She began as a time-traveling, history-shifting, unemployed forensic musicologist turned would-be femme fatale nemesis who had discovered a way to return to previous centuries in order to kill four of the greatest composers who ever lived early enough in their careers they would never develop into the mainstays of today's classical music world. And she would have succeeded had Dr. T. Richard Kerr, a middle-aged, virtually unknown composer and something of an accidental musicologist himself, not been roped in to helping undo her nefarious accomplishments in a race against time (in more ways than one).
Through her own undoing, going back one more time to rescue her mother from a fatal traffic accident while Klavida was still a child, she gets stuck, thanks to a faulty battery in her time-travel device, and is thus forced to live the rest of her life over again, unable to return to the present but also existing without IDs and the necessary paperwork to prove her existence (the only things she'd have with her were a driver's license and credit cards issued over twenty years into the future).
It occurred to me fairly late in the plot of the second novel I needed a new character at this point, an older, kind of crazy woman who kidnaps Cameron's friend, Dylan, and falls into cahoots with The Lost Chord's equally nefarious villain, Iobba Dhabbodhú (a.k.a. Tr'iTone). Then I wondered, “what would Klavdia be like if we've now caught up in time with her? How has she survived the intervening years she's had to live over?”
Well, she'd certainly be older and, if she ever tried to explain who she was to anyone, would definitely be considered crazy (still carrying around that old time-travel device in hopes maybe she can find a battery somewhere that would fit it). And of course, all that time to nurse a grudge against her former professor, Dr. Kerr, right? She had once been an undergraduate student of his, but now, she'd be older than he is. Sure – so I decided to bring her (and her ability to re-invent herself) back again. She's not much of a villain, compared to Tr'iTone, maybe just more of a colorful character: by the time she disappears, you'd expected more from her.
Having brought her back from the past (or rather, through the past – I mean, can you imagine anything worse than having to live through George W. Bush twice?), I felt the third novel, as soon as I began thinking about it, had to have a place for her – not the “main villain” role, perhaps, but something more than a walk-on: she had to be important even if all she's doing is skulking around the periphery, ready to strike. Not the killer, working independently, but working toward... what goal, exactly?
Even though most of the time she's Melissa Fourthought (as in “malice aforethought”), the reader familiar with the first two books would put certain things together: her trademark mound of now aging platinum hair, the fact Dylan identifies her as his kidnapper, the woman who'd taken over the Countess du Hicquè's identity, and the games time-travel can play on Dr. Kerr's memory (if she'd gone back to live the 1980s over, she would never have become one of Kerr's students, but somehow he has a vague but easily dismissed recollection of her).
And of course, Abner Kedaver, her side-kick from The Doomsday Symphony, had to come back, too. Even though he had once been a lawyer counting both Brahms and Mahler as clients, as a resident of Harmonia-IV, the parallel universe where dead composers go to continue creating, he can cross back and forth between both worlds but would always be invisible to anyone still alive.
I'd finished The Lost Chord on January 28th, 2013, and immediately began sketching a sequel the next day, though it was some time before the title came to me. Even before that, I knew Harrison Harty's unfinished journal left the Schweinwald story open-ended and so, deep in the throes of watching Downton Abbey, I decided this would somehow continue in one of those lavish English country homes [sic]. I think the first names I came up with were LauraLynn Harty's fiance, Burnson Allan (Burns & Allen as a counterpoise to Laurel & Harty), and his mother Vexilla Regis (from a 6th Century Latin poem, “The King's Banner [goes before the Cross],” which I was familiar with through a motet by Anton Bruckner – who, incidentally, was a student of Simon Sechter, one of the more historical characters in both Harty's Journal and Knussbaum's Tale even if his role, here, is purely fictional). As for the plot, that was another matter.
The house was already going to be something based on “Flummox” and soon became “Phlaumix House” until the book was nearly finished. Thinking of all those wonderful slang expressions from World War II – snafu and fubar – I located the house in the village of Snaffingham. In addition to parodying other elements of Downton Abbey – especially the downstairs staff like Vector the butler, Mrs. Linebottom the housekeeper, and the cook, Mrs. French, among others – I was busy reading lots of Agatha Christie stories, plundering them for characters, settings, situations and, most significantly, the name for Frieda F. Erden's friend, Cathie Raighast which is an anagram of Agatha Christie (she, after all, is the one who solves the murder of “Bugsy” Regis), an older guest originally dubbed Miss Marbles.
The first title I came up with was Fibonacci's Labyrinth, given the Golden Section proportions that would continue to be structurally significant in this novel as well, the result of seeing Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum for sale on-line and which, at the time, I had not yet read – or at least, not gotten past a few pages back when it first came out (this was one of the books I put on my research list and finally enjoyed reading).
As it was, I hated the idea of wasting so many great character names in my initial Schoenberg Code parody, written the year the movie based on Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code came out, especially all the agents of the International Music Police with their musical puns. Granted, the uninitiated reader may not “get” them but then, at least, they're still names, a bit odd, maybe, but more imaginative than calling them Fred Smith or Johnny Armbrewster. If I'm going to use Dickensian names, why not use names based on musical terminology, right? While Inspector Hemiola might have an odd gate due to an old sports injury (I forget, did I keep that in the final version?), it would be funnier to someone who understands that hemiola refers, among other things, to playing two beats against three beats (like a triplet against two eighth notes in a quarter beat). While Agents Sforzato and Fermata have obvious characteristics linked to their names, my favorite is the dispatcher, Mimi Solfeggio (solfeggio being the do-re-mi syllables attached to musical pitches, familiar to fans of The Sound of Music).
Klavdia Klangfarben is a “name-in-point.” Initially, I chose “klangfarben” simply because I liked the sound of the word: she had nothing to do with its meaning, which refers to a melody that appears to change “sound color” because rather than being played by one instrument, it is played in segments where each segment – or individual notes – are played by different instruments in succession, giving it a kind of ever-changing, chameleon-like shift to it (an orchestration technique common to Schoenberg and his students, Berg and Webern). Little did I know at the time, each time she would return she would have a different identity, though underneath the name or character change, she was still recognizable, like someone who, no matter how hard she tried, could never do anything with her hair. Her first name was also a purely euphonious choice – Claudia, originally, but quickly changed to the more exotic-sounding Klavdia, recalling Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain with its mysterious Russian-French patient, Klavdia Chauchat. One thing my Klavdia never succeeded in doing was ensnaring someone else's heart (well, it turns out there's one major exception...).
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As I explained in a previous post – how The Labyrinth is a Fibonacci Novel – keeping the third novel proportional to the first was a challenge. The first two had arbitrary word-totals – “I will write a 150,000-word novel,” not one that could be 148,563 words or 151,278 words; an exactly 150,000-word novel! – but I wanted Labyrinth, with all its Golden Section structures and symbolism, to be a word-count in the Fibonacci Sequence from the complete length down to the lengths of every chapter, paragraph and sentence if not quite every phrase.
Now, each of the other novels began with prologues – a prelude to the Symphony, an overture to the one about an opera – but that would mean, for this one to be symmetrical and proportional, a 121,393-word novel would require a 27,689-word introduction! So I decided it would be an independent short-story that would tie in the previous two novels and set up the third. By the time I had outlined it, I thought, “no, this should be a novel of its own!” Originally, the title of the short story was In Search of Tom Purdue, a pun on Marcel Proust's epic seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time or A la recherche du temps perdu. And too good to waste on a mere short story, irony aside.
And thus, Tom Purdue was born.
Given the expansiveness of not only Proust's over-all novel but his concept of time as well, this warranted a more involved treatment on my part, parody or otherwise. I would reserve that title for a future novel (and here I hadn't finished the third one, yet) and rework the short story into The House of dePaula Escher which introduces Tom within its parodistic framework of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. It now became a dream sequence that, like so many dreams, rather disjointedly ties in the first two novels, sets up the setting of the third one but also points toward – yes – a fourth novel...
And while researching Agatha Christie and some of her characters, I discovered there is a suburb of Philadelphia called “Marple Township” which happens not to be too far from where I arbitrarily placed Dr. Kerr's home in suburban Doylestown (for no reason whatsoever). I knew immediately the next novel – like this short story – would have to be set in Marple, PA.
I tend to do a lot of “research” for my novels, mostly in the sense of reading other mysteries and thrillers to learn how other writers handle the genre, not just amassing facts and stylistic details. In the process I will jot down plot ideas, character names, background elements and then begin outlining the plot, stretching the various “plot points” and climaxes out across a span of the word-count, divided like a suspension bridge with peaks at the Main Golden Section where I'll place the “turning point” and then sub-sections at various levels with other, lesser climaxes and so on, filling in the details as I go along, sometimes leaving whole chapters blank because something will eventually pop up – like the reintroduction of Klavdia Klangfarben as an after-thought having already written well over half of The Lost Chord.
As The Labyrinth's outline percolated along, I finally began writing the novel-proper on August 11th, 2013, six-and-a-half months after finishing the previous one. The first draft was completed on June 12th, 2014, and then I began work on the short story which was to become the “Intermezzo.” This required a little more research, mapping out the plot, breaking it down into “structural segments” in chronological order, then determining their non-consecutive “dream order” by employing a “Knight's Tour” plan. Having created the “Aficionati” – an ominous secret organization introduced near the end of the tale – I knew who my next “main villain” would be. While SHRMG's Civil War would continue as Lucifer Darke would try to eliminate N. Ron Steele from power, the “Aficionati” would become their opposite: the popularizer of classical music goes up against the intellectual priest-caste determined to protect their control over the mysteries of Art.
I'm not sure when actual writing started on this “interlude,” but it was completed on August 20th, 2014, a little over a year after I started writing the whole novel. I took some time off – mostly because of a diagnosis that turned out to require heart by-pass surgery – and finished the first read-through and “editing pass” to complete the 2nd draft at some point in late October, a few weeks before going into the hospital.
But I had already started working out what to do – or rather which plot-threads to follow – for the next novel, even joking that it could become the fourth novel in the Klangfarben Trilogy. Would it be an exact sequel, following on the heels of The Labyrinth or would it follow an entirely different story? Had we had enough of Beethoven and the Legacy of the Immortal Belovèd?
How much of The House of dePaula Escher would be usable as “source material”? What, the Aficionati aside, might lend itself to expansion? Having already gone into excruciating detail about the piece being premiered/butchered by pianist Carter Ericson-Torres at St. Sisyphus Community College, it was clear that should remain a self-contained part of a dream and that I should simply take it from the point where Kerr discovers an old friend of his – one of his closest friends in grad school – is living not too far away.
Not only has he disappeared, Purdue also has health problems – it was odd, going through the fear of impending heart surgery thinking “okay, I want to remember this when I write that scene for Tom Purdue...” There was a time when I considered renaming it “The Research of Tom Purdue” and have him be some musicologist on a special secret project or someone specializing in computer music, but decided against that. That's when it occurred to me to turn him into someone who's putting together his own music-composing software program that becomes increasingly more involved and results in “Clara” who, it turns out, writes better music than he does.
Yes, and that's why SHMRG is after him because they want to market it to the masses as a garage-band songwriter program – and the Aficionati need to destroy it. But that was before their leader discovered another potential benefit from Purdue's software program.
So I made a list of topics I would need to read up on – not being a computer geek or a software programmer or even someone who used a music-writing program like “Sibelius” or “Forte,” anything to do with the technology was first and foremost. How many movies or TV shows or thrillers involved run-away technology out to destroy its creators? (And you know “Clara” will have to say the line, “I'm sorry, I can't let you do that” somewhere, right?)
One of my first finds was two books by Richard Powers, Orfeo and Galatea 2.2. Now, I like Powers' style but I've never been able to finish The Gold Bug Variations or The Time of Our Singing only because I felt there was so much research being jammed down my throat that didn't interest me (scientific in the Variations which was heavy on genetics, like reading pages of computer code in the middle of something like Crichton's Jurassic Park, in one eye and out the other). Otherwise, great story brilliantly told.
Orfeo was, it turned out, a book about a composer who played the clarinet – score one for me – who pursued his chemistry hobby at home and through a series of missteps and really bad coincidences ends up on the National Security radar as a possible terrorist (it sounds like a potential comedy, but trust me, it isn't).
The other, Galatea 2.2, was about a writer named Richard Powers who's working with some computer scientists to program a machine that could pass some standardized test given to... what, English grad students? I forget. This one was a little more technical than I would've been interested in, just reading it, but then that's why I wanted to read it: research for what my character Tom Purdue would need to know or be up against or how his software “Clara” would develop (I almost wrote “evolve”).
I remember taking Orfeo into the hospital with me, something to read while I'm lying there for a few days trying to recuperate, not realizing that, after a heart by-pass, I probably wouldn't feel much like doing anything beyond lying there trying to recuperate. As it happened, I was prepped and ready to go when, for some reason, my surgery was delayed a few hours. So I pulled Orfeo out of my bag and began to read. Not too far into the exposition, the narrator explains how, during a childhood vacation, he was swimming with his family when his father suffered a massive heart attack and died. “Well, maybe I'll put this one aside, for now...”
In the long run, between the months of near-immobility before the surgery (following a stress test which revealed a “problem,” I was told “don't do anything strenuous,” to which I replied, “define strenuous?”) and the slow pace of trying to reclaim normalcy after it, I read probably a dozen or so books starting with thrillers in the popular genre – even Dan Brown's Inferno which I'd begun reading the day after my surgery but when Langdon comes to in the hospital surrounded by wires, tubes and beeping machines was where I decided “I knew I was going to feel like hell and this seemed the logical selection but, no,” and it went back in the bag to wait till I got home...
On the other hand, eventually, I finished the last third of Proust's Swann's Way which I'd been working my way through in the recent “Penguin Translation,” probably the third or fourth time I'd read it since I turned 30. It seemed if I'm going to write something heavily reliant on certain Proustian elements like time and memory, I should probably keep on reading. By the time I finished the second volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, I was about 20,000 words into my new novel, and began reading the third volume, The Guermantes Way, the next day (still only about a quarter of the way into it, but then I'm reading lots of other books as well, since then, including Dostoievsky's Demons and Henry James' The Bostonians – I rarely have time just to sit and read Proust...).
At any rate, various plot elements began coming together, being adapted or discarded, outlines taking shape and filling in, lists of characters' names becoming longer, so when my recuperation was complicated by the sudden need to have my gall bladder removed (and, since he was in the neighborhood, fixing up an umbilical hernia that had been in need of repair for the past ten years) it then gave me the excuse to lie around for another month, unable to do much more than... well, continue reading.
By the time I actually started working on the first sentence of In Search of Tom Purdue, the process had been so much a part of my daily routine – working out details, writing in a “creative journal,” jotting down notes from what I was reading or just mulling over – I didn't even take time to notice which day it was. I know that, after a few sentences, I was seriously doubting (again) the wisdom (if not absurdity) of being so strict with the word-count to write another Fibonacci novel – was it time to break away from this constraint? – but yes, I decided to go ahead with it. At that point, I noted in my journal on July 2nd, “yesterday, I revised the opening sentences from the other day” which means I started the original sentence (which underwent at least two days of editing) probably on June 29th or 30th, 2015.
That's been over a year ago!
It seemed to take forever but on May 22nd, I reached the mid-point of the novel, Word #98,209, the exact middle of a 196,418-word novel. And that word is “mid-point.”
On August 9th, I finished Chapter 16, the end of Part Two, which, looking at the scheme of things, would appear to be the middle of the book: sixteen more chapters and two more parts to go before it's finished. But the page numbers won't divide in half because Chapter 16 ends with Word #121,393 with 75,025 words to go before it's done, the Golden Section of a novel complete at 196,418 words.
And then it stopped.
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At this point, I'm ready to begin Part III but this involved working out a lot of details I'd let go and doing a fair bit of research to get caught up.
So it's taken me 13 months to write this one portion of my new novel – but then it took me 10 months to write the same amount of words for The Labyrinth minus the Intermezzo. There have been times where it's been more difficult to make headway – some days, it's very depressing to write only 89 words when on other days, I might write almost 2,000, though that was happening more and more rarely.
And there have been other times when, for some reason or another, I chose to step away for a while. When I decided to start posting The Labyrinth on the blog, I had forgotten how much time it would take to do one more read-through, editing as I'd go and then still editing as I'd proof each post (thank God for computers' cut-and-paste technology; I couldn't imagine retyping the entire manuscript!) and then making sure posts were ready to go every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It wasn't just the time it started taking, it started playing havoc with my concentration on what I'd already done in Tom Purdue: plots started to blend together. I found out I've become even less of a multi-tasker than I'd been before.
Plus, twice I took some time off to compose: a brief Christmas motet took almost two weeks. More recently, in late-July, an exercise in writing twelve-tone tonal harmony, an 8-minute piece for string quartet stalled out after I succeeded in doing what I wanted harmonically but which quickly floundered when trying to turn it into something more than an exercise became too much work.
And now more time off because, 12 days into an attack of sciatica when sometimes I can barely walk, I'm spending most of the day trying to find a position to sit or sleep in that might be less painful. This has, admittedly, not become a great time to do some more “research” for the up-coming scene because I feel I can barely concentrate on it. Even this rambling, stream-of-consciousness post has taken some four days to write and, mostly, rewrite.
But since late-July, I've been getting ideas for – you guessed it – another novel!
It had been some time ago, perhaps before I'd decided on the direction Tom Purdue's plot would take, that I figured I would postpone the immediate sequel to The Labyrinth and the further adventures of Toni, the young composer who doesn't know she is Beethoven's heir, leaving that for a fifth novel. But now I have a whole different plot which carries (and expands) on threads evolving in this one that... well, I don't want to give anything away (besides, it's only a thumbnail sketch at this point).
And thinking how Proust's cycle continued to sprout and evolve as he wrote and edited each novel (a trilogy that eventually became seven novels, knowing the ending but finding the middle needed “filling in”), I find myself faced with not one but maybe three more novels after this one. At my age, I laugh at the practicality of such an idea but then reconsider my primary reason for writing them in the first place: to give me something to do more entertaining than watching a lot of television. Not that it will matter, in the long run, whether I live to finish them or not – for me, that's not the point. Who would notice whether I did or didn't? It's not much but it might give me enough to make it worthwhile getting up in the morning.
Then, in the middle of all this – ideas swirling about for the novel I'm working on, about the novel I'm posting on-line that I finished two years ago, and now novels that could keep me going for years to come – I am writing down the line
T. S. Eliot – I know, lines from The Four Quartets – “Burnt Norton”? Yes, from the second 'movement' of a poem obsessed with time – and then I realize one of the key characters from the scene I'm about to start writing will be a “Miss Norton.” Hmmmm... coincidence? Will she – or more likely her descendents – become major figures in these other novels? (This means, now, I must set this scene – and her – up a little more carefully!)
Sometimes, I think, moments like that are what artists live for, regardless what happens. Maybe that's why I have so many pieces of music that I never see through to completion – not that they're not finished, but that they're not performed, once people have shown sufficient lack of interest in performing them to make the creative struggle not worth the effort to complete them.
At this point, it would be easy to say, “well, no sense finishing this novel,” and put it aside, except what would I do tomorrow, or once the sciatica subsides and the pain medication wears off? Even as it is, worthless or not, the regular schedule of writing day in, day out – like a real job – showing up at the page has some meaning. And since I'm writing for no one but myself, there's less pressure to do what people tell me has to be done in order, in their minds, to be successful.
It's nice to know, assuming I finish the next 75,025 words, there's another novel waiting around the corner – however far away that corner may seem, now: one of the hardest problems for a writer (or any artist) is, having completed one work, to imagine “what's next.” Looking at the potential for another story, however long it might take to beat and bend and cajole it into shape, I realize it's just a matter of getting up the next day and starting the new one.
So, with The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben now behind me and In Search of Tom Purdue going into the “home stretch,” seeing more of Dr. Kerr, Cameron and Toni, Tom Purdue and N. Ron Steele, SHMRG and the Aficionati on the horizon like hills fading off in different layers into the distance, it's time to say good-bye to Klavdia Klangfarben – until (who knows?) we meet again...
- Dick Strawser