Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Finding humor in darkness

What was the most fun scene you ever wrote?

by Rebecca Cantrell

Most scenes—with the exception of those that are frightening or that reflect some horrible historical event—are fun to write. I love putting my characters in a tight spot and watching them get out of it. I relish describing a place that hasn’t existed for seventy years until I can feel it and see it and smell it and hear it. I enjoy tearing through complex action scenes and the questions I need to answer (how far off the ground is a zeppelin’s gondola windows when it docks?). But mostly I love witty dialogue and the unexpected. Since the Hannah Vogel books are set just before and during the Nazis’ rise to power, they are not filled with laugh a minute gags, but some of the characters continue to be funny even in the darkest of moments.

In A Trace of Smoke my favorite bits were when Hannah was thinking about her brother. He was a funny guy. When I took him out of the book, I gave some of his best lines to other characters just so readers could get a feel for a man who was brave enough to walk the late night streets of Berlin with nothing but a red silk dress, wit, and bravado. Hannah has some of that famous Berlin sarcasm herself, and she seems intent on getting funnier in each book.

In A Night of Long Knives some of the funniest lines went to British spy Sefton Delmer, who was based on a pretty darn witty historical character. He had unflappable British cool down pat, but Hannah holds her own. I just finished A Game of Lies and Hannah’s funniest moments are when I got her stoned on opium (it was prescribed as a painkiller, just to keep her reputation clear). In her normal state she would never dance around a restaurant to imaginary music, flirt with the croupier, hike up her dress to show off her bruise, or…well, I can’t say, but man was I surprised.

And surprises are good. Surprises and fun enrich reading, writing, and life.


Sophie Littlefield said...

that was one of the things i loved about TRACE OF SMOKE, how you would convince me I was right there in a setting i wasn't familiar with and had never even imagined before, pile on the details for richness, and then add in some gentle humor when i least expected it. well done xo

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Aww, thanks, Sophie! You're making me blush. Compliments mean a lot coming from the creator of Ms. Hardesty!

Graham Brown said...

Even in the darkest places there are often moments of utter hilarity - and probably those points are where it's the most valuable because the human spirit needs sarcasm and humor to break up the un-ending oppression that sometimes surrounds us. You totally nailed that effect in your books - absolutely the right balance. Congrats.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Graham! I was talking to another writer friend who writes humorous pieces about historical characters (Ben Thomspon, writer of BADASS) and he said he tends to avoid the Third Reich because it's "hard to be funny without sounding like a jackass." Very true, so I try to be careful. But Hannah is irreverent and sarcastic, so I never try to stop her (sure, occassionally I hire thugs to beat her up, but that's just for plot reasons, honest).

Shane Gericke said...

Hey, being stoned on opium sounds like fun! Where do I get mine? You know, since you researched it and all :-)

Gabi said...

How do you research "funny while stoned?"

Rebecca Cantrell said...


Back then it was over the counter, straight or in patent medicines. Opium addiction was so prevalent that they worked to cure it with a wonder drug: heroin.
Also available over the counter.

I'm not sayin''! ;)