Monday, July 25, 2005

Poison in the Garden


It is July 2005. The middle of a beautiful balmy British summer.

The book I'm currently working on – The Sirens of Surrentum – has a lot about poison. Luckily I live in one of the greatest cities in the world – London – so last week I left a phone message with the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden to ask if they had anybody who could tell me more about poisonous plants known to the Romans. I know all the names but I don't know what they look like. Or smell like. Or taste like. (Actually that last one might not be strictly necessary!)

The curator, Rosie Atkins, returned my call and was very charming and helpful. After a short chat about hemlock, rhubarb (leaves extremely poisonous, stems completely edible) and the trade route from China to Rome via India, she encouraged me to come round and have a look for myself.

St Mary's Battersea
So I do. It's a half hour walk along the river via Albert Bridge and the Boy on a Dolphin sculpture. I love walking in London, especially beside the river. When the sun is shining Londoners are so cheerful and you see amazing snapshots of life. Yesterday I saw a just-married couple spilling out of St Mary's Battersea and – on my way back two hours later – an ambulance taking someone away from one of the houseboats moored beside it. Today I see two beer-bellied men fishing beside the river, assorted joggers, dog-walkers, bike-riders, and four boys cheerfully molesting a stuffed-toy rabbit before tossing it in the Thames. I also see a young dad crouched down beside a pushchair. For more than a minute he remained absolutely still, staring at his little boy's sleeping face as if he wanted to imprint it on his memory forever.

ancient Yew tree
The Chelsea Physic Garden is the second oldest botanical garden in England, after Oxford. It was established by the Society of Apothecaries who have a funky image of Apollo on their crest. It's a bit like a secret garden in the heart of Chelsea between the Thames and the Royal Hospital.

I am just in time for the 4.00pm tour. Christine, our guide, is a volunteer, like almost everyone who works here. She takes us around and makes a special effort to point out poisonous plants the Romans would have known.

We see acanthus, tansy, rhubarb, agapanthus, oleander, and a magnificent yew tree with its fatal red berries.

"Deadly Nightshade"
Deadly nightshade has fatal dark-blue berries. If you eat them or their juice you will die, but opticians used to use its juice to dilate the pupils of the eye. It's also known as belladonna ('beautiful woman') because Italian women use this juice to make their eyes look big and dark and liquid.

After the tour has ended, Christine helps me find some hemlock. The specimen in the garden isn't very healthy but I get a good sense of it's height and the hollow nature of its stem, and the little spray of white blossoms.

Everyone at the Chelsea Physic Garden is so helpful and erudite. Christine herself mentions two books which feature poison (Hartley's The Go-Between and Dorothy Sayer's Strong Poison) and she also quotes from two poems: one by Auden called Roman Wall Blues, and one by Houseman that ends like this:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up;
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
-I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.


Curiously enough, I mention old Mithridates in The Sirens of Surrentum...

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Script Secrets

I guess when you've done four or five screenwriting courses the principles start to become pretty familiar. And if they aren't familiar, then there's something wrong.

Still, I gained a few new (or forgotten) insights from Bill Martell who has just finished doing a weekend screenwriting course sponsored by Raindance.

Here are my twelve most memorable gems from the weekend:

1. Movies are not reality. They are waking dreams (or – in the case of horror – nightmares) that we share with other people in a big darkened room. They are fulfilment of our deepest fantasies and fears.

2. 'Shlock Shock' is a term invented by Bill Martell. This is when – at a very tense moment – the author/director pops in something to make the audience jump! But, phew! It was just a cat (or similar). Then, as the audience breathes a sigh of relief, the real horror or shock appears.

3. In both film and books, a popular protagonist is often the 'geeky kid' persecuted and ostracized by others. He eventually discovers he has special powers and as a result suddenly takes on a burden of huge responsibility. Examples? Harry Potter, Spiderman, Luke Skywalker, Forrest Gump, Batman, maybe even young Vito Corleone in Godfather 2.

4. Genres are like types of food. Sometimes you're in the mood for Chinese. Sometimes you crave Mexican. Sometimes nothing but pizza will do. In the same way, sometimes you're in the mood for a Romantic Comedy. Or a Heroic Epic. Or a tense Thriller. Some genres mix, but others don't. Just like sweet and sour sauce does NOT go on Mexican food! In my opinion two genres which do NOT mix are Historical Fiction and Fantasy, whereas Historical Fiction and Detective Stories DO mix. (That's why there are at least ten authors making a success of it.)

5. My mentor John Truby says that your hero will have a desire and that the opponent will be standing in the way of that desire. Martell says that nine times out of ten, the opponent has the desire and your hero tries to block it (!) eg. In My Best Friend's Wedding, Cameron Diaz is the opponent. Her desire is to marry Dermot Mulroney. As soon as Julia Roberts finds out about this, she tries to thwart Cameron and get Dermot for herself. In Die Hard, it's only when Bruce Willis discovers the opponent's plan that he leaps into action to block it. Hmmm... I'll have to think about this one...

7. John Truby says your most interesting characters change. Someone else said that in the real world people NEVER really change. Martell has an interesting solution: Your character doesn't change, he simply returns to the person he was before he was wounded by what John Truby would call the GHOST, the event from the past which haunts your hero.

6. Truby talks about the hero's PROBLEM/NEED. Martell talks about plot conflict (= Truby's PROBLEM) and emotional conflict (= Truby's NEED). Martell says the character must solve their emotional conflict (NEED) before they can tackle the plot conflict (PROBLEM). For example, in My Best Friend's Wedding, Julia Roberts emotional conflict (NEED) is to realise she is being selfish in preventing her best friend from marrying the delightful woman he loves. Only then can she solve the plot conflict (PROBLEM) by figuring out what her new relationship with Dermot will be when he's married.

8. The leap-frogging technique of plot structure is one used by J.K. Rowling. You have three different plot lines.
plotline 1: Harry battles the Dursleys as he comes to terms with his true identity.
plotline 2: Harry battles rival house of Slitherin in Quidditch etc...
plotline 3: Harry battles Voldemort as he learns to become a powerful wizard.
One scene might deal with plotline 1, the next with plotline 2, then plotline 3, then back to 1, 2, 3 and so forth. With variety of course.

9. One way to make a character likeable is to have them commit an act of minor mischief, by – say – breaking a small rule we have always wanted to break...

10. Touchstone and Twitch. Give character a positive object (a touchstone) that tells you about their character. For example, Nubia's flute represents her lost family, and shows how much family means to her. Or give them a negative object (the twitch) that reveals their weakness. Like Lupus's wax tablet, which reminds us he cannot communicate in the normal way. These 'objects' also give your character something to do with his or her hands.

11. Do everything you can to make the audience feel they are right there with the characters, discovering what they discover, experiencing what they experience. Use any and every means but do not be obvious. Be subtle.

12. In writing dialogue, make sure you the writer don't have the characters respond exactly as you know they should. Be careful of 'psychic characters' who know what someone is going to say and have the perfect answer ready. Season dialogue between characters with misunderstandings, confusion, jumping to conclusions...

Finally I'll leave you with a quote by John Ford: "A good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones."

But as authors we should strive for all great scenes and no bad ones!

(for more info on Bill Martell's SCRIPT SECRETS go HERE)