Sunday, March 18, 2012

Creating Your Story Universe

I recently read a great post by Larry Brooks, the Storyfix guy. It was an excellent post and it tied in just perfectly with a book I finished and reviewed today. The book was interesting, the story unique, but what grabbed me from the word go was the way the author set his tale firmly in the era, in 1916 when World War 1 was raging in Europe. The hero of the story is a French secret service agent posted to New York on a mission. As the story unfolds the detailed descriptions of the place and the people recreate the same kind of world for the reader, who feels as if he or she is experiencing what the main character does. Amazing what we can get our readers to feel if we really work hard. So, here is my post for today, combining some wonderful stuff from Larry Brooks (please sign up for his newsletter) and my review of The Counterfeit Consul.

Larry says this about a particular magical element—the secret weapon—of storytelling:

I call it vicarious experience, one of the major underlying story forces—essences—that impart power, weight and impact to novels and screenplays. Vicarious experience is delivered through setting, or though social, cultural or relational dynamics... Every story unfolds upon a dramatic stage. What we’re talking about is recognizing the opportunity to make that stage—both in support of your story, and as an independent source of focus and fascination—more compelling. This is the forgotten stepchild of both story planning and story “pantsing,” when in fact it can empower either process. When you add your story to a setting that delivers vicarious experience – when you set your story within this time, place or context that is, when regarded alone, inherently interesting – then you get a sum in excess of the parts...

Take a look at your story and ask yourself what kind of vicarious experience you are delivering to your reader. All stories take us out of our own lives and into another existence, but does your setting—either time, place, contextual or relational—contribute to the reading experience in an exciting, compelling, even frightening way? One that is vicarious? One that readers will be drawn to—drawn into—by virtue of this alone?

Brilliant advice! My enjoyment of The Counterfeit Consul came in a large part from the way the author built up an historic world for me, a reader who has no chance of travelling back in time to experience either the place or the happenings of the historical period for myself.

The Counterfeit Consul
 Book Review: Gerard Le Caillec is the counterfeit consul, just one of many disguises he has held in his career in the French Foreign Intelligence Service. Quiet, unassuming and (to his superiors) utterly expendable, Gerard struggles for promotion. He is handed an excellent opportunity to make or break his career when he is posted to the New York City office of the service. It involves the destruction of armament warehouses on a Hoboken, New Jersey pier. The plot is set in 1916, against a backdrop of a world at war in Europe, and a neutral America supplying arms and munitions to both sides. The French hope that by bombing the warehouses, the American public will become aware of America's duplicity and protest against this hypocritical stance. Either way, the French hope to force America either to join the battle on the side of the allies or cease supplying the Germans. Gerard is brilliant at one particular aspect of his job: recruiting agents. His unassuming personality enables him to tap into the weaknesses and foibles of his targets and lure them into his mode of operations. On the orders of his superiors in Paris, he focuses on Armand Barsoum, a weak, spendthrift playboy, the scion of a prestigious French banking firm, working in their New York division. Armand tends to go for fast women and slow horses, a deadly combination that soon has him bankrupt and susceptible to Gerard's offer of money. However, Gerard wonders if Armand is indeed the right person to set the dynamite and bomb the warehouses. Armand tries wriggle out of their agreement and blurts his involvement to Trudy Gehr, a coarse German-born woman living in Hoboken. She, in turn informs a friend who informs...and when the Military Attaché at the Imperial German Consulate in New York learns of the plot, he makes immediate plans to deal with it.

This is an original spy novel with much to enjoy. The author's style suits the era and the subject matter. The intricacies of the plot unfold carefully, almost too slowly in the beginning as the author sets the scene for what is potentially an international firestorm. I enjoyed the meticulous details bringing the various characters to life. The author also paints an incredibly detailed picture of the New York of the early twentieth century: loud, tawdry, corrupt and filled with clubs, drinkers, bookies, gamblers, and goodtime gals. In this, the author succeeds admirably in taking the reader back to another era. Although some editing could speed up the pace of the action, the unfolding of events brings its own suspense-filled timing. With an interesting final twist to the tale, this is a great read for readers who enjoy historical and spy thrillers.

First Reviewed by Fiona I. for Readers Favorite

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