Writing is a process of redrafting, editing, redrafting, figuring things out, redrafting, throwing ideas out the window, creating new ones, redrafting and finally creating a version one is happy with for the time being. For writing is never done. The following text gives you some insight into how I processed, changed, redrafted and eventually came up with the five chapters I shared with you over the last two months. It is another form of writing, a reflective one, where I come to understand my story and how it needs to look like. How does a story work and function, from character, to voice over to worldbuilding, dialogue, plot and so many other details. It is about being inspred by other works, taking a step back, looking at what’s been written and making decisions on how you want to write your own story:
Mermaids and I go way back. When I was a child, my family and I would go to Venice once a year in spring, as it was not too far from Vienna, and it was the perfect breeding ground for me to create stories. All around me stood the fantastical lion statues of the Laguna city. The marble sculptures of dragons and mermaids and the epic medieval images in chapels enchanted me the most. I walked in a city built on water, with secret alleyways and ancient houses. After every visit my mind was filled with ideas about mermaids.
I began to write stories, creating my own myths and legends of an underwater world, building a concept in my head but unsure of how to articulate it into a mermaid story that would go beyond the short story format. Still, I experienced this pull towards the ocean whenever I was by the sea, a space that is beautiful and mysterious, as it is explained in the introduction of The Penguin Book of Mermaids:
‘But water is also a shape- shifter that is not easily grasped and that affects nearly everything it touches. Whether fresh, brackish, or salty, water holds a mystery that fascinates humans, has aesthetic qualities that delight our senses, and- like water spirits- is both attractive and destructive.’
Growing up, I became conscious of the critical state Venice was in due to climate change. Darkness crept into my stories, reflecting on ecocritical themes of the real world such global warming. When I realised, I was gay, writing these stories became a pathway to escape. I created epic worlds and characters that offered refuge from a heteronormative society, just like The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials had offered me an escape from growing up. But this time I was the creator of underwater landscapes and set my own rules for a world filled with magic.
With ideas and concepts in my head and inspired by the great fantasy works of, Tolkien, Pullman, Le Guin and others, I began to seriously think about how to make a longer mermaid story work just before I started my MA at Birkbeck University.
The first challenge I encountered was ‘writing underwater’, because it is demanding to describe a space where characters move through a three-dimensional world rather than a two dimensional one. Considering a great amount of mermaid literature from all around the world,I realised,only a small part of mermaid stories is actually set underwater, like the beginning of The Little Mermaid is. Most of them are told from the point of view of a human or an omniscient narrator who scarcely follows the water spirits into the sea, or the plot only commences, once the mermaid is on land, transformed into a human form.
In early drafts of my mermaid short stories, I often relied on descriptions that felt generic, but Katherine (K.J.Orr), my short story tutor, showed me how to pick out a specific moment or place and describe it through a character. I tried to achieve the same in my dissertation where I depict the underwater world with a blend of an omniscient third person, and close third person point of view. This way I am able to stay close, to Thundolfor’s thoughts, feelings and the details of the world around him, for instance. But it also allows me to move out when some plot points become too complex to show them just through his eyes.
A piece we did not read in our short story module but Katherine recommended as a great example for shifting points of view was Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley. It also proofed to be a good example for guiding the reader through darkness:
‘—the lower bunk was a cave so dark that she couldn’t make out the shape of her sleeping brother. Then she felt the carpet’s gritty wool under her toes. The children’s bedroom, the bathroom, papered in big blue roses, and their parents’ room were all at the front of the massive Victorian house, which was four stories tall, including this basement flat; sometimes the child was aware of the other flats above theirs, full of the furniture of other lives, pressing down on their heads.’
Another challenge I faced from the beginning was writing light and darkness. The question was where the light was coming from under the sea, as it is usually a blue or dark world. It is difficult for characters in the story to perceive something and for the reader to follow them without making the world appear too alien.
In my early drafts of the first chapter, The Nameless, the world was one of complete blackness, filled with shadows and evil and with hardly any light. It all felt very strange as the protagonist of the story moved through a three- dimensional very dark space.
Stephen Willey, my first dissertation supervisor, suggested to play with light and darkness. As the overall story is about a mermaid world filled with light, existing in harmony with nature, it stands in contrast to a world of shadows. This dark realm is ruled by a Queen who wants to destroy the balance the merfolk try to preserve.
With his suggestion in mind, I decided that there would be both natural and magical light -of evil and good- illuminating the sea. In the first chapter,it is the moon’s light, a natural one, and later an evil light on the bottom of the ocean, a magical one, that illuminates the dark space.
Stephen suggested I should orientate myself by key classic fantasy and science fiction stories that dealt with writing underwater to gain a better understanding of this particular literature.
The first text was The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson. In his story it is the merpeople’s environment that creates light through magic or in a natural way, like the moon:
‘She could see the moon and the stars; it is true, their light was pale but they looked much bigger through the water than they do to our eyes.’
In the beginning of my first chapter the moonlight illuminates Thundolfor’s path towards darkness. Deeper under the sea there is a great source of light, a blend of magic and nature, just like in The Little Mermaid.
But not only Anderson included natural light and turned it into the fantastical. Jules Verne also wrote about light. In his case, naturally phosphorescent light under the sea illuminates the course of the Nautilus in 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea:
‘The Nautilus was floating in the midst of a phosphorescent mass which, because of the gloom elsewhere prevalent, became quite dazzling. The bright glow was produced by myriads of luminous animalculae, whose brilliancy was somehow increased as they glided over the hull of the vessel.’
In comparison, Anderson made similar use of phosphorescent light under the sea to create his underwater world:
‘Outside the Palace was a large garden, with fiery red and deep blue trees, the fruit of which shone like gold, while the flowers glowed like fire on their ceaselessly waving stalks. The ground was of the finest sand, but it was of a blue phosphorescent tint.’
While Verne’s description is much more scientific than Anderson’s dream- like one, I ultimately chose to write something akin to both: to create a blend of the two, science and fantasy. I was inspired by a real-life creature of nature, the deep-sea angler fish, whose bioluminescent rod hangs in front of its giant jaws. Its glow stands in contrast to the pure and pale light of the moon, ‘its evil sister’ as I describe it in chapter one. The monster guides Thundolfor and, as the moon light above grows more and more distant, the angler fish’s glowing yellow orb of light leads the merman into the realm of the evil Queen.
However, I did not only find inspiration to play with light and shadow in underwater stories, but also in my favourite book: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He had created a world where characters have to move through very dark places: The fellowship was guided by different forms of light, showing them the path ahead. One famous scene can be found in The Two Towers where Frodo, Sam and Gollum make their way through the dead marshes at the border of Mordor. There is light, but one of an evil kind:
‘But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.
As I mentioned before, Thundolfor moves through a black space without light in one of my earlier drafts. I only added the moonlight later. Then, with Tolkien’s writing in mind, I was able to create a similar landscape underwater, where evil lights come from the bottom of the sea. These lights feed on the rotting corpses of the Queen’s enemies to illuminate the border of the Sea of Death.
At the same time, I was able to combine function- the light in water, so the reader can follow the merman seeing through him- with continuous world building and characterisation of the Queen, who has not appeared in the story yet: The evil light shows Thundolfor the way and also gives the reader an idea of the Queen’s danger and how unbalanced his chances of succeeding are. The rotting corpses at the bottom of the sea are, like the marshes by the border of Mordor, proof of the Queen’s power. Not only dead mermaids lie there, but skulls of giant sea serpents and dragons are also among the dead, killed by the Queen.
At the beginning of my writing process, I had planned only one chapter, a prologue, concerning the dark underwater world, followed by the narrative of the children in Venice. However, when I worked through this first draft with Stephen Willey it became obvious that it felt cramped and like too much was going on. He suggested to break it up and create a parallel narrative strand beside the one with the children.
When I divided the prologue into the chapters The Nameless and The Seven Circles of Doom, I saw that it was the right idea, as I was able to give the story time to unfold, and the worldbuilding space to expand.
This is how I was able to create my favourite chapter The Seven Circles of Doom too. I had this idea in my head: to have the character Thundolfor pass through the horrors of the Queen’s borders, to show her might and demonstrate her intriguing magic.
Again, it was Stephen who helped me with this very difficult chapter. It could turn out to be repetitive because Thundolfor had to pass through so many circles. He recommended Dante’s Divine Comedy as background reading. It held examples of what a place of magical circles could look like, but especially, how the protagonist could be guided through this fantastical world.
Where Dante is led through hell and purgatory by Virgil, my merman is guided through circles of an underwater hell by the Nameless. Originally, I only let Thundolfor swim through the circles quickly. There was little description and hardly any worldbuilding. But since I had broken up the narrative there was more time to linger in every scene and give every circle meaning, The Divine Comedy as a template.
As there were seven circles to pass through, I wanted to be inventive and show the facets of the Queen, demonstrate her cruelty and her capability to perform great magic. Dante describes all the different facets and stages of his circles in a similar way.
One very helpful aspect of the Divine Comedy was Dante’s constant fear of seeing something horrible or something worse than what he had witnessed before.
‘As now I came once more to conscious mind- closed in those feelings for the kindred souls that had, in sudden sadness, overcome me- wherever I might turn I saw- wherever I might move, look around or settle my gaze- new forms of torment, new tormented souls.’
These verses were very valuable in thinking about the way Thundolfor experiences the circles and describing his feelings. The Atlantean, who used to be a merman of light, swimming in colourful waters filled with corals, is now confronted with a world of nightmares and horrors of the deep. Once he enters the circles, he wishes not to see things, as they are purely evil. But the horrors of the Queen are always there. He cannot look away from her power and, while in the beginning, he fears her, the more he witnesses of her almighty magic, the more he admires her and the less he wants to look away.
The circle where the skeletal creatures try to reach Thundolfor and the Nameless is not only inspired by Dante’s story but also by the famous paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Here twisted and tortured bodies in purgatory and hell are being tormented too. But it was Dante’s scene especially that put me on the right track to bring this underwater circle to life:
‘As there I stood, intent and wondering, I saw there, plunged within that stagnant fen, a peevish people, naked, caked with mud. Each battered each- and not with fists alone, also with head butts, kicks and charging chests. Their teeth, too, tore them, bit by bit, to shreds.’
The third and most important aspect of my underwater circles are the ones in which inner oceans, the souls of mermaids, are being tortured. Dante passes through realms where the same happens to sinners. One vivid scene I took a lot of inspiration from was in Canto 17:
‘So once again, along the outward brow of Circle Seven I progressed alone to where there sat these souls in misery. The pain they felt erupted from their eyes. All up and down and round about, their hands sought remedies for burning air and ground.’
From these lines come the idea that the Queen does not only create horrors in the deep and inflicts physical pain upon her captives but is also able to torture their inner oceans long after the tormented are dead. These circles, the snatcher grass, the marble sculptures and the frozen inner oceans, show the reader that she has power beyond magic, a godlike ability to inflict pain upon the dead, something that in mythology and religion, only gods are capable of doing. I really wanted to express this through the circles themselves, building up the tension, characterising the Queen for Thundolfor and the reader, long before both meet her.
Although the seven circles are places of horror and darkness, some are much lighter than others. In this chapter I continued playing with the idea of light and shadow as I did in The Nameless chapter. In The Seven Circles of Doom, of course, all light is evil but I wanted to create a feeling of rhythm, swimming into light and back into darker spaces again. For instance, while there is a pale light among the sculptures, the next circle is one of deep blackness followed by a circle of ice so bright it radiates light.
I wanted to structure the entire book in a similar way. When, as mentioned earlier, Stephen suggested to break up the prologue into multiple chapters, I realised there was an opportunity here to structure the entire novel in a new way: switching from chapters in darkness, filled with epic evil magic, to the lighter chapters where the children are still living in innocence and come to know a magical world in which the merfolk live in harmony with nature. It is meant to imitate the nature of the ocean, a shape- shifter, attractive and destructive.
When I talked with Toby Litt, my second dissertation supervisor, about this concept, he encouraged me to go through with it. We came to the conclusion that it would really fit the way some modern young adult fantasy is written. He also suggested to revisit some of the novels on the reading list we discussed throughout the MA that follow a similar structure.
Over summer I re-read novels from the reading list for the summer term lectures. One of them became a great guide for structuring my own work: Ponti by Sharlene Teo. It was her choice for the reader to follow three separate plot lines which was brilliantly executed. Over the course of the reading process, the reader puts together pieces of the characters, like a puzzle. Seeing how it all fits together makes an even greater reading experience. While in my first five chapters the connection between the children and Thundolfor are not entirely clear yet, they will come together over the course of the novel, piece by piece, chapter by chapter, inspired by Teo’s structural rhythm.
I then moved on to some young adult fantasy novels whose writers created a similar narrative structure to Ponti. One of them was Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Her books are written in third person close point of view, changing perspective in every chapter and building and knitting plot points together in this way. Even though I chose to go beyond a close third perspective, Bardugo provided helpful guidance for me. Because her world and characters are enormously complex and her structure utilises changing perspectives, as I do with Thundolfor and the childrens’ chapters, I could use her work as a template whenever I felt I was overexplaining or revealing too little or too much.
Considering the texts, I read for my dissertation and for writing my mermaid novel, I see my work as a blend of fairy tale and epic fantasy. Inspired by modern literature, I seek to create a well- thought-out structure, building a complex world, layered characters, and an exciting plot. To describe it in one sentence: The Little Mermaid meets The Lord of the Rings.
And it is these wonderful stories that, I too, was able to escape to when I was younger. They still offer refuge when times are difficult. Anderson and Tolkien were able to share their outstanding imagination with the rest of the world and generations to come. I hope that I was able to share through my writing the excitement and joy I experienced when I was younger and walked the streets of Venice. And maybe the reader will be able to recognise in my work the spirit of literature, and especially the spirit of fantasy literature. The one that has always given us the possibility to escape and walk, or in my case swim, within a different world but not entirely unlike ours, escape into a world of wonder and magic, torn between light and dark.
Anderson, Hans Christian. The Little Mermaid. (New York: Harper Design, An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2018)
Alighieri, Dante, Trans. Robin Kirkpatrick. The Divine Comedy (London: Penguin Group, 2012)
Bacchilega, Cristina and Brown, Marie Alohalani. The Penguin Book of Mermaids. (United States: Penguin Books, 2019)
Bardugo, Leigh. Six of Crows. (Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton, 2018)
Hadley, Tessa, ‘Bad Dreams’, The New Yorker, (16th September 2013)
Teo, Sharlene. Ponti. (London: Picador, 2019)
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings The Two Towers. (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007)
Verne, Jules. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (New York: Barnes and Noble by Sterling Publishing Co, 2016)