Tag Archives: how to create a plot

Asking the right questions #amwriting

Sometimes we find ourselves  in the position of having to do research, even when a piece is not intended to be historically accurate. I write many things that are centered around Arthurian legends, and I am fortunate that a lot of tales still exist that were written during the Middle Ages. Nowadays much is being discovered about the real King Arthur through solid archaeology, and he is being discovered as a man of the 6th century.

But I am drawn to the popular legends, giving him a mythological place in our chivalric canon of romantic tales, written during the 11th through the 15th centuries. These accounts make him a man of their times, dressing him in their fashions and giving him their ideals and values.

The High Middle Ages were a golden period for historical writing in England, but the craft of researching history scientifically was not an academic subject taught in school. The gathering of historical tales was a hobby for educated men who had the time, social position, and the talents to pursue it.

As a result, the histories from this period are highly questionable–but are quite entertaining and are great fantasy reads. I’ve said this before: if J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing history in a monastery during the 7th and 8th century, The Lord of the Rings would have the same place in our historical narrative that the Arthurian Cycle has now, and Aragorn would have been the king who united all of Britain.

Nowadays Galahad is a minor knight, but he figures prominently in Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 work, Le Morte d’Arthura reworking of traditional tales that were hundreds of years old even in his day. Versions of Galahad appear regularly in my work. I studied Medieval Literature in college and found his story both diverse and fascinating. Many tales abound referencing him. But, what is the original story of Galahad that is bandied about most often? We know early Arthurian legend was highly influenced by the authors’ contemporaries, the Knights Templar.

Neither Arthur nor any of his knights could possibly have been Templars, but by modernizing and dressing his court in contemporary ideals, those medieval authors made Galahad into a superhero.

Traditionally, Sir Galahad, a Knight of the Round Table, finds the Holy Grail and immediately goes to heaven, raptured as a virgin – but was he? I mean raptured OR a virgin?  If he was not raptured, what could have happened to make medieval chroniclers think he was?

So, why was this notion of a virgin knight and being taken to heaven before death so important to medieval chroniclers that they would write it as though it was true history?

Well, they were writing some 300 to 400 years after the supposed event, during the final decades of the Crusades. Religion and belief in the Christian truths espoused by the Church were in the very air the people of the time breathed. All things of this world were bound up and explained in ways relating to the Christian traditions of the day.

Literature in those days was filled with religious allegories, the most popular of which were the virginity and holiness of the Saints—especially those Saints deemed holy enough to be raptured. These people did not have to experience death but instead were raised while still alive to heaven where they spent eternity in God’s presence.

A few years ago I was challenged to write an Arthurian tale with a steampunk twist. I accepted the task, but immediately wished I hadn’t, as it just seemed an impossible leap.

The first question I asked myself was: Where do Arthurian legend and steampunk connect well enough to make a story? The answer was—they don’t. I felt that block we all feel when the story will not reveal itself.

But, sitting on my back porch and letting my mind roam, I found myself wondering what Galahad and Gawain would have really been like. The people those characters were based on were men of the 5th or 6th century, ordinary men, and despite the heroic legends, they were made of flesh and blood.

And what if somehow Galahad got separated from Gawain through a door in time? How would Galahad get back to Gawain?  What if he was marooned in Edwardian England, with Merlin – can you say steampunk?

The title of that tale is Galahad HawkeThe main character is Galahad Du Lac, son of Lancelot Du Lac, illegitimate, some have said, but is he really? If he is, it implies the fifth century was a lot less concerned about the proprieties than we give them credit for. His line of work is that of a nobleman and hero. Thus, he goes on quests to find strange and magical objects such as Holy Grail.

The story was told in the first person point of view. I opened the story just after the Grail was found. Knowing that history and fantasy merge in the Early Middle Ages, I approached my story by asking these questions:

  1. What does Galahad have to say about his story?
  2. What if he and Gawain were lovers?
  3. How does he end up separated from Gawain?
  4. How does Galahad end up in Merlin’s company?
  5. Why are they unable to get back to Gawain?
  6. What is the reason the magic no longer works?
  7. What do they do to resolve the situation?
  8. How does the tale end – does Galahad get Gawain back or is he permanently adrift in time?

I wrote it two ways and picked the ending that moved me the most.

Often, I begin the process of creation by sitting down with a pencil and paper. I identify the core conflict, and then ask the five important “W” questions, (who, what, when, where, and why).

Asking questions and listing the answers is the key to unlocking the potential of any story idea. Through the experience of writing Galahad Hawke, I discovered that my characters can tell me a great deal if I let them.

Things got out of hand on the home front this last summer, most of which I spent caring for an injured son. My ability to write creatively was affected.  Somewhere along the line, I forgot how effective this crucial part of the process can be. I felt derailed at times, and what I was writing didn’t feel true. By returning to the basics and asking questions, I have given myself a new framework to hang my current stories on.


Credits and Attributions:

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Sir Arthur Hughes, 1870, PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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