For years, I'd been taken with the song "Matty Groves" as performed by Fairport Convention, featuring the stunning vocals of Sandy Denny and the magic fretwork of Richard Thompson. This 17th-century English folk song (cataloged as Child 81) is a classic tale of adultery and murder in a mixed-class setting. It seemed to cry out for dramatization, and for a long time I thought I would turn it into a short story. Then, some time after completing the one-act play described below, I realized that perhaps a full-length play would be a better medium for telling the song's story. Such project was still simmering on the back burner when in late October 2006 I was told by a colleague about National Novel-Writing Month. The point of "NaNoWriMo" is to churn out a 50,000-word novel from November 1-30. You register at the website and can upload progress drafts; the whole point is just to create an incentive for writers with books just dangling like stubborn dingleberries from the sphincter of their minds to finally make a novel movement.
Well, my colleague said she was going to write one so I thought I'd do it, too. Matty Groves seemed the logical theme and I set myself to writing. I made decent progress for the first couple of weeks; however, my wife and I had a baby the previous August and in her third month of life decided that sleep was overrated. By the end of NaNoWriMo, I only had 25,000 words down. By January '07, I had 27,000. Things looked bleak until last fall when in a burst of inspiration I finished the novel. Or thought I had. I'm now on my fourth draft and have no idea when it will be done enough to begin sending to agents and small publishers. But the idea has become real. It's on paper, and I have to say I like the overall story arc.
Now, the song itself is eight minutes long, and the latter half of it is a raging instrumental, so essentially I've been treating a four-minute folk song like Silly Putty, stretching it to fit the contours and boundaries of a short novel. To do this has required filling in each character's back story, a process I was astounded to find was fueled by the characters themselves. Honestly, sometimes I would be typing and wondering just who was doing the dictating. I also invented a character named Alexandra McLean (Sandy Denny's real name) and promptly fell in love with her.
The challenge of dramatizing a song is that people familiar with the source material will know how the book ends. To solve that, I changed the ending a bit. I should say I added to it, because the song's ending is beautiful though tragic and I didn't want to lose that. But by extending the action a little longer, I was able to bring an important subplot to resolution and give the reader (dear G-d, please let there someday be a reader) a glimpse at the possible future the survivors may experience beyond the scope of the song's narration.
As the book is set in Olde England, I tried to have the omniscient narrator speak in a tone that suggests it is a contemporary telling. For this challenging style, I was greatly inspired by Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer. Ellen is an old friend from my time at WGBH, and after I left I contributed three scripts to her extraordinary Public Radio International series, Sound & Spirit ("Mourning," "Prayer," and "The End of the World"). Ellen was kind enough to read my first chapter and honest enough to tell me it ain't ready yet. But it's getting there, and I think it picks up steam after the first chapter so I'm focusing my attention on my opening. I was going for something cinematic, but Ellen advises getting the characters involved right away.
Forgot to mention the title (working title, anyway). It's called The Grave and the Gay, which refers to a number of things. First, the phrase is from a speech by Abraham Lincoln, whom you know by now is my primary hero. It also plays on characters' names, the characteristics of the protagonist and antagonist, and hints at one character's unacknowledged sexual identity.
Anyway, the experience of writing a novel was extraordinary, and the challenge is giving it the continued attention it needs when the impulse is to launch into the second one. As I will write about soon, I have both fiction and non-fiction books in my queue. Until then, here is the song that inspired my novel.