In this instance, it took all of about three sentences.
I knew, when I started writing A Natural History of Dragons, that it was going to be a Victorian-style memoir. When I started writing, I immediately discovered the delights of that approach. My protagonist is, especially in this first book, a headstrong and slightly naive young woman — but the woman who is telling the story is decades older. The result is the best of both worlds: I get to play with her youthful enthusiasm and foolishness, but also the perspective and bulletproof audacity that comes with age. Older women in many times and places have been allowed leeway not given to their younger selves, and Isabella is exploiting that to the fullest.
It’s also fun to play around with the explicit framing the memoir format provides. I’ve written first-person stories before that are less strictly constructed, stories where you’re in the protagonist’s head, but she isn’t telling her story from a defined point in time, or to a defined audience. This approach loses a degree of flexibility, but provides a whole array of games to play. Isabella can distinguish between the young woman she was then and the old woman she is now, reflect on changes in her world, and tell the reader outright what she is and is not willing to talk about. It still has its implausible conventions, of course; when she reports a conversation word-for-word, what exactly is she basing that on? She kept a diary, of course, as many people in that time period did, but a great deal of what she says must be invention or after-the-fact reconstruction. But all fiction has such artificialities, regardless of the approach. What’s different in this instance is that I’ve never tried the memoir format at a length longer than a short story.
For all the challenges (and believe me, there are challenges, especially when it comes to the things Isabella doesn’t want to talk about), I’m having a blast, and have been since those first three sentences. Her voice clicked instantaneously — a shameless old woman talking about her youthful stupidity — and my brain is constantly supplying me with entertaining little asides, or wry commentary on the characters and events. In fact, the only downside to that part is figuring out when to rein Isabella in!
I’m two books into the series at this point, and it’s still as fun as when I started. In my line of work, we call that a win.
A physician had accompanied the hunt, to minister to both the dogs and the men; he arrived shortly after we did. I was not his first patient, though. I heard Jim’s voice moaning from the other side of the small room, but I could not see him through the press of other people.
“Don’t hurt him,” I said to no one in particular, though rationally I knew the physician must be trying to help him. “Don’t blame him. I made him do it. And he protected me; he got in the way when the wolf-drake attacked.” This I had pieced together after the fact.
The injuries Jim suffered through his heroic move were one of two things that kept him from being ignominiously sacked. The other — though I can take little pride in it — was my tireless defense, insisting that he was not to be blamed for bringing me on the hunt. Now, far too late, my guilt boiled up, and I fear I kept harping on the point long after my father had agreed to keep him on.
All of that came later, though. Once finished with Jim, the physician came to me, and banished everyone but my father and the now-sleeping Jim out of the hut, for the wound was on my shoulder and it would not be appropriate for others to be there while it was bared. (This I thought foolish, even at the time, for young ladies may wear off-the-shoulder dresses, which show just as much flesh as his ministrations did.)
I was given brandy to drink, which I had never had before, and its fire nearly made my eyes start out of my head. They made me drink more, though, and after I had enough in me, they poured some over the wounds in my shoulder to cleanse them. This made me cry, but thanks to the brandy I no longer particularly cared that I was crying. By the time the physician began to stitch me up, I was not aware of much at all, except him telling Papa in a low voice, “The claws were sharp, so the flesh is not too ragged. And she’s young and strong. If infection does not threaten, it will heal well.”
Through lips gone very thick and uncooperative, I tried to mumble something about how I wanted to wear off-the-shoulder dresses, but I do not believe it came out very clearly, and then I was asleep.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.
ABOUT THE BOOK: You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten… All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever. Marie Brennan introduces an enchanting new world in A Natural History of Dragons. (Tor Books, February 5, 2013)
Tor Books are offering up THREE (3) finished copies of A Natrural History of Dragons
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