Writing Right with Dmitri: Going Mythological

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Going Mythological

Editor at work.

Nope. Not talking about ancient Greece.

One way to set your story apart – and to preempt criticism – is to create your own mythology within a narrative. That way, the audience doesn't say, 'That's not realistic,' or 'That would never happen.' Of course it wouldn't: fictional events only take place in fictional universes. The other advantage of creating mythology is that when the events in the narrative do parallel those in RL, the audience thinks you're clever. You get credit for drawing these parallels in a semi-didactic manner. Rod Serling did it all the time in his Twilight Zone episodes. Sometimes, he was pretty heavy-handed about it. Don't try that unless you have an ironclad reputation, though.

When the poet requested it to break break break on its cold gray rocks it obligingly broke broke broke.

Which as the poet was Alfred Lord Tennyson didn’t surprise him at all but if it had been me I would probably have had a stroke.

Ogden Nash

So what do I mean by mythology? Well, you could do what Terry Pratchett did, bless him, and make up a whole parody universe, complete with giant turtle and elephants. Then plug in anything you happen to notice going on, down to and including a folk song you heard on the radio. I think Monstrous Regiment is a cool novel, and as he said, it all started with some folkie singing 'Sweet Polly Oliver' on Pratchett's car radio. Cool. But you don't have to go that far.

I'm still binge-watching the tv show Saving Grace. I'm in season three, the last season. The actors are impressive, which keeps me interested in spite of the college football references and puerile jokes. The story is basically about a diminutive female detective in Oklahoma City, USA. She's a hard-drinking, hard-swearing, promiscuous, straight-shooting lapsed Catholic. The gimmick? She is visited by her own personal angel, who talks with a Southern accent and chews tobacco. His name is Earl, and he's amazingly broadminded.

How did the show's creator, Nancy Miller, get away with this? Well, she made it clear that this is a mythological universe in an interesting way. Although the story takes place in a real city – yes, Oklahoma City really exists – and many of the plotlines involve the 1995 bombing of the federal building there by domestic terrorists, the fictional OCPD isn't quite the real one. The detectives all have odd surnames: Hanadarko, Stillwater, Norman, Ada. These are the names of towns in the state of Oklahoma. That's one way to send a signal that you're Making It Up. It disarms criticism somewhat.

Fictional superheroes (as opposed to real-life ones, I suppose) live in fictional towns like Gotham City. Of course, the cartoon world's Superchicken lives in Pittsburgh. In the Gulf Building. The Gulf Building is real   – they've recently brought back the colour-coded weather beacon – but Henry Cabot Henhouse III does not live in a penthouse there. It's Art Deco, it's fun, and like the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, it was once bombed by domestic terrorists (the Weathermen in 1974). Mixing fact and fiction like that can create a light-hearted mythology that suits the self-mocking jollity of the cartoon.

221B Baker Street is just fictional enough to work. (And the Abbey insurance people had to keep answering Sherlock Holmes' fan mail.) My fictional Bavarian, Friedl Wagner, was based on a very real brass plaque on a building in Munich. The rest is a mishmash of period detail and unbridled fantasy. (Yes, they really were issuing hunting licences for the Sendlingerstrasse in 1979. I was there.)

So what will you make up? A slightly fictional version of your neighbourhood, or a full-blown magical kingdom like Walt Kelly's Okefenokee Swamp? (The swamp's real, but I don't think anyone's ever run into a talking possum there.) What will your characters do in their mythological surroundings? Let us know all about it.

PS: I finished Saving Grace, and have mixed feelings about the ending. The final episode proves what I've been saying about these tv series: you can turn your series into an acted-out novel. As a novel, Saving Grace works. The ending is adumbrated by the beginning. There's thematic unity. The final episode makes you take a step back and evaluate the action in terms of its greater meaning. On the other hand, I understand the frustration of many audience members. They're used to the television series as 'open-ended narrative'. On those terms, the ending seems a betrayal of the audience's loyalty to the characters. They want more validation, a sense that 'life goes on'. They lack the detachment of prose readers. It's another aspect of the mythology to think about as you construct stories.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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