Writing Wednesday: Charles Garnier at the Opera

Charles Garnier by Nadar - Leniaud 2003 p142.jpgCharles Garnier plays a funny role in my Phantom novel–a character who is and isn’t there.  I wanted him in it as a kind of shadow, a part of the Opera he built, almost literally.  Erik reads his book on the construction of the Opera–Meg sees his portrait in two places in the Opera–Erik references him with respect–and of course, the building is called the Opera Garnier throughout my trilogy, an actual choice since it could have been the Opera de Paris (or the Palais Garnier, or the Salle des Capucines) and still been correct usage.  But I wanted that Garnier acknowledgment.

Garnier is nearly the only historical figure in my novel.  The only other one is Degas, and he’s only referenced very slightly by comparison (although the Phantom does have one of his paintings on his wall!)

Somewhere I picked up a kind of fondness for Garnier, maybe from Susan Kay’s novel where he’s a more prominent character, or from visiting the Opera Garnier itself.  Or maybe because of one story I heard about Garnier that I just love.  While the Opera was under construction, Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III, was not wild about Garnier’s design.  She asked him what style the architecture was and, being a clever man, Garnier responded, “The Napoleon III style, of course!”

So he’s in here, a little, for those reasons–but also for what I can say about the Phantom through him.  And that mostly comes out in one very brief flashback.  Garnier may be in the rest of the trilogy just for the sake of this moment, because I love the image of Charles Garnier and the Phantom of the Opera sitting on the edge of the stage the night before the Opera opens, drinking champagne to their masterpiece.  And I will trust that the ghost of Garnier won’t mind me giving a little credit to the fictional Phantom!

Here’s my favorite bit of the flashback, as the Phantom reflects on their relationship and his role.

****************

Finally, looking at the champagne bubbles and not at Garnier’s shadowed face, he had said, “Please don’t tell them about me.”

“Of course not.”

That was all.  No more than that.  It was enough, because unspoken between the words and filling the empty auditorium was the tacit understanding that had always existed between them.  There had never been anyone else who understood their mutual obsession for this building, no one else who loved it as they did.  He had liked to think of it as similar to two men in love with the same woman, each uniquely able to understand the feelings of the other.

Of course, when that situation actually came about, it had been utterly different.  So much for metaphor.

Garnier had a career, a family, a public face, and had gone on to design other buildings, explore other landscapes.  Erik was the shadow he left behind to watch over his masterpiece.

Writing Wednesday: On Faces and Masks

There are many complexities and layers to my particular take on the Phantom—to the story, but also the character.  One of the most important aspects of the Phantom (or rather, Erik) that I can explain most succinctly is: Erik’s biggest problem is not that he’s so ugly no one can love him; it’s that he believes he’s so ugly no one can love him.  That’s not how it is in every version, as some put a lot of emphasis on the horrors of the Phantom’s appearance.

I’m frankly not that interested in the Phantom’s face, and whether it is or isn’t truly terrible.  Past negative reactions to his face and how that has twisted up his ideas about people, the world, and what life is possible for him, however, is fascinating.

So in Book Two of my trilogy, now that Erik and Meg are talking quite a lot, they don’t talk much about his face or even his mask.  But they do at least once, in a scene I was working on this week, when Erik realizes after quite a few months that Meg has known what he looks like all along.  His conclusion is—well, very true to my version of the character, I think!

***************

There didn’t seem to be anything more to say.  So she knew.  She knew what he looked like, knew that he was not like other men, could never be like other men.

And yet—she was still here.  She had known all along.  It had been 192 days, fourteen hours since she had left, so Meg must have known all that time.  And she had still decided to become friends with him.  It was almost like she…didn’t care what he looked like?

Maybe she hadn’t really had a proper view.  Or maybe that moment, when the chandelier fell and he tore his mask off, had been too emotionally-charged for an adequate assessment.

Writing Wednesday: Historical Verification

I had a very satisfying moment at my writing group some while back.  I brought in a scene from my Phantom trilogy that mentioned the electric lights on the Avenue de l’Opera, and someone at the table asked if they would have had electric lights so early.

And I was ready for that–because my novel is set in 1881, and my research had told me that electric lights were put onto the Avenue de l’Opera in 1878.  So I felt quite good about having that answer!

But then the question kept coming up.  Multiple early readers for the first book asked the same question.  And I thought–well, I knew I had it right, but that was only so much use if readers weren’t going to know it.  So I made a little edit to the excerpt below, for the readers who ask the question when I’m not there to answer it!

***************

Photo I had to take of the lights on the Avenue de l’Opera when I visited Paris.

We watched together as the sun dipped below the horizon and the shadows deepened.  For a little while, the city was bathed in a soft twilight.  Then the electric lights down the length of the Avenue de l’Opera flared into bright, vivid life, a line of light unrolling at our feet, stretching out towards the Seine.  Electric lights had been shining on the Avenue for three years now, since the Paris Exposition in 1878, but they still seemed magical.

I smiled, clasping my hands around my knees.  “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“If you like that sort of thing.”  Erik’s voice wasn’t irritated exactly, but it was cold.  I snuck a glance at him, couldn’t read anything from his face in the shadows.  He must have seen the query in my glance though, because he shrugged and said, “I like candles.  Gas lamps are all right too.  Electric lights are so…harsh.  An attack on the darkness.”

Writing Wednesday: Police Plots

I wrote recently about my research into the Paris police of the 1880s.  I’m working on that strand of my novel right now, building up the role of Commissaire Mifroid.  He’s actually one of my point of view characters, in a way.  There are times when I want the reader to know something that Meg and the Phantom do not, so I included excerpts from Mifroid’s notebook.

Despite having that in place, I still didn’t have him prominent enough throughout the second book in earlier drafts, and didn’t have enough detail on his investigation.  So today’s excerpt is an excerpt 😉 from Mifroid’s notebook–the first one that appears in the novel, in fact, which I have greatly expanded since previous versions.

Excerpt from the Private Notebook of Jean Mifroid, Commissaire of Police
10 Mar 1881

Continuing investigation into disappearance of Philippe de Chagny, Raoul de Chagny, Christine Daaé.  Second interview of de Chagny housekeeper on 9 Mar, confessed to seeing RdC and CD on morning of 2 Mar.  Last known sighting of RdC and CD.  Expressed plans to leave country, consistent with letter received by M. Giry.  Still tracing leads re: travel, current whereabouts.

Housekeeper provided no further info re: PdC.  No additional sightings after evening of 1 Mar, at Opera Garnier.  If abducted, no ransom.  Murder?

Suspects:

RdC – Motive: inheritance?  Interference with proposed marriage to CD?  Opportunity: Last seen by myself seeking PdC at Opera, emotional state extreme at time.  Capability: Possible, with weapon.

CD – Motive: Same as RdC.  Opportunity: Also at Opera at time of PdC disappearance.  Capability: Slight physical strength, unknown ability with weapons.

Cloaked man seen with PdC on stage – so-called Opera Ghost? – Motive: Unknown.  Opportunity: Likely.  Capability: Unknown.

Also continuing investigation into fallen chandelier.  Evidence points to sabotage.  Connection between sabotage and disappearance of PdC?  Connection to long-standing legend of Opera Ghost?

Writing Wednesday: French Rabbit Holes

Sometimes revisions require research, and mine has tumbled me down a few rabbit holes recently.  Trying to research different areas of France doesn’t sound complicated, does it?  I just wanted to place the village Meg is from, an almost throw-away line in a scene where she’s on the train heading to Leclair.  It got complicated.

I knew the village was in the south of France because…it just is, always has been.  Some things just are, in stories.  I read a somewhat horrifying novel about the Nazi occupation of France a while back and decided on the spot that I was going to make sure Meg’s village was not in the worst of the occupied zone–not that it really matters, since my story is set 60 years before World War II.  But it could matter to my characters’ children.  Anyway, call that a whim, and it was easy to find out where those borders were.  Conveniently it was the northern half that was occupied the longest–so far, so good.

I also knew it was an agricultural economy in the village, which might have happened because I read so many L. M. Montgomery books about farming villages.  So I figured, a little research on what bits of southern France are dominated by agriculture.  So I did some Googling, I found a map that suggested the area around Toulouse was probably about right.  So now I just want to find some information on that area.  District.  Province.  State.  Whatever it’s called.  And…rabbit hole. Continue reading “Writing Wednesday: French Rabbit Holes”

Writing Wednesday: As the Days Go By

I spent a couple of hours writing this past Sunday morning, more concentrated time than I can usually spend.  Most of it went to trying to nail down my timeline for Book Two of my Phantom trilogy.  I’m usually comfortable enough with vagueness–setting scenes in early April, a Thursday in June, the end of July and so on.  But the Phantom threw a wrench (or a lasso?) in that idea.

Throughout this book, Meg and Erik are both counting from the time Christine left.  Meg goes about it fairly reasonably, and is soon remarking on how many weeks or months it’s been, which allows for some vagueness.  Erik, however, is more intense than that.  So I spent a morning going through each of his scenes to insert a remark on how many days (and hours) it’s been since Christine left.  Which meant I had to actually know exactly which date each scene is happening on.  Happily, it’s very easy to find a calendar of 1881.  It’s a little more brain-scrambling trying to get all the numbers lined up and make sure all references are consistent.  But I think I got it–and I really like it as a character tell for him.

Here’s an excerpt where I put in Erik’s count.  I swear he’s actually getting less angsty by this point, though it may not be super evident from this particular excerpt–set on Sunday, June 5th, 1881, at about 4 in the morning.

*******

The special performance was going to be so…far from what it could have been, if his own opera had gone differently.  If she was still here, launched on the career only he could have given her.  Continue reading “Writing Wednesday: As the Days Go By”

Writing Wednesday: Layers

My Phantom trilogy has more layers and more things I’m trying to do than anything I’ve written before.  A lot of the work of revising is to make sure all those layers are there.  Or, to put it with another metaphor, to make sure each of many, many threads is woven through in the right places with the right prominence.

So it’s nice when I can work a lot of things into a small space–because there’s plenty to get in here.  I made edits to the scene below, adding layers (or weaving in more threads).  Most of this was slipped into a conversation that was already in the previous draft–but I managed to add a musician reference for Erik, have Meg observe it, explore why Erik is haunting the Opera, give Meg data on same, add a music metaphor for Meg the ballet dancer, and throw in a clarification on just how rich Erik is–all while the main purpose of the larger scene is actually what Erik is going to do about the policeman hunting him, something that’s starting to nudge him out of his apathy.

Revisions are complicated. 🙂

***********

Erik drummed his fingertips against the stage, each one tapping independently as though he was following a rhythm too complex for me to decipher.  A pipe organ—Christine had mentioned a pipe organ and that’s what this was like, like a musician’s hand on keys.

So busy watching his hand, I almost missed his words, when he said, voice quiet, “Don’t you think it’s an awful thing, a man terrifying an Opera Company with hauntings?”

Maybe it was strange to say, but I never had.  I lived among the people he was frightening, and yet never disliked him for doing it.  Maybe I was too used to it.  Or maybe he had always drawn just the right line.  “They’re not actually that frightened,” I said.  “I think they enjoy—”

“Of course they’re frightened,” he said sharply, going as stiff and tense as he’d been when he first stepped out.  “They have to be, that’s the point.”

Talking to Erik was like a very complicated dance, one where you never knew which board in the floor was going to drop out from under you.  It kept things lively.  I made a tactical retreat, a temps levé backwards.  “Yes, of course.”  A meaningless phrase, then a jump to a new topic.  “And really, it’s Monsieur Andre’s problem if he doesn’t appreciate the valuable services of a theatre ghost.  All things considered, you’re probably a bargain.”

He turned his head to look at me this time, eyes widening in surprise.  “Do you know how much they’re paying me?”

More each month than I was likely to earn my entire career—but that wasn’t what mattered, and my half-joking comment had set me off on a sudden new idea.  I sat up straighter.  “No, wait, maybe that’s the answer!”

But you’ll have to read the book to find out the answer 🙂