On the murmuration of starlings…
Warning: this is a long, self-indulgent post of rambling birdshit about writing. And starlings.
One of the most terrifying moments for most (all?) storytellers is how to start a story. The dreaded blank page. It doesn’t matter if the writer knows in her head how the story will develop, what the major (and minor) plot moments will be, or how the story ends. The blank page remains, laughing and taunting. Sticking its tongue out. Paralyzing the hapless penner with insecurities and doubts.
We (or at least I) frequently want our stories to begin with a (proverbial) bang. Grab the unsuspecting reader by the throat and drag them into our plotty maze of twists and turns. Until Book 3, I’d never had a problem with beginnings. I have major problems writing fight scenes, but that’s a different post. And it explains why I don’t start my books with fight scenes.
The start of Dominus came easily, almost magically. I saw Max and Gaius running up the steep stone staircases of the Quirinal Hill, dashing madly to attend Decius’s exclusive slave auction before the ‘best merchandise’ was sold to the highest bidder. Urgency. Desire. Life.
The start of Games of Rome was also easy, but I crafted the beginning scene to have the opposite feel. Gaius is on the Quirinal again with Max, but he isn’t running or scaling steps. Gaius plants his feet and hesitates. A crow squawks at him. Dread and despair await him on the other side of a closed door. Procrastination. Fear. Death.
I’ve started Book 3 of the Dominus saga many times. I had convinced myself that it had to start with a ‘Gaius scene’. Why? A noisome nagging of something imitating logic kept poking me with the notion that patterns matter. I suppose they do, but my stubbornness had me stuck. I kept asking myself, “Where is Gaius? In his office? In his master chamber? At the palace?” I finally came up with an idea that seemed OK. Gaius naked, wielding a sword. It had action. *shrug* OK obviously isn’t good enough, but I figured that if I let the imagery percolate long enough in my warped imagination, my beginning ‘Gaius scene’ would turn out great.
It didn’t. Gaius wasn’t cooperating, the brilliant bastard. So I gave him the soldiers’ salute and stopped thinking about him. About the beginning. About the dreaded blank page (which by now was no longer blank but filled with confusing, partially digested crappy pseudo-scenes).
In the quiet of abandoning my desire to craft patterns, Allerix whispered into my ear, “Start with me.”
“Gaius won’t allow that, Alle. He must start the story. He the protagonist, for shit’s sake, and… and… well, it’s a bleeding story pattern. Creative meaningful construction and all that.”
“Fuck patterns. Fuck Gaius. Start with me.”
And then he showed me where he was and what he was seeing. It’s full-blown autumn in Rome, a chilly early evening in November. The sun has already set, painting the horizon with reds, oranges, and golds. Time has passed since our Dacian lad was caught doing you know what. He’s alone. And lonely. But for some reason Alle is mesmerized by what he sees.
Hold on one flipping moment here! At the end of Games of Rome, Gaius threatened to punished you, Allerix. Has it happened? What happened?
Allerix laughed and pointed to the view outside the tiny window in his cell. “Don’t worry about all that plot rubbish right now. Open your eyes and look! It’s right in front of you, and it’s bloody breathtaking.”
I saw them. Thousands of black things swooping and swirling in unison like ballet dancers in the sky.
The starlings of Rome. I’ve seen them many times. Enormous flocks hover over the city most autumn evenings, performing their spectacular aerobatic show. In ancient times, the flight patterns of birds were interpreted by priests as messages sent by the gods. A murmuration of starlings dropping poopy pearls of divine portent on the heads of bewildered Romans.
In modern Rome, the over-abundance of flocks of starlings has become so bad that streets, cars, and buildings are often left covered in a filthy crust of starling crap. So much for the romance of the dancing murmuration.
But I had a new beginning. Allerix and a murmuration of starlings.
And holy shit! I’d already written a bird pooping on Princess Publius in Book 1. Another pattern! 😀
Want to see a murmuration of starlings in action over Rome, as well as recent attempts to dissuade the poor birds from releasing their digestive byproducts all over the Eternal City? Here you go. Enjoy. Pour a glass of wine and put on some Vivaldi for the starlings to dance to… SPLAT!