Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It's all in the storytelling.

By R.J. Harlick

If you could choose a dead author to mentor you today, who would you choose and why?

This is such a difficult question for I have read and admired over the years so many authors who are no longer with us, from the American greats like Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, to the British greats like Thomas Hardy, the Bronte Sisters and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I could even list a few Russians, like Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekov and of course a few Canadians, like Carol Shields, Robertson Davies or Hugh MacLennan. But as much as I’ve admired these authors, I’m not sure if I would want to be mentored by them.



The author who I would’ve loved as a mentor is a modern day writer who passed away recently, 2001 to be exact. Dorothy Dunnett is her name. She’s a Scottish author who wrote both mysteries and historical fiction. Her mystery series staring Johnson Johnson consists of seven books. He is a widowed portrait painter who lives on a sailboat and also doubles as a British secret service agent. But while the books were fun, they weren’t exceptional, unlike her historical fiction.

She wrote two series, the Lymond Chronicles set in 16th century Europe during the time of Mary Queen of Scots and the House of Niccola set in 15th century Europe and Africa. I fell in love with the Lymond Chronicles and swear I’ve reread them at least 4 times, which is not exactly a light undertaking. The series consists of 6 hefty volumes with each book a good 500 pages or more. The stories are so intricate and complex that I learn something new with each successive reading.

You are probably wondering why I have picked a writer of historical fiction rather than a mystery writer. The answer is simple. For me the most important part of writing be it crime fiction, science fiction, romance or literary fiction, is the storytelling. The success of any work of creative fiction rests or falls on the storytelling.

Dorothy Dunnett was a master storyteller. She conjured up a world that keeps the reader fully engaged until the very end of the last volume. She packed more life into a single sentence than most writers do in a chapter. She contrived plots within plots within plots. Her stories have more twists than most mysteries and she sure keeps you guessing until the very end.

Her characters are all finely drawn people in their own right, be they minor ones or the main characters that move from book to book. Given the number that prance in and out of the six volumes this is no mean feat. The protagonist, Francis Crawford of Lymond, a Scottish noble, can only be called an anti-hero. There is a lot to admire about the man, but there is a lot to dislike about him. He can be aggravatingly frustrating. Nonetheless Dunnett was able to create a protagonist that keeps the reader coming back for more.

I need only close my eyes to conjure up the many settings she created through her vivid descriptions and character/setting interactions, from the hills of Scotland, to the castles of the Loire Valley and then onto the Kremlin and steppes of Russia with a side trip to Malta and lastly the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman Empire.

While I make no attempt to emulate her writing style, I have endeavoured to learn from her by reading her books. So I suppose in a way she has served as a mentor. If I could be a tenth of the writer she was I would be satisfied. And if I have enticed you to try out an author new to you, go for it.


By the way, my new Meg Harris mystery, Silver Totem of Shame is now out as an ebook through all ebook sellers. The trade paper back will be out shortly.

9 comments:

Meredith Cole said...

You're so right that storytelling is important across all genres (and we can learn so much from amazing authors across fiction and non-fiction). A new author for my TBR pile! I love reading historic fiction (and non-fiction)...

RJ Harlick said...

If you like historicals, Meredith, you'll enjoy Dunnett. I learned a lot about that time period from reading her books.

Susan C Shea said...

You have enticed me RJ, although I'm sure it will be awhile before I get to that part of the TBR stack. Storytelling is both a broad and a specific concept. When I read a novel that doesn't have that quality, it sticks out. In one that does, I'm not even aware of it because I'm so caught up in the author's world.

Catriona McPherson said...

Robin, I used to live in Durisdeer and don't often meet someone who'll have heard the name!

RJ Harlick said...

Too true, Susan. That is what good storytelling is all about, engaging the reader.

RJ Harlick said...

Catriona, I hadn't realized that you were a true McPherson from the old country. I'm a McLeod myself, but could never call myself a Scots. I take it you have read Dorothy Dunnett, at least The Game of Kings since Durisdeer is one of the locations.

lil Gluckstern said...

Dorothy Dunnett was one of my first "must reads." Her books transported me, and just as you said, the character of Lymond is very compelling. I always learned something through reading her books. Thank you for reminding us of her. I will have to track down your books.

Catriona McPherson said...

RJ - I learned the other kind of being Scottish quite quickly after we moved here. People would say "I'm a Scot!" I'd ask how long they'd been here. They'd say since 1840. I'd ask for the name of their moisturizer.

RJ Harlick said...

Thanks, Lil. But please refrain from comparing my writing to Dunnett. I could never reach so high. Wasn't she a marvellous writer? I'm thinking maybe it's time to dive back into the 5th reading of the Lymond Chronicles.