A Writing Craft Review
Because the task of women’s adventure novels is the consolidation of two disparate characters into a working pair there is a genre wide assumption that both members of the couple will share the first lead position equally rather than one lead eclipsing a subordinate personality. Parity, however, is rarely achieved because even during a novel’s planning stages the writer will be drawn to the story’s most dynamic character. This attachment encourages them to develop that character more completely and, if well crafted, this nurturing generates a personality that is much more likely to come to life on the pages.
The risk for storytellers is that such vigorous characters pressure for even more line-time that in turn further marginalizes the 2nd lead. The hero in Flowers from the Storm, has that star quality. Christian is so high wattage that experienced readers quickly begin to anticipate that the writer, Laura Kinsale, will fail to fully develop the novel’s heroine. A few of the genre’s more adept crafters, are alert to this high-risk zone and make a move early in the story to establish a well-developed 2nd lead.
Why then did Kinsale, a well above average writer, only minimally develop Maddie Timms until well into the novel? By the time we know everything about Christian but the color of his socks Maddie remains so vague and passive that I kept looking for Kinsale to introduce the real heroine.
After 10% of the story Maddie’s only distinctive feature is that she had spent her entire life within the confines of a small, class-free Quaker community centered upon a mystical connection to the spirit or light within that is their conception of God. Because Kinsale’s style is to demonstrate but not explain ideas it takes us some time before we realize that Maddie’s circumscribed religious community is in many ways the polar opposite of Christian’s similarly circumscribed aristocratic community.
Then as now Quakers believe that everyone is equal. During the historical period this novel is set in Quakers refused to follow the current social practice of bowing to or taking off their hats in the presence of the aristocracy. They also ignored the custom of using familiar pronouns when speaking to “common” people and using formal pronouns with “their betters.” These and other actions were intended to erode the boundary between dukes and dustmen. Needless to say Quakers were not normally invited to dine with a peer of the realm.
When she chose Maddie as a heroine Kinsale assigned herself the difficult writing task of making Maddie’s unique character believable. To accomplish this Kinsale chose to release information about her at a very deliberative pace. Restraining the flow of information then evokes the quiet steadiness of a woman whose only prior positions had been as a sequestered caretaker and as a silent worshiper. Matching the pace of the storytelling with the character’s pace of living is an underutilized crafting technique for putting the reader into the character’s body but not necessarily into their mind.
So while entertaining us with Christian’s dramatic self-destruction Kinsale is also slowly parsing out information about Maddie. From all these tidbits we begin to notice small ironies such as how she has been conditioned by her society to condemn Christian’s “creaturely” passions but remains unaware that her father’s passion for mathematics has denied her the chance to create her own family.
A similar irony is how Maddie’s long experience of silently sitting in meeting for worship has conditioned her to sit hour after hour, day after day in the Duke’s parlor waiting for his rare responses to her father’s messages.
When she and Christian finally meet it isn’t love-at-first-sight because neither Maddie or Christian really sees the other. Though interested in Christian as a representative of aristocrats’ self-indulgent materialism Maddie remains essentially unaware of either him or herself as a sexual creatures. At dinner she notices how he pleases her father but has only the vaguest idea that when Christian describes how she looks to her father Christian is also revealing a very slight interest in her. It is if they both see the other as a sparkly stone on the bottom of a stream they are stepping across.
After my first reading of this novel I couldn’t understand why I had accepted this flashy duke and plain-dress woman as a couple despite Kinsale’s lack of any overt psychological support for match. Only on second reading did I begin to understand that to develop a new type of heroine Kinsale was forced to construct a whole new framework within which we could understand why Maddie would risk everything in order to help Christian escape the trap of his handicap but would also put up such an entrenched resistance to becoming his wife. By tricks of pacing and restraint Kinsale did, somewhat serendipitously, construct for Maddie a psychologically consistent personality that, for me anyway, held true right through to the last page.
By the end of chapter six Christian has lost everything and the power center shifts to Maddie where it remains for the balance of the novel. He will manipulate, seduce, beg, and dictate but nothing important happens until she makes a decision.
This exchange of places begins within minutes after she finds him in his hospital cell and discovers that vestiges of his mathematical genius are still functioning within his shattered brain. Following Christian’s knife wielding episode Kinsale begins moving us closer and closer to the surface of Maddie. Not inside her mind but sort of merging with her skin. This compression of the reader, narrator, and Maddie puts us where Kinsale can then slip us, unnoticed into Maddie’s mind as she realizes Christian is not insane but simply furious that he can’t organize his words or use them to communicate his terror. This trick of crafting eventually allows us to experience Maddie’s confusion about Christian’s confusion without becoming too confused ourselves:
While Maddy wrote out her dictation with trembling fingers; the sound and fierce shout that went on and on and on: crash — Tangent ! — crash — Distance ! — crash — Squared ! — crash — Minus ! — crash — Y one ! — crash — Y two ! — crash — Mah-she ! — crash — Mah-she ! — crash — She ! — crash — She ! — She ! — She ! — outraged, desperate; on and on until the echoing voice was hoarse and grinding; pleading, plaintive, corroding down to an inarticulate syllable between each smash of the barred iron door.
Now Kinsale reveals the process by which Maddie’s secular motivation to timidly help Christian is suddenly transformed into a spiritual imperative to stand by him during his distress. It begins when she hears the guard threaten to send him to the seclusion room if he doesn’t stop yelling. In an effort to understand why the seclusion room frightens him Maddie decides to visit this place that her cousin had designed to incorporate Quaker practice. There she becomes aware of two conflicts. First she reasons out that for Quakers this silent and plain space provides a comforting silence in which to listen for the still, small voice, of the Indwelling Light but for Christian, a stranger to Quaker practice, this same sparsely furnished room is only “a prison, a threat to be used against him.” Interwoven with this empathic response is a self-criticism about her own failure to have ever experienced that voice of Inner Light within herself.
Kinsale interplays these insights until they suddenly coalesce into Maddie’s realization that “a charge was being laid upon her”. Quakers do not have a unified definition for the term Charge but it and the terms Leading, or Calling are used when attempting to explain the sudden and compelling realization that the spirit demands you to do something even though this action may not be convenient.
Maddie felt humbled. God had never spoken to her in quite so clear a way. She was no minister, not one of those men and women who had the gift of speaking out in Meeting and marketplace; she only went about her life as it seemed she ought to do from day to day.
But this was a explicit obligation laid upon her. What witness it was that God wished to implement by visiting Jervaulx with this affliction, she did not presume to know—although it didn’t take much divine insight too hard a guess. She was not asked to preach to him or judge him in his hardship.
What was required of her was only this: that she not abandon him while he suffered it.
A Charge for Quakers is not simply an urging to action it is also an urging to witness, a “being with” free of judgment and persuasion. Though witnessing may change the witness it is the other, the one witnessed, who is the focus of the Charge.
For most inhabitants of our modern, more secular society a Charge might seem to be nothing more than gibberish used to cover-up personal desires or even perverse cravings. That’s fine so long as for the course of a particular novel the reader just accepts the writer’s definition of reality. There are always spiritual, political, psychological, maybe even nutritional reasons to question any writer’s reality but to do them justice we have to plunge into their version of things for the course of their story. If inside a story Phillip K. Dick describes a sentient eyeball floating outside his window then we accept that premise until our reading of the story is completed. If however, someone tries to convince us that an eyeball is floating around outside our very own window then we need to be much more skeptical. For the course of this book then we must accept that Duke’s can be mathematical geniuses and Maddie’s motivation is a spiritual imperative.
Though all this is relevant to the course of the story, what is important for writing craft is that Kinsale chose to create a storytelling process that would fit Maddie’s story rather than following genre writers’ standard practice of fitting any character into the established story-crafting formats.
Without this upending of the rules a heroine like Maddie whose motivation is spiritual rather the usual sexual or security concerns would have been irredeemably changed into yet another wainscoting-wallflower. Kinsale was obviously committed to telling Maddie’s story so she kept our attention focused upon Christian while she slowly prepared us to accept that the power center of the couple could be moved from her the dynamic hero and onto her simply determined heroine.
As unlikely as it seemed when she began Kinsale has made both of her fantastical lead characters fully present on the page. Christian she constructs according to the straightforward rules of narrative and Maddie she methodically assembles through as series of background crafting maneuvers as with any descriptive words she uses. Because both methods fit their subjects they reinforce the characters’ separate auras of realness.
A handful of other writers in this genre could have succeeded in making Christian almost as engaging as Kinsale does but I can’t think of a single other women’s adventure novelist capable of this deft crafting of Maddie into a believable Quaker lady who becomes an aristocrat for love. Her superficially conforming but actually very complex construction of these characters required Kinsale to break rule after rule in the genre’s handbook. Putting your neck on the line is, however, exactly the kind of crafting challenge required to write a novel like Flowers from the Storm that continues even now to appear on.