Writing My Seventh Novel – Part Eight

One of the most interesting things about writing is when a story appears to take control of itself and starts making decisions for you, the writer. When I started Mephistopheles, still only a working title but I have got an idea that I like for a better one, I had only one protagonist in mind, but now I find that I have two. If you have read parts one to seven of this little series then it probably will not surprise you to discover that my second main character is now Artemisia Montessori.

I like having strong female characters in my stories, but I had not intended her to become a lead character; she just grew on me. Finding motivation for her was not very difficult but, the thing is, readers have to invest a certain amount of affection into a protagonists. If they do not care about what happens to them then what is the point of continuing, as a reader, with the book. Artemisia works for the Italian Military Intelligence and refers to herself as a devil. Her calling card is shooting people in the head. How do you get readers to genuinely care about the fate of such a character? Even more pertinent, how do you turn them from villains into heroes?

The plot pushed Artemisia away from the character I had originally identified as the chief protagonist, in a physical sense at least. She finds herself at a loose end with no clues to follow. It seemed like a perfect point in the story for Artemisia to reveal a more human side to her nature. I wrote a scene that informs the reader something of her past and her relationship with her cousin, Angelo. Compared to what had gone before this was a quite a gentle piece of writing. I think it worked very well. Artemisia and Angelo have similar motives in that they are both looking to escape the old country and start new lives in America. For Angelo a fascist Italy is no longer a safe place to be for a homosexual. He is in America on official business and Artemisia is going to ensure that he ‘disappears’ both safely and successfully so that he can join his lover in another part of the country. She owes him a debt and repaying personal debts is something that she takes seriously. It was Angelo who gave her the escape route of working for the Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell’Antifascismo (Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism). Okay, that might not seem like an obvious escape route to us today but, back then, a high-born Catholic girl was supposed to marry for the honour of her family, not herself. Artemisia’s father is an ambitious member of the Fascist Party and although he might feel insulted by her refusing to marry his choice of husband, made for political reasons, he can use her display of loyalty to the state to his own advantage.

Her path to freedom is not straight and narrow, however. It has taken her several years and a secondment to the Servizio Informazioni Militare to get herself out of Italy, the clutches of her family, their social standing, and into a position where she too can disappear. It has also resulted in Artemisia being nearly eight hundred miles away from where the main protagonist is continuing their part of the story.

This is one reason why I like working with a rough first draft; it allows for new ideas to be developed. Essentially, the book is now following two different paths towards the same final destination. It is not the first time that I have used this technique. I tried it with ‘Eugneica’. I thought that it worked well as it allowed me to both explore the theory of eugenics in a believable setting while having another part of the book keeping the reader hooked with amazing adventure. While my titular hero, Doc Hunter, is pursuing one line of investigation that is taking him from New York to Lisbon, and then onto Freetown, Sierra Leone, Artemisia has an opportunity to grow as a character and find her own path to a point where she will join up with Doc again, to his surprise hopefully!

Remember, one of the themes of this book is people not being what they appear to be. Artemisia is a government agent and an assassin. She does not balk at killing people. However, she is also a real woman capable of loving people, like her cousin, Angelo, who she helps escape to a new life in America. Her own actions are motivated by a desire to be free of all the constraints that fettered her in Italy. In achieving her goals she has had to do many reprehensible things, apparently with relish when it comes to using a gun. Another theme is atonement. Artemisia has made a pact with herself to atone for what she has done to get to where she is. As I mentioned earlier, she takes personal debts very seriously. In her mind she believes that she has three such debts to pay. One is to Mephistopheles, one to Doc Hunter, and the third is to herself. I think that this represents both a logical and powerful motivation for her to continue in the story and consequently it makes sense to promote her to an equal standing with Doc Hunter. It also makes the writing very rewarding for me too!

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