I will periodically make reference to a shifty and lurking, at times playful and others menacing, figure named Duncan. Duncan is the quick and easy name I have given my first novel (thus the italics), set primarily in the year 1094, in a fictional kingdom called (for lack of a better name thus far) Legaria.
Duncan is a beast. I started it (and reserve the right to arbitrarily assign a pronoun to it, usually vacillating between the neuter ‘it’ and the masculine ‘he’) my junior year of undergraduate study at Texas A&M University. I got the idea (I think) my sophomore year, but oh how he has changed since then.
A Little Context
I am what some deem necessary to call a “nerd.” I have squabbled with Dungeon Masters, I know James T. Kirk’s middle name, and I can answer the question posed by life, the universe, and everything (even if I don’t know what the proper question is). It was while learning this last tidbit of nerdy trivia that I resolved to write my own story set, not in space, but in a fantastic world of my own.
I loved fantasy, you see. I grew up with Middle-Earth and Redwall, the Prydain Chronicles and the Dragonlance series. I owe a deep debt to the American author, Lloyd Alexander. His book, Westmark, was the first book I truly loved. But I was in college and becoming deeply bored by fantasy. I was tired of reading about some teenage boy who happened to be the son of someone-or-another, destined for something-or-another, with an elderly wizard mentor, a gruff ranger-type companion, and a plucky, trickster friend. Book after book was cut-and-paste monomyth. I was tired of it.
So I decided to write one myself. And I was going to break the mold and set the world on fire and all that crap … with a fantasy novel. But no matter. I’d just finished another round of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker series and wanted to write something like that. Something funny, something original. I wanted to write The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fantasy. So I made up a kingdom (Legaria) and found my Arthur Dent.
A Hero Is Born
His name, if you hadn’t guessed, is Duncan. Sir Duncan—he’s a knight … a very, very bad knight. The initial plotline revolved around him being forced to go on a quest to get a mythical jewel called the Heart of Aria.
Duncan began life as a short story, well, two I suppose because there was a page limit assigned to the writing workshop I was attending at the time. The two parts were hits with everyone in the workshop except my professor (who the entire time avoided actually saying anything about it until I approached him after class one day and asked for his thoughts. His response was (as literally as I can remember it), “I really don’t … bother myself with that kind of writing.” You can rightly guess how many times I approached him after that.), but for me to read the stories now is to twist my guts. Friends insist they’re fun to read, and I suppose that’s something, but I’ve since matured into wanted more out of my writing than “fun to read.”
Enter Thomas Pynchon
At some point, while living at home right after graduation, I happened upon a stack of books my sister had left at our parents’ house, among which was The Crying of Lot 49. That book … what a revelation it was. Comical and tragic, a quest within a labyrinthine world with no string to help us find our way back. I loved it. Gravity’s Rainbow quickly followed.
Pynny (as I’ve come to know him) completely changed my relationship to writing, how I viewed words and the author, everything I ever thought I knew about how to tell a story. I wanted desperately to create something like that. Something mind-blowing and startling. I didn’t scrap everything I’d done on Duncan, but I set straight away to revising it.
It has since ballooned into my white whale, a seemingly insurmountable challenge. It’s also a misnomer, because I can’t rightly say Duncan’s the protagonist any more. He’s still in there and a main character, but it’s now an ensemble piece with more characters than is probably good for it.
An Uncertain Future
In addition to exploding in complexity (not only of plot and character, but of purpose), two years ago, I realized that I would no longer be content to write just another fantasy novel. I wanted it to be relevant and daring, something more than a few nerds might read one day. That meant one big change: Earth. I wanted to set the novel in a “real” historical context, the Middle Ages, if not with real historical figures.
I opted to keep it in a fictional realm. That makes it easier for me to tweak certain details about the state of every day life, so as to keep the story interesting to modern sensibilities and the particular themes I want to explore. The research I’ve needed to carry out has been extensive and is on-going. I started out not knowing much beyond the basic story of King Arthur. I now have a pretty good working knowledge of what daily life was like for various classes in various kingdoms around 1094. It has not been easy. But it has been worth it.
I have no idea when I’m going to finish it. You’d think after all these years I would despair that it will ever get done. I won’t lie; I have moments like that. But then I have others when it seems inevitable. I’m nearing completion of my research phase, and I’ve been diagramming like mad the greater structure of the novel (I’m an outliner). I have planned (I wrote it down) to have a completed draft good enough to show people by my birthday come November. Time will tell if I can swing it.
Long story short: that’s who Duncan is. May I be finished with him soon….