Author Commentary: Winter’s Shadow Prologue
by M.J. Hearle
As a film buff one of my great pleasures is listening to director commentaries. I love hearing about the creative process and the trials and tribulations faced during the production. It occurred to me recently that I could create something similar for my books – an author commentary if you will. Instead of listening to my nasal drone on a DVD you’ll be able to follow my thoughts, chapter by chapter, here on the blog.
Fair warning, I’ll be writing in a stream of conscious style which may be a little messy. There will probably be grammatical errors. This is par for the course. Basically, I’m re-reading the chapter and just jotting down ideas as they occur to me. In other words, there won’t be much editing involved. I want this stuff to feel immediate. Like I’m taking in your ear as you’re flipping through the pages. I can’t promise you’ll learn anything of value but I hope you do. I hope I do too.
Roll the title.
‘Madeleine Bonnaire fled beneath the flickering street lamps of Rue Descartes.’
I must have re-written this particular sentence more than any other and with good reason. The first line is the most important sentence of a book, perhaps only rivaled by the last. It has an enormous responsibility serving as a mission statement, mood-setter and introduction to the author’s prose skills. With this sentence, I wanted to grab the reader by the lapels and drag them headfirst into the story before they had a chance to protest.
‘Fled’ is a crucial word. In the first few drafts I think I had ‘ran’ or ‘running’. ‘Fled’ implies she’s running from something.
I initially had a lot more stuff about Madeleine and Victor’s relationship here. She was an actress working for the Theatre du Grand-Guignol when she met Victor. Victor came from money and showed her a life of privilege – a life, as an actress, she’d never enjoy. I charted the beginning of their relationship all the way to its current position. In the end, I jettisoned most of it for pacing reasons. Too much exposition and backstory is lethal to a story’s forward momentum. I labored to begin the book with an exciting sentence; it would have been reductive of me to squander it with paragraphs of passive voice.
I actually added the description of the market square quite close to the end of editing process. I can’t remember why? Initially, Madeleine just paused beneath a street lamp. I guess it adds a bit more flavour to the location. I resisted using ‘ripped’ at her bodice for fear of tipping my hand. The prose is florid enough thank you very much.
‘Pantheon’ and ‘St Etienne’ are compliments of Google maps. I hate doing research but I couldn’t very well have someone running around Paris without it being geographically accurate.
‘dull-eyed sow’ indeed! A bit more colourful than ‘bitch’ though I’m not sure anyone has ever actually been called that. I probably got ‘sow’ from The Exorcist. I believe old Scratch refers to Regan as a sow a couple of times. All the ‘demon’ stuff is pretty purple but that’s intentional. I wanted the Madeleine sections in the book to be a little ripe. The chapters are so short, I had to make sure they left an impression. Oh look, I managed to work some of that backstory I was talking about into this and the next paragraph.
5th & 6th Paragraph
More backstory bringing us up to date so we can continue on. The reader has been allowed to take a breather along with Madeleine. We’ll get moving again soon.
First mention of Antoine. I always imagined Antoine would play a bigger part in the story. He never did though. Still, without Antoine we wouldn’t get Caleb so I guess he’s pretty important. Maybe he’ll pop up in other books?
8th & 9th Paragraph
And we get our first glimpse of Ariman. His description was probably inspired, in part, by images of Trent Reznor in The Perfect Drug video.
And Gary Oldman in Coppola’s Dracula.
My first attempt at a jump scare and certainly not the last. It’s much harder to startle a reader than it is for a director to make the audience jump. Unfortunately, I can’t blast the soundtrack in your ear when you’re reading. I can use lots of exclamation points however. Probably too many. I must remember to scale back on all the crazy punctuation. A little goes a long way.
11th – 14th Paragraphs
And the chase is on again. I might have been a little creative in my geography here. I don’t think this section of Paris is quite the rabbit’s warren I make it out to be. It works dramatically though which is the (only) important thing.
15th – End of Chapter
Ariman and Madeleine meet and my crazy little story begins properly. This first encounter is pivotal so there was much re-writing and finessing. Originally their dialogue exchange went for a couple of pages during which Ariman confessed to watching her perform as an actress more than a year ago and had been watching her ever since. I wanted to convey that Madeleine wasn’t selected arbitrarily by Ariman. However, the more he spoke the less menacing he became. The nature of his character needed to have a big question mark hovering over it. He might be a villain or a hero. I also didn’t want to include any details that would suggest what sort of supernatural creature he is. Most readers would probably assume Ariman’s a vampire so the reveal later on – that he something far stranger and more mysterious – hits harder.
In earlier drafts Ariman doesn’t hypnotise Madeleine into taking his hand. She does so willingly. I could never make this work. Madeleine’s smarter than that. Despite being terrified of her drunken brute of a husband she’s just not going to take this strange man’s hand on faith. There had to be an element of supernatural coercion. It makes the later scenes, where she remains with Ariman despite his spell having been lifted, more interesting. She’s a woman that chooses to live with a monster. Then again, I guess she married one in Victor, so her choice is less difficult to understand. Some chics dig the bad boys and always will.
End of Chapter One