Friday, 28 November 2008

Author’s note and postscript

If you have read this far, then I am frankly gratified and more than a little amazed. Thank you for your persistence in reading what is a very scrappy first effort at writing a novel.

I signed up for Nanowrimo as a personal challenge and it has rather taken over my life for the previous month. After the opening chapters I really started to struggle to get my fingers on the keyboard and get the words down on virtual paper. I kept a series of spreadsheets to calculate my daily word count and all sorts of statistical averages to let me know exactly how far behind schedule I was. I started to despair of finishing as I watched my writer buddies clocking up their word counts like metronomes. Some time around the thirty thousand word mark, I caught up and things started to flow. Characters started to do unexpected things, events took me by surprise and, against all expectations, I started to enjoy myself hugely.

The inspiration for this novel came from a couple of sources, and the first may surprise you. Many years ago I played the game Tomb Raider II on what was, at the time, a blazingly fast 486/33 pc with a four megabytes of RAM. The level that particularly stuck in my mind was set in Venice with a series of challenges for our pixelated heroine involving climbing over roof tops, diving into canals, exploring crumbling buildings, jumping through the middle of a covered bridge in a speed boat and duking it out with black clad assassins on stage and behind the scenes of a grand opera house. This, not surprisingly, was the genesis of the early scene with Donatella breaking into the house by crossing the canal on a rope.

The other inspiration came from excellent series about the founding and history of Venice by the historian Francesco da Mosta. It really is a city with a unique story that spans many hundreds of years from its founding in the unpromising swampy islands of the lagoon by disparate tribes of fishermen banding together for protection, through its glorious ascendance as one of the great powers of Europe to its slow (but highly pleasurable) decline and eventual capture by Napoleon

I started with little more than a vague image of mist drifting down the canals of Venice at some unspecified point in history that would allow for a generous helping of intrigue and sword play. I wrote the opening three chapters – the plot against Venice, the old man dying in the monastery cell and Donatella crossing the canal in the dead of night – with no idea of what might happen next. I hadn’t done any research to speak of or plotted any sort of direction for the story, or indeed had any idea for any eventual ending. The character of Alonso came out of the blue, as did his subsequent actions and escape from the monastery. The idea that Donatella might be breaking into her own family’s house was another surprise development. The best bit of serendipity though was the date that I had chosen for the story – late in the year 1605.

On further investigation, I found out that a number of significant events took place around this time. The story of the two priests Canon Saraceni of Vicenza and Abbé Brandolin of Nervesa is a true one. They were indeed accused of a number of serious crimes including murder and rapine (although not, I am sorry to say, bumming each other). They were convicted and imprisoned by the secretive Council of Ten and imprisoned in the infamous Piombi lead roofed cells in a high corner of the Doge’s Palace, very much the Guantanamo bay of its day.

The Venetians made a point of thumbing their collective noses at the Pope in a number of different ways including passing laws restricting the church from acquiring property through donations as part of wills and bequests. Eventually they pushed the church too far and when the zealous pontiff Pope Paul V was elected something had to give. The Pope issued a decree excommunicating the entire city of Venice, which the Venetians cheerfully ignored and it seems entirely possible that a war would have ensued if diplomatic efforts by various foreign ambassadors hadn’t resolved the issue two years later.

Something else caught my eye as well, to whit the death of the much loved Doge Marino Grimani and the election of Leonardo Donato in that same year. All of the detail of the fabulously convoluted election process is true. Venice truly was unique in having – in effect – a democratic monarchy, elected by a combination of lottery and voting. Perhaps the process ensured that Doge’s were selected for their innate luck in some sort of evolutionary way?

When the Doge was elected, his powers were restricted by law in numerous ways – he could not read letters from other heads of states unless in the presence of others, he could not own property in a foreign land and of course, any attempt to pass on the position to an heir was strictly forbidden. Indeed, when a Doge died a commission would be set up to investigate any possible malfeasance by the late ruler and his family could be liable to pay back any ill gotten gains.

It is also true that Marin Falier, the fifty fifth Doge, tried to stage a coup to declare himself a Prince. Some accounts say that he may well have been senile and unaware of the consequences of his actions, or that he was motivated by an antipathy for the aristocracy. As punishment he was beheaded and his memory damned forever – damnatio memoriae in the Latin phrase. Even his portrait in the the council hall in the palazzo was ordered to be covered with a black cloth for all time, and so it remains to this day.

Other episodes from Venetian history are well worth investigating as well, if you are interested in such things, particularly the story of the acquisition of the bones of Saint Mark. It shows something of the Venetian mind set, that in order to have a suitably high ranking patron saint for the city(to replace the obscure Saint Theodore of Amasea) a group of adventurers set out for Alexandria in 828 to steal the bones of Saint Mark that were reputed to be held there. They concealed the bones inside a casket filled with pork so that the Muslim guards could not investigate the contents. About two hundred years later the bones went missing again, but conveniently a 'miraculous arm' appeared from a pillar and pointed out some bones in the foundations of the basilica that was being built at the time. Hence we now have the basilica and square dedicated to Saint Mark. You've got to hand it to the Venetians for chutzpah, if nothing else.

Italy has been, for most of its history, a loose federation of warring city states, and the Vatican was no different. It was rare for cities to maintain anything more than a token standing army, for fear of the commanders staging a coup. Instead, the practice was to employ mercenary armies, the so called 'condottieri', to fight their wars as required. The Black Company of the story is of course based on the famous White Company of the 14th century commanded by the Englishman Sir John Hawkwood, who was in turn the inspiration for Sir John Fletcher.

Fletcher was initially intended to be a minor character, and perhaps a bit of Falstaffian comic relief, but his role grew in the telling until he was a rather heroic figure. I feel a little bit guilty for killing him off, but perhaps I'll change that in the rewrite if I revisit this story at some future date.

Similarly Bompanzini was another comic character, and again a Falstaffian wine bibber, but he turned into rather a slimy and corpulent villain. If anyone deserved to meet a sticky end it was him, but alas he is still out there somewhere.

I know that the story is rather rushed in places, and incoherent elsewhere, but it is after all a first draft and a first attempt at anything remotely like this. Anybody who has followed my blog will know that my preferred literary form is the haiku with its spare seventeen syllable form, so writing extra words in is a rather alien experience for me, to say the least. The structure is a bit ropy too, but I think that there are some good ideas in there somewhere. I particularly like the bits about the Carnival and I think the image of the villainous Carmelo in the sinister costume of the plague doctor with the hooked beak bird mask is a strong one.

To any Italian readers, or anybody that knows Venice and its environs, I can only apologise for any errors of geography or description. I have effectively written a historical novel by looking things up on Wikipedia as I went along, but that's Nanowrimo for you, I suppose.

To conclude, I will say that my ambition is to visit Venice one day, hopefully in the near future and do some proper research on the locations and history of the place. I really would like to do the ideas that I have had here justice.

Until that time, long live the most serene republic of La Serenissima!

Neil Hopkins, November 2008