area) doughnut shaped objects that spin to produce artificial gravity. A system of mirrors transmits light more or less evenly onto the surface, while most harmful radiation is absorbed by the outer rim.  The terrain inside every habitat varies, with each having its own combination of coasts, mountains, rivers and other landforms.

No one knows who originally built the habitats.  While the commoners believe it was the Romans, it seems more likely that they just repaired and expanded what was already there.  Whoever the builders were, they believed in massive redundancy, generous factors of safety, and minimizing the number of moving parts—which is probably why so many habitats are still livable.

Space Travel

The microgravity hub area of each major habitat contains vast manufacturing and storage spaces, most of which are only partially explored.  There are probably large areas where no man has entered since ancient times. No one alive knows what most of the equipment does or how to use it.  However, there are certain common items that any spacefarer knows how to recognize and put to use, like life support and thruster modules. The ancients left generous stockpiles of the most common sizes, which can easily be bolted onto contemporary hulls (built of wood, wrought iron, canvas and other mundane materials) to create functional space ships.

One process that has not been lost is the art of making very thin, strong solar sails….though the actual machines and the technique of using them is a closely guarded guild secret.   All ships that sail out of sight of a habitat carry solar sails in addition to thrusters because thrusters are not only expensive, but they sometimes fail and, when they do, no one knows how to repair them.  Also, thrusters burn phlogiston (a.k.a. hydrogen) which, while it is cheap and available at the space port of any habitat, takes up space that could otherwise be used for cargo. For these reasons long-distance freighters and cruisers rely on solar sails for their primary means of propulsion.

Gunpowder

Guns and gunpowder have been around for two and a half centuries, and cannon have long since replaced catapults and ballistas as artillery, both within habitats and in space.  Black powder weapons work in a vacuum as long as a high oxidizer powder is used. “Space powder” is less powerful than that used in atmosphere, but the lack of air resistance makes up for the reduced muzzle velocities at all but the shortest ranges.  

Matchlock arquebuses, though they can be a bit aggravating, are common infantry weapons.  Wheellock weapons are also available and are more reliable and don’t require walking around with a burning match.  However they are also several times as expensive, and never issued to common soldiers. There are also still plenty of bows and crossbows around.  They take more practice to master than guns but they tend to be more accurate and reliable. Also, sailors and marines dislike matchlocks for the simple reason that they live next to large tanks of highly flammable phlogiston.  

 

Further Reading  

Poison Fruit is its own world, with its own history.  For those who would like to know more about the worlds that inspire it, though, the works below are good starting points.  Many of these are available for free download at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org).

Plays About Italy

The major plot arcs in Poison Fruit are adapted from these plays so, while I recommend them highly, you might want to wait until the manga is done before reading them, to avoid spoilers:

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi.

Webster, John. The White Devil.

These three tragedies have a similar atmosphere to the Webster plays and are set in what I think of as the same world.  They were inspirational for Poison Fruit but did not directly affect the plot:

Ford, John.  ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (a.k.a. Giuliano and Annabella).

Shakespeare, William. Othello.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

For those who still haven’t had enough, here is a further sampling of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays set in Italy:

Jonson, Ben. Volpone or The Fox.

Marston, John. Antonio and Mellida (Parts I and II).

Marston, John. The Malcontent.

Massinger, Phillip. The Great Duke of Florence.

Massinger, Phillip.  The Maid of Honor.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare, William. The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

 

Historical Italy

Source Documents

The Palace of Pleasure was one of the most popular sources of story ideas for the playwrights.  It is an anthology of early modern English translations of Italian and French stories, referred to as “novells” (though, by 21st century  standards, most of them are closer to short story length). The plot of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is taken directly from Volume 3, Novell 23.  While it is purportedly a true story, it’s unlikely that the original author did any fact checking.

Painter, William. (1566). The Palace of Pleasure (3 Volumes).

Stendahl’s book is a translation of an eyewitness account of the events that inspired The White Devil.  Webster himself probably got the story from another (now lost) novell.  

Stendahl. (1837). Vittoria Accoramboni.  

In addition, anyone who really wants to get a feel for the era would do well to read anything by Boccaccio, Dante, and Machiavelli.  Dante and Boccacio wrote at the beginning of, or just before the renaissance and their books remained best sellers right up to the end. Machiavelli wrote at the end of the period.  His books are the quintessential summation of Renaissance thought, right at the turning point into what we think of as the “modern” age. The three most important works are:

Boccaccio, Giovanni. (c. 1350).  The Decameron.

Alighieri, Dante.  (1320). The Divine Comedy.

Machiavelli, Niccolò.  (1532). The Prince.

General Background

There are far too many books on Renaissance Italy and early modern drama for me to try listing them all.  A few that I’ve found particularly useful are:

Durant, Will. (1953). The Renaissance.  Simon and Schuster.

Hill, Wayne F. & Örrchen, Cynthia J. (1991). Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Witt. Mainsail Press.

“The Italy of the Elizabethan Dramatists”. In Lee, Vernon. (1882).  Euphorion (Volume I).

Norway, Arthur H. (1901). Naples, Past and Present.

Staley, Edgcumbe. (1900). The Tragedies of the Medici.

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Writing From Your Subconcious

Where do stories come from?  For the past few weeks I’ve been a little stuck on my current nonfiction book.  This is unfortunate, but it has given me time to workshop and revise several short stories and fiction chapters write new ones.  Since I have been hopping around in a portfolio of pieces rather than focusing on a single piece it has given me an interesting chance to compare and contrast a cross-section of my work.  One of the things that I have noticed is that I have at least three discrete mechanisms for generating story ideas.

Writing From Experience – I have been working on a novel off an on for the past five years.  While it is definitely a work of fiction, not a memoir, it is set in the Mountain Northwest, where I grew up, and is inspired by events which I participated in or heard about in my twenties.  The challenges have been to impose a coherent and interesting plot on a series of what would otherwise be unrelated vignettes and to remix the character traits of a large group of real people into a smaller group of fictional characters.  I’m currently happy with the state of the project, yet I suspect I have done more work than if I had created a plot and setting from scratch.

Writing from Concepts – Sometimes, and particularly when I write SpecFic, I start with a particular concept and build a story around it.  For instance, I might be reading one of the histories on my Great Books List and ask myself “How would this story have been different it <historical figure> was actually a disguised alien from another dimension?”  or I might read about a new technology on the science blogs and decide to write a story about it.  In this case, the plot is designed to showcase the idea and the characters are created because the plot requires them.  It is still easier than writing from experience, because I have free rein to do what I want with the story structure.  The challenge, though, is to avoid a result that feels contrived or artificial.

Writing from the Subconscious – By “the subconscious”, I mainly mean dreams.  Looking at my fiction output over the past four years, I realize that the majority of my stories originated as dream sequences.  I have always had extremely vivid dreams and I am often able to remember them when I wake.  This method has the advantage that I essentially get to start with a complete, or at least nearly complete, story which I need only write down to have a first draft.  The challenge of this method is that, since the dreaming mind works in a multi-threaded mode, a particular dream will often have several different stories overlaid in one sequence and it can be difficult to separate them.  I often write down one of these dream stories only to realize that the resulting piece has two or three unrelated stories running through it.  Still, as time goes on this increasingly becomes my preferred method of story generation and I will focus on it for the remainder of this essay.

In his Sandman series Neil Gaiman, possibly the most “meta” of all living SpecFic authors, returns repeatedly to the idea of stories coming from dreams.  His protagonist Morpheus has the sobriquet “Lord of Stories” and has the power to send dreams to mortals to inspire them to artistic greatness, or even to punish authors by driving them insane by sending them more story ideas than they can physically write down. In his introduction to the second Sandman TPB, Clive Barker contends that Gaiman is special because he is able to write in a state of consciousness between dreaming and waking. To me, this seems to be the ideal to aspire to as a dream inspired writer.

Morpheus the Sandman. Miguel Regodon [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Devian Art]

Morpheus the Sandman. Miguel Regodon [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Deviant Art]

Of course Neil Gaiman is hardly the only famous writer to use dream techniques.  H.P. Lovecraft was well known for it and, like Gaiman, frequently used if for a theme in his works.  This is elegantly expressed in his story Celephais, among many others.  In this story the characters “money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of the people about him, but preferred to dream and  write if his dreams,” clearly a sentiment held in some measure by Lovecraft himself.  Or consider the later work of James Joyce, particularly Finnegan’s Wake, which is essentially one long, raw dream sequence.

Nor are writers the only ones who can benefit from dream inspiration.  The Indian mystic Srinivasa Ramanujan, possibly the most brilliant mathematician of the 20th century.  Ramanujan is far less famous than he deserves for two reasons.  First, because he had almost no access to the work of Western mathematicians in his early career he was forced to derive a hundred years worth of mathematical theory independently, leaving him less time to create new work.  Second, he died in his early thirties.  During the few years he spent at Cambridge before his death, however, Ramanujan wrote down hundreds of theorems, nearly all of which came to him in dreams.  Now, a century later, physicists and mathematicians are still studying and struggling to understand his notebooks, which may hold the keys to unlocking the mysteries of string theory and other “21st century” mathematics.

Srinivasa Ramanujan [CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikiquote]

Srinivasa Ramanujan [CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikiquote]

So how does one get started?  There is a large body of material available on lucid dreaming, and I will not try to recreate it here.  However, I will try to convey a few pointers for a writer who wants to start tapping into subconscious dream states for inspiration.

Mindfully remember your dreams and write them down.  All writers about lucid dreaming agree that this step is critical.  When you wake up in the morning, before you even get out of bed, take a few moments to concentrate on remembering as much as you possibly can about your dreams.  Write it down in a dream journal as soon as possible.  Avoid censuring yourself at this stage or trying to force your dreams into a story plot; there is plenty of time for that later when you mine your dream journal for story ideas.

Employee conscious programming when you go to sleep.  If you are already working on a project, especially if it is giving you problems, it is helpful to spend a few minutes before sleep calling it to mind so it will be easily available for your subconscious to work on.  If you do not have a current project then review your dreams of the previous night, or simply clear your mind and concentrate on an intention such as “Tonight I will have wonderful, vivid dreams and in the morning I will remember them.”  This step works even better if it is combined with a nightly meditation practice or if you assume a light autohypnotic trance first.

Get enough sleep.  It sounds obvious, but the more you sleep, the more you will dream.  I had great difficulty convincing myself that my afternoon siesta was part of my writing “work”.  When I finally accepted it, though, I found that I get some of my best dream ideas during this period.  Periodically sleeping in is also helpful.

Become familiar with meditation and autohypnosis.  The more experience you have functioning in altered states of consciousness, and especially in alpha and beta brain states, the more comfort and control you will have when you are actually dreaming–eventually leading to an ability to control your dreams and focus on particular aspects which interest you.  The two practices are very similar.  Meditation is a process of assuming a low frequency mental state and clearing your mind so as to temporarily lose your sense of self and become one with the universe.  Autohypnosis is a process of assuming a low frequency mental state so that you can access deeply buried memories or issue suggestions and instructions to your subconscious.  I think of autohypnosis as being similar to dropping to a command line interface on a computer so I can launch background tasks or read system files.  Numerous books and classes are available to learn both practices, so I won’t attempt to offer specific instructions here.  The best advice I can give, though, is that the more you engage in a practice, the easier and more natural it will become for you.

Be extremely cautious with psychedelic drugs.  Drugs can be a shortcut to the sort of altered states which are reached with dreaming, meditation and hypnosis.  In general, repeated drug use breaks down certain barriers between the conscious and subconscious, which can lead to more vivid dreams.  However, there is a massive risk that you will become dependent on the drugs and not be able to write without them.  Add in the possible health and legal risks, and experimentation with psychedelics can be a VERY BAD IDEA.  That being said, there are certain circumstances in which psychedelic drug use can be justified, but only for specific reasons and under the guidance of a qualified Shaman or other practitioner.  You should never use them habitually or without a guide who knows what they are doing.  And remember trying to justify recreational drug use as being beneficial to your art is just sad.  Remember the words of the band Alabama 3, “The righteous truth is, there ain’t nothin’ worse than some fool lyin’ on some third world beach in spandex psychedelic trousers smokin’ damn dope and pretending he gettin’ consciousness expansion.”

In conclusion, dreams can be a wonderful source of story ideas for a writer and anyone who makes a conscious effort can improve the quality, quantity, and recall of their dreams.  Dream on!