28. November 2013 · Comments Off on Revisiting Barsetshire · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings · Tags: ,

350px-BarsetshireNot so much the 19th century Barsetshire of Anthony Trollope, but the 20th century version; a cycle of interlinked novels by Angela Thirkell, which were sort of chronological in that they were contemporary to the time that they were published – about one a year – between 1933 and her death in 1961. The books were part gentle social comedy, part romance and totally English. The novels were set in a mythical English county, and featured a huge cast of characters, a dozen or more families, houses grand and humble and several small towns. In passing, the books also chronicled those wrenching changes wrought by WWII and its gray aftermath. Quite frequently, a character, or a set of characters that would be front and center in one or two books, would retreat to the sidelines in another, while another character or family – mentioned in passing previously – would be the leading lights in the next. And it was not necessary to read every book in strict chronological order to know what was going on in Barsetshire, although it was obvious that the society which the books reflected had changed substantially from the relatively serene 1930s, to the wartime 1940s and into the uneasy peacetime which followed on it. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you could pretty much dip in anywhere and enjoy.

Some years ago, when I was blogging fretfully about how the research material I had reviewed for writing Adelsverein was leading me inexorably towards making it into more than just one book, a long-time blog fan just advised me to think of it all as Barsetshire with cypress trees and a lot of sidearms – let it rip and make it into two or three volumes. After thinking it over, I realized he was entirely right. And when I mapped out more novels set in Texas, before, during and after the events chronicled in the Trilogy, I realized that this was a most excellent way to think of those books of mine set in Texas; not as a straight start to finish ladder of a narrative, but more like an interlinked network – like Thirkell’s Barsetshire. People and characters change, over time; they have experiences, grow older and settle down, or they move off into something else. I simply couldn’t write the same character over and over again, as if nothing about them had been changed by experience and time. I was already doing this in the Trilogy – by the time of the last volume, The Harvesting, quite a lot of the narrative load was being carried by characters who had been babies or small children in the first two volumes. And there were so many characters whose experiences and back-stories I wanted to explore … really, The Harvesting was nearly twice the page-count as The Gathering, and if I gone down all those entrancing side-corridors, it might have been three times longer still.

So, some of those interesting characters demanded their own books – Margaret Becker, of course – who knew everyone who was everyone, and had a very interesting life of her own, while her brother was off adventuring on the far frontier. And with The Quivera Trail, there is Dolph Becker’s English bride – and Sam Becker’s as well. In the next book, Fredi Steinmetz’s adventures in Gold Rush California and on the various western trails will fill in his own interesting frontier experience. As I look over it all – good googly moogly, have I written six books already about these people and their web of kin, friends and associates? There are so many more at-present-minor characters begging for attention. A reader once wondered wistfully, why didn’t I do something about Willi Richter and his long sojourn among the Comanche? Then, what about little silent Grete, his sister who was retrieved after a year with them? There must be interesting material enough about Tom Becker, the Bandera Kid, who was born in a London slum under the name of Alf Trotter – but at the end of The Quivera Trail, he is a silent movie cowboy star. Surely, there is a fascinating story in that – and in Peter Vining’s brother Jamie; a small child in Deep in the Heart, and dead in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg two books later. Little Horrie, Margaret’s grandson, a small child in the two books about Margaret, a teenager briefly mentioned in Quivera – what about him? And there is yet another thread – the daughter, or possibly the granddaughter of Race Vining’s Boston wife, coming to Texas by chance and discovering the skeleton in the familial closet?

No, not a ladder – but a net, drawing in all the various stories in our American history, in our past. And there are more of them to be told. Just wait.

30. July 2012 · Comments Off on Personal Barsetshire · Categories: Domestic · Tags: ,

In January, 2007 I had just launched into the first book about the German settlements in the Texas Hill Country – a project which almost immediately came close to overflowing the constraint that I had originally visualized, of about twenty chapters of about 6,500 words each. Of course I blogged about what I had described as “my current obsession, which is growing by leaps and bounds.” A reader suggested that “if I was going for two books, might as well make it three, since savy readers expected a trilogy anyway.” And another long-time reader Andrew Brooks suggested at about the same time “Rather then bemoan two novels of the Germans in the Texas hill country, let them rip and just think of it as The Chronicles of Barsetshire, but with cypress trees!” and someone else amended that to “Cypress trees and lots of side-arms” and so there it was, a nice little marketing tag-line to sum up a family saga on the Texas frontier. I’ve been eternally grateful for Andrew’s suggestion ever since, but I have just now come around to thinking he was more right than he knew at the time. Because when I finally worked up the last book of the trilogy, it all came out to something like 490,000 words – and might have been longer still if I hadn’t kept myself from wandering down along the back-stories of various minor characters. Well, and then when I had finished the Trilogy, and was contemplating ideas for the next book project, I came up with the idea of another trilogy, each a complete and separate story, no need to have read everything else and in a certain order to make sense of it all. The new trilogy, or rather a loosely linked cycle, would pick up the stories of some of those characters from the Trilogy – those characters who as they developed a substantial back-story almost demanded to be the star of their own show, rather than an incidental walk-on in someone elses’.

I never particularly wanted to write a single-character series; that seemed kind of boring to me. People develop, they have an adventure or a romance, they mature – and it’s hard to write them into an endless series of adventures, as if they stay the same and only the adventure changes. And I certainly didn’t want to write one enormous and lengthy adventure broken up into comfortably volume-sized segments. Frankly, I’ve always been rather resentful of that kind of book: I’d prefer that each volume of a saga stand on its own, and not make the reader buy two or three books more just to get a handle on what is going on.

So, now I am well into that project – having written one (Which turned into two) and now on the second and third – when I got bored with one, or couldn’t think of a way to hustle the story and the characters along, I’d do some research, or scribble away on the other, and post some of the resulting chapters here and on the other blog. But it wasn’t until the OS blogger Procopius remarked “I like that you let us see the goings on of so many branches of the same family through your writings. The frontier offers a rich spring of fascinating stories!” This was also the same OS blogger who had wondered wistfully, after completing reading “The Harvesting” about young Willi Richter’s life and eventual fate among the Comanche, first as a white captive and then as a full member of the band. And at that point, I did realized that yes, I was writing a frontier Barsetshire, and perhaps not quite as closely linked as Anthony Trollop’s series of novels, , but something rather more like Angela Thirkell’s visualization of a time and place, of many linked locations, yet separate characters and stories. Yes, that is a better description of how my books are developing – not as a straight narrative with a few branches, but as an intricate network of friends, kin and casual acquaintances, all going their own ways, each story standing by itself, with now and again a casual pass-through by a character from another narration. And it’s starting again with the latest book, I’ll have you know – I have a minor character developing, a grimy London street urchin, transplanted to Texas, where he becomes a working cowboy, later a champion stunt-performer in Wild West Shows . . . eventually, he is reinvented in the early 20th century as a silent movie serial star. The potential for yet one more twig branching out into another fascinating story is always present, when my imagination gets really rolling along.

So – yes. Barsetshire with cypress trees and lots of side-arms, Barsetshire on the American frontier as the occasionally wild west was settled and tamed, a tough and gritty Barsetshire, of buffalo grass and big sky, of pioneers and Rangers, of cattle drives and war with the Comanche, war with the Union, with Mexico and with each other. This is going to be so great. I will have so much fun . . . and so will my readers.