Tuesday, January 16, 2007

who tells the story?

Had a very helpful workshop last night—a brainstorming session regarding the narrator of my historical tale. Turned out Chuck (Palahniuk) was the only person able to make shop, so the two of us put our heads together. I read the opening chapter, first person, Elisabeth, set in Bad Ischl the morning after Elisabeth turns the Emperor’s head, and dashes her older sister’s plans to marry the guy.

I thought the opening was pretty expository, but in keeping with the genre in terms of voice and tension. Chuck, I think, found it too expository and self-conscious, and suggested immediately that I choose someone else to tell Elisabeth’s story. A lady-in-waiting or a boot-polisher. Someone of lowly status. I, of course, resisted this. Initially. When I outlined the book a year-and-a-half ago, I thought Sisi’s loyal lady-in-waiting, the Countess Marie Festetics, would be the perfect narrator, but then it became problematic because she didn’t come on the scene until the Empress was well into the marriage, and she doesn’t really have an obviously compelling story in her own right. How to tell all that romantic, tumultuous engagement/wedding stuff? With Elisabeth a mere 15 years of age when betrothed, there was a real opportunity to set an arc point if I told that part of the story through her na├»ve point-of-view.

But, said Chuck, remember how successful Amadeus was because it was told through Salieri’s pov? Naturally, he’d bring up the success of one of my favorite movies!

In Amadeus, the story of Mozart is compelling because it is told through the vengeful voice of his nemesis, who, confined to a loony bin, offers a filter with its own tensions and arc.

Then there’s the very successful “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” wherein Vermeer’s model tells the painter’s story, and her part in it.

Yes, yes, Chuck is absolutely right. Damn it! I have to tell the story from an alternate pov, through someone with her own story and risks and agenda.

That person, it turns out, is Ida Ferenczy, Elisabeth’s Hungarian “reader” and best friend. Ida comes on the scene in 1864, a very politically auspicious time for the Austrian empire. And Ida, who is a Hungarian woman just up a notch from peasantry, turns out to be the liaison between Hungary’s political aspirations and the Hapsburgs’ ultimate role in the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ida is taken into Elisabeth’s confidence, and becomes her inseparable girlfriend, as well as instrument of clout.

The trick will be to pace the backstory in without glaring seam, as Ida isn’t around for the first ten years of the Imperial marriage. I have a few ideas about this, but I think I need to begin with an obvious opening scene, Ida and Elisabeth upon their first meeting, when Elisabeth is still completely iconic and “at the height of her beauty.”

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