Sunday, 25 November 2012

"A Musical Interlude" - a NaNoWriMo excerpt

It's NaNoWriMo time again, and at ~27,000 words on Day 25, I'm well behind par. But I'm in an excellent mood, because after 3 weeks of struggling with motivation, the prose is coming more easily now. I'd like to share a half-chapter with you that I wrote in a sleep-deprived state, in the early hours of this morning.

Is this a typical excerpt?  Not exactly. My first drafts are usually a little less prosy, and a little more 'by the seat of the pants'. I just had one of those rare moments, when the writing comes out slowly, but hardly in need of editing. It also happens to be a scene without any major plot spoilers, and these seem to be rare when I go searching my manuscript for suitable excerpts. So of course I had to share it!

This scene is the second half of a chapter from Book One of my epic fantasy trilogy. Tam hasn't declared his love to his crush yet, and, in between scenes of training and fighting, he takes the opportunity to share a moment of joy with her:

(Apologies for any grammar or formatting mistakes. I have to try to ignore these things during NaNoWriMo you know! Also, 'Dr Holmes' is a place holder name.)

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“Ugh! Curse that infernal noise!” Dr Hughes said, as a remarkable sound started up in another room. It sounded like many musicians playing. Tam couldn't understand why Hughes didn't like it - it was beautiful. He struggled to remember what his mother had called such a thing. Was it... opera? It was a slow and haunting tune, which reverberated around the curved walls. Tam was about to go toward the source of the music, but he saw that Suzanne had also become entranced by it. He waited for her to go first, so that he could follow her, watch her. A few others moved to listen at the doorway. Tam realised that they would all see him stalking her. But they all knew about his obsession anyway, and he no longer cared if they knew. Something about the minor key of the music and the passion in the male singer's voice, made the faces of his fellow soldiers fade into the background, until all he could see was her. She strolled around the curve of the wall, brushing it lightly with her fingertips. Tam followed, doing the same, the smooth limestone cool as water. He was mesmerised by the picture of her pale hand against white stone.

They came into a circular room, its walls covered from ceiling to floor with bookcases, full of books. Rows of desks were also covered with piles and piles of books, some of which he recognised as the ones they had rescued from the flooded basement of the library. Tam had never seen so many books in one place before, and it gave him goosebumps just from thinking about all the knowledge that was packed into this single room. The music, which was coming for a gramophone, only added to his awe. For a moment he loved this room almost as much as he loved Suzanne. Almost. He tore his eyes away from the books and looked at her. She wasn't looking at the books, so perhaps she had seen this room before? She didn't seem to have noticed that Tam had followed her, even though he must have been standing at the edge of her vision. She gazed into the horn of the gramophone, and listened intently. The singer was better than any Tam had heard in real life. His voice glided effortlessly between soaring high notes, and brooding low notes. Tam couldn't understand the language he spoke, but he was certain the lyrics must be something to do with love, or perhaps something tragic.

“Lovely, isn't it?” a familiar cut-glass voice said. A headful of eccentric curls appeared over the top of one of the desks, then the gangling frame of Dr Nathaniel Holmes, unfolded to its full height. He held stacks of index cards in his arms and dumped them on the desk, adding an avalanche to the mountain of paperwork. He grabbed a small handful of the cards, and rifled through them rapidly with his dexterous fingertips. He was an engineer and an infantryman all in one, and now he also appeared to be humanity's last librarian – and for that, Tam was intensely jealous.

Dr Holmes noticed Tam skulking but didn't draw attention to him. He spoke to Suzanne, “What can I do for you, Captain?”
“Do you know what he's singing about?” she said.
“Well, it's in Italian, what do you think it's about?”
“I don't know! I've never heard anything like this before.”
“It's about love, of course!” said Holmes. He stopped faffing with his index cards and grinned at her. He explained: “It's from an opera called 'L'elisir d'amore' – 'The Love Potion'. It's a particular favourite of mine. I heard the whole thing on an electronic device, a long time ago. This man who's singing, he's a simple peasant – a bit of a fool.” Holmes glanced at Tam when he said 'fool', although Suzanne didn't seem to have noticed.
“He gives his beloved a love potion,” Holmes continued, “It's only wine, but he thinks it's real. He's convinced that it's working. He says he feels her heart, and his heart, beating as one... and at the end, he says, uh, 'Si può morir d'amor,' - 'I could die of love!'”

Tam watched his Suzy being transported to a higher place, as she breathed in the music that filled the air. She, like everyone else that day, had undone half the buttons of her shirt, to stay cool in this ridiculous heat. Her chest rose and fell, rose and fell, her deep sighs keeping time with the rhythm of the lyrics. The singer rolled his 'r's, and pronounced his vowels precisely. The climax of his highest notes, was a roar of pure emotion. He held it, impossibly long and perfectly true, and Suzanne seemed to have forgotten to breathe for a moment.

Tam tiptoed over to her, and came as close as he dared. He stood behind her, and thanks to the advantage of being a head taller than her, he had a perfect view of her cleavage. As the singer belted out the final notes, Suzanne shook with the kind of hysteria he had only ever seen women lose themselves in, when they were making love! She looked back at Tam suddenly and was laughing, with tears in her eyes. He shared the moment of abstract joy with her. The music, and the inviting scent of old books – had transported him to that higher place too, and it took his breath away. He decided he did believe in Heaven after all, and he was in it. He wished he could be alone here with his angel, but the sudden recollection that Dr Holmes and several others were watching, brought him crashing back down to Earth. The song had finished, and the gramophone hissed and hiccoughed quietly.

Suzanne wiped her eyes. “You must make copies of this.”
“Oh, I intend to. As soon as I figure out how to do it without worrying about breaking it!' Holmes pulled over the gramophone's arm, and gingerly handled the disc by its edges, slipping it into a brown paper sleeve. He replaced it at a particular place on a shelf, which held perhaps an hundred similar sleeves. “Was there anything in particular you wanted, Ma'am?” said Holmes.
“Umm...” She blushed and put her hand to her chin. “If there was anything, I've forgotten it! Well, thank you for making my day, Doctor.”
“It's my pleasure to share this wealth of culture with anyone who shows an interest. Good day to you, Captain.”

As she left the room, Tam could have sworn she walked with more of a swagger in her hips than usual. He wondered if there was a hidden side to his Suzy, that had lain dormant and unheeded, but which - in the true nature of all humans, everywhere - could be awakened by the right atmosphere? He hoped that he was not simply seeing things he wanted to see, like the peasant in the song, believing in his 'elisir d'amore'.
“Thank you for making my day too, Doc.” Tam said.
Holmes looked disgusted at him. “Isn't she... your sister?'
“Adopted!” Tam protested.
“Hmm. But even so... the Captain?” He smirked. “I think you might die of love, my friend.'

Dr Llew Hughes shoved past the soldiers that were still milling around near the doorway. He held aloft a modern-looking book, with both hands, like it was a trophy. He slammed it down on the desk in front of Dr Holmes and said, “Pressie for you.”
The book had an illustration of a fort under siege on the front cover. Dr Holmes gasped, and flipped through the pages excitedly. Then he skipped to the back pages to search the index. “B-ba-ba...” he muttered.
“I've already bookmarked it for you,” said Dr Hughes. He clasped his arms across his chest in a sort of self-congratulatory hug.

Tam moved closer to sneak a look at the book. He was curious to know what exactly was so exciting about it, that it could make these two fully-grown and highly-educated men, turn into silly boys? Dr Holmes was skimming over the bookmarked page, running his finger over the text. There was a detailed line-drawing of a complicated wooden machine, with a soldier in a plumed helmet standing next to it for scale.
“I knew it... yes... yes!” Holmes squeaked. “Do you know what this means?” He had been leaning over the desk but now his legs sagged under him. He ended up kneeling on the floor, but still melodramatically gripping the edges of the desk.
“Can you do it?” Dr Hughes asked breathlessly.
Dr Holmes looked at his colleague with a fire in his eyes. “Yes. But we're going to need a shitload more rope!”

Tam was about to ask them what kind of machine they planned to use, but unfortunately he didn't get the chance. There was a commotion out in the main hall, and a clamour of whistles – a signal that commanded all soldiers to muster for battle.

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You can read all my excerpts here:  Excerpts