Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Wilds of Madagascar

by Cathy Anderson Corn

My favorite novelist of all time--hands down, winner-take-all--remains Mary Stewart. For me and my own internal needs, no one else even approaches her magnitude of writing (Okay, I forgot Daphne DuMaurier and Rebecca,but that's it.).

This English woman, born in 1916, wrote romantic suspense novels that riveted the attention of a teenager growing up in a sleepy little farm town in Ohio. Later, in my twenties and thirties, they provided relief and sanity from a stressful life.

Even now, when I no longer have birthdays (let's just say I'm classic), the stories and novels are just as compelling as when they were first published fifty years ago. In my writing, if I could unlock the secrets of her literary genius, I would sell my soul(even at a huge discount, no one's interested).

It couldn't have been the romance alone that drew me to the public library and her books. In The Gabriel Hounds, the protagonist is twenty-two and falls in love with her cousin. That just doesn't get it. In her books, lovers yearned for each other without much touching or kissing. Certainly graphic sex didn't exist, a product of the times (50's and 60's) when she penned these masterpieces.

Without a doubt, Mary Stewart mastered exotic settings. Some books were set on estates in England, This Rough Magic on the island of Corfu, The Moonspinners on Crete, and The Gabriel Hounds in the Adonis Valley near Beirut, etc. This was the magic of Mary Stewart: a mystery with the protagonist a woman in peril, the setting exotic and exciting, the protagonist and her man full of romantic tension, but not in danger of needing contraceptives.

So, in honor of and emulating my novelist mentor Ms. Stewart, I try to incorporate far away places in my novels. My protagonists have flown to Kauai, Dublin, and now to Madagascar. And this, my Sisters and Misters, is where I gulp a big breath and hold it until I turn blue.

How can I write about Madagascar when I've never been there?

Oh, I've read guide books and pieces on the internet, but how can I capture the heart and soul of the country if I've never felt what it's like to be there, to travel the roads, experience the weather, meet the people?

Let's face it, round trip airfare is at least $2500, so I'm not going any time soon. What, esteemed writers, can a novelist do to make a setting not visited plausible? How far can one stretch the fiction aspect of setting?

If no one has any ideas, I think I'll call Mary Stewart.


Anonymous said...

I've never read Mary Stewart's books, but your description of her writing makes me want to pick up one. Sounds like my kind of author.

As for writing about far-away places, I've found the Internet to be a great research tool. Maybe you can find some local websites?

Anonymous said...

I love the satellite option on Google Maps. That will give you a good feel for spacial relationships, how things are situated.

As for figuring out what it's like to walk the local streets, try YouTube. I'll bet someone has filmed something there, and you can have a gander with little effort.

My setting is a small town in Vermont and I think that's challenging enough. Good luck!

Cathy said...

Thanks, Kristine and Judy. Great ideas. I'll give them a try. I'll also focus on winning a free trip to Madagascar.

Anonymous said...

By far the best idea is make enough money on your prior novels to fly you there.

Barring that, maybe you could talk to people who've been there or lived there? The University community is filled with international students. I think there's some sort of Pitt. organization that helps introduce foreign students to the community. I have a vague memory from over ten years ago of a friend of mine who was involved in it.

Speaking of exotic locales, I had a dream set in Kauai last night. I suppose that's another way to visit!

Anonymous said...

Like you, Cathy, I believe Mary Stewart was the author who had the biggest impact on my reading and writing life. THIS ROUGH MAGIC or THE IVY TREE or NINE COACHES WAITING---I'd have a hard time choosing which one is my favorite.

I once bought a slew of books about safaris in Africa because I had an idea for a book rattling around in my head and needed some solid info to start writing the chapters. When I checked out of the bookstore, the clerk handed me the bag of books and said, "Have a great trip!" And I said, "I'm sure I will!"

Anonymous said...

I have read "The Gabriel Hounds.

An author must capture a audience in the very first sentence.

This is probably a paraphrase.

"I saw him in the street called Straight."
Immediately Stewart has the hook set.
Who is the person? Who is he? What is the sreet called Straight?

Anonymous said...

I am sorry again for leaving another coment but I read the book very long ago.
I still find it fascinating.

Stewart was quite good with "The Moonspinners" also.

And then there's "My Brother, Michael".

Anonymous said...

Whoops, I skided a little.
"This Rough Magic"...a lot of "The Tempest went into that one.

"Nine Coaches Waiting" also have I read.

Solate Aretino