On Tuesday afternoon, during a brief break in the clouds (sun! I saw it!), I sat outside on the deck to contemplate my Perbs. I’d been working on Hild, but couldn’t quite get into it. I was trying to imagine York in the early seventh century, the dark stubbled fields and migrating birds of early November. But it’s June here (no matter how wet and cold), very green and lush, and in my office I’m surrounded by blinking technology–white shiny Apple-ness–and polished wooden floors. Bright lights. Comfortable ambient temperature. Utterly removed from a world of pigs, disease, fear of war and childbirth and famine. (This kind of weather wouuld have spelled death for communities back then.)
I’m a working novelist. If I relied upon, y’know, feelng it before I wrote it, I’d never get anywhere. But this day, unusually, I felt as though there was a pane of glass between me and the time/place/people I wanted to be with. Everything I wrote was facile and superficial.
So when the sun popped out, so did I. I turned my mind off and just absorbed the day. After I pinched the flowers off the dill, a bird came and sang at me. A junco, I decided. Two jays in the ravine started a screaming match. Then a honeybee landed onto the table right by my hand and went through the most extraordinary routine. I’d never seen anything like it.
For someone born in the late 20th C the analogy was obvious: it behaved just like one of those pimped-out cars with hydraulic suspension that pump up at the front, then the back, then jack down one side, then the other, then light up all over, then shake and jump.
The bee stuck its abdomen in the air, jammed its head down so it was at about a 60° angle to the table, and smoothed itself with its two hind legs. Then it tilted the other way, waggling its front legs. Then, pop, it tucked in its wings and zizzed its middle legs up and down its thorax. Then it vibrated all over like the water in a glass next to a subwoofer. Then it skipped. Then it flew off.
The whole thing happened so fast–fast-forward speed–that it wasn’t until it had disappeared that I understood it had simply been cleaning itself.
How would I describe what I’d just seen in 7th C terms? That’s part of my dilemma. How do I forget my modern experience? What do I replace it with? I’ve never relied on a visceral connection to the land for survival. For my daily bread, my clean water, my fuel, I don’t rely on experience/expertise so ingrained that it could be mistaken for instinct. I rely on money–one of those systems that, in Hild’s childhood culture, didn’t exist.
But, eh, figuring out how to sidestep one’s own cultural (and individual) programming is part of the job. Today I’ll get there–though I’m thinking I might allow myself a snippet of dialogue: Hild, observing a passing cart, shouts, “Yo, sharp wheels!” I can fix it later…
4 thoughts on “Pimped-out bee”
I sympathize completely with your plight. I'm trying to wrap my brain around Predynastic Egypt right now.
A comment on “Yo, sharp wheels!”…
I've always been of the mind that fantasy, and even to some extent historical fiction, can justifiably be written in modern-sounding dialogue. Why? Because it's a translation.
These people aren't speaking English, right? So, as long as you're translating, you may as well translate to the words that are going to evoke the mood in your reader that's closest to what the characters themselves are feeling.
That said, you don't want to use slang so dated that your work will suffer if it's still on shelves in 10 years. But this is why I roll my eyes at people who criticize George R. R. Martin for using the f-bomb and say that his characters sound “too modern.” They sound modern to each other… why shouldn't they sound modern to us?
What I'm after in writing Hild is not modern-sounding dialogue but dialogue (and narrative) that won't date, and can't be dated. In this context I can't bring myself to use words, for example, obviously rooted in the French the Normans brought with them long after Hild's time (e.g. 'frisson')–though if I get fanatical sometimes I can trace the word back to Frankish and then persuade myself that Hild might have encountered it in a Frisian trading enclave. Or something.
There again, because most people think 'fuck' is an Anglo-Saxon word (it isn't), I feel perfectly okay using it in the novel's everyday speech. It won't pop anyone but a linguist out of the story.
For me this isn't just a novel, on some level–a very deep one–it's an ethnography of the 7th century, the cultural and political and linguistic change of the time embodied in the woman at the heart of the story.
But, mainly, it's a story, and the delineation of a life. Fun, challenging, risky every day.
Nicola — I used to keep bees. They're fascinating to watch. Enjoy the sun while you can. I have total faith in you getting the words down right.
Mishell — I have similar feelings about the New Testament. Would anyone outside of a cartoon ever say, “Woe unto you, Pharisees!” If you wanted “to evoke the mood in your reader that's closest to what [Jesus is feeling],” you'd have to say something like “Damn you, Pharisees!” (or worse)
D'ye believe in reincarnation? Maybe a past life regression or two would help…
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