Five things I’ve learnt about writing from reading Dorothy Dunnett #IDDD

What I've learned about writing from reading Dorothy Dunnett

Back in April this year, my friend Lucy recommended the Lymond Chronicles to me.  I’d been moaning to her about how hard it is to plot a series of books and she recommended that I learn from the expert and read Dorothy Dunnett.  I went home, downloaded Game of Kings to my Kindle and started reading.  Little did I realise where it was going to lead.  Today I’m co-hosting with Lucy the York gathering of Dunnett fans for International Dorothy Dunnett Day, an event I didn’t know existed a year ago but which I’m now loving being part of.

Dorothy Dunnett is addictive.  She’s an incredible writer of fast paced, action packed, historical adventure.  So far I’ve only read the Lymond Chronicles which follow the adventures of Francis Crawford, a sixteenth century Scottish soldier of fortune, across the courts of Europe, North Africa, Turkey and Russia.  I’ve got the joy of The House of Niccolò still to come.

Dunnett writes with a verve and flair that continues to astonish me while managing a plot of dazzling complexity.  In Francis Crawford she created an irresistible hero who’s as complex, and often infuriating, as a real person.  He’s been described as Lord Peter Wimsey mixed with Athos from The Musketeers.  As I love both of those gentlemen, it was pretty much guaranteed that I’d eventually (I held out until book three) fall head over heels for Francis.

Having recently finished the whole series, I’ve been trying to work out what makes it so incredibly good and most importantly, what I can learn from Dorothy.  The list is pretty long but I’ve tried to boil it down to a top five.

You don’t have to write from your hero’s viewpoint

Game of KingsThere is very little of the Lymond Chronicles which is written from Francis’s viewpoint.  We get to see him through the eyes of his nearest and dearest, his mother, his brother; his many and varied colleagues; and the women he loves.  There’s also assorted more minor characters who get to tell us their, usually very frank, opinion of him.  And all of these different people have a different take on him.  To one, he’ll be a hero, to another a villain, to a third, he’s rather misunderstood.  But from all of these different opinions the reader gets a far more accurate picture than they would if Francis simply told us about himself.

Now to be honest, I struggled with this at the beginning.  Modern fiction doesn’t work this way.  I’m so used to being in the head of the people that I’m reading about that this was quite hard to get used to.  But once I did, I realised the incredible strength of it because all of us are essentially unknowable.  We judge each other on words and actions because we can’t hear the interior voice.  Much of modern fiction makes it easy for the reader because the characters explain every thought and every feeling.  Dunnett doesn’t do that which brings me on to my second point…

Trust your readers to keep up

One of the first critiques I got on my writing was that I explained too much and it was alright to expect the reader to do some of the work.  As I pretty much explain things for a living in my day job, I’m not surprised I got this wrong at the beginning.  I wish I’d read Dorothy Dunnett before I started writing as she’s a classic example of always trusting the reader to keep up.  No matter how complicated the plot, how obscure the reference or how littered with quotations the dialogue is, Dorothy trusts that we’ll get it.

Queen's PlayAs I’m not going to start including numerous quotes in my dialogue, what really interests me is the trust that she places in her readers understand the plot.  It’s fair to say that over six books it gets pretty convoluted but she rarely recaps and hardly ever explains.  When she does explain, it’s on one of the rare occasions when Francis Crawford actually shares his thoughts with those around him.  And I think this is one of the things that I love most about Dunnett is that her books aren’t neatly parceled up as fiction so often is.  They feel as messy and complicated as real life but with the dull bits taken out.

As a fiction writer I know exactly how hard this is to do because once you allow characters to have those messy and complicated emotions they can take over and, before you know it, your carefully crafted plot has got completely derailed.  It’s a credit to Dunnett’s genius that she never allows that to happen. Each of her books works independently and has a satisfying resolution but they all fit perfectly within the series as a whole.  That’s an amazing achievement.

Colour and Smell

I’m constantly in awe of Dunnett’s ability to write description which she creates so vividly but without writing pages and pages of tedious detail. I think this comes down to her use of colour and smell.  Her career as a portrait painter filters through to her writing and she uses colour as a painter would.  For example, from The Ringed Castle “The sun was low. It struck the grass like green fur, with a sparkle, the hills were like half-dried velvet and the thin coloured leaves of the trees glittered in the long shadows and orient light: autumn trees, their branches combed by the gale and moving overhead in veil upon veil of chestnut and auburn and yellow, of flame and chrome and veridian…”

Then she adds another layer by telling us how it smells.  I’m now convinced I know how sixteenth-century Constantinople smelled from reading Pawn in Frankinscene. I don’t have a very good sense of smell so I constantly forget to add this into my writing.  But what I’ve learned from Dunnett, is when you put colour and smell together, it makes the description zing off the page and come alive in the reader’s mind.

Don’t be afraid to make your hero flawed

PIFIn the past I’ve been told by so called ‘writing experts’ that all my main characters must be instantly likeable.  After reading Dunnett, I think that’s bad advice.

Francis Crawford has incredible talents as a man, a leader, a soldier, (when he chooses to use them) as a friend and as a lover. He’s also deeply flawed. As the series goes on and he deals with a catastrophic succession of challenges which would destroy a weaker man, those flaws get deeper.  One of things which I loved most about these books is that Dunnett never shies away from this.  Francis gets increasingly irascible, unpredictable and generally pretty impossible to live with.  But, as the reader knows what he’s been through, all of that makes perfect sense. Most importantly, it makes him more interesting to read about.

Make the cost real

There’s a tendency for heroes to be untouched by what they endure.  James Bond walks happily away at the end of each adventure with another woman on his arm.  He’s not wracked by guilt and embarking on an intensive course of therapy about the people he’s killed, colleagues he’s sacrificed and terrible decisions he’s had to make and we, as readers or viewers, accept that. It’s all part of the fantasy.

Dunnett doesn’t take this approach.  She piles the emotional cost on Francis Crawford so that we see the terrible toll it’s taking on him.  He’s forced to make the most appalling decisions and, unlike with Bond, the reader sees how they’ve hurt him, sees the cost of keeping going and watches as his physical and emotional health begin to unravel. It’s part of what makes feel him so real and also what makes the books so compelling.

I’ll be bearing all of these things in mind as I finish my current work in progress and embark on the other books in the series.  I know I can’t aspire to Dunnett’s genius but if I keep reading her and keep learning then, hopefully, I’ll keep writing better books.

I’m absolutely certain every Dunnett reader has a very different list of reasons why they love her.  If you’d like to share yours by leaving a comment below then I’ll be delighted to read them.

4 thoughts on “Five things I’ve learnt about writing from reading Dorothy Dunnett #IDDD

  1. You got to download a book of hers and read it. In APRIL! Then you (probably) dived instantlyinto the next one, and read, with gay abandon, until your eyes melted. Or something. You have published your comments in NOVEMBER, which means you read the series in six months, give or take.

    You don’t know how easy you have it!!
    Back in MY day things were different. Oh, yes, they were! There were those of us who had to WAIT patiently for a long, long time-two years, easily-for the next volume of LC to be published. In book format! Then, it had to be airmailed from ENGLAND to me in the States, and after it was devoured in a day in a frenzy of reading, there would be the endless wait until the next volume showed up. I do believe it took 15 years to publish the series.
    It’s not fair!

  2. Great post Alys. Agree on all points. There really are so many lessons to be gleaned from the marvelous lady. Two I would add (as someone who is more a House of Niccolo fan):

    1) The importance of research. She said her imagination was a last resort, and it really shows. Not just the dates and historical incidents but the clothing, the flora and fauna, the tiniest details. There is a line in one book where she says steel crossbows can snap dangerously in the cold. I wondered if she had just made that up but in the end I was able to track down a source for it from a 15th century hunting diary.

    2) Related to that, her ability to pack an incredible amount of historical information in without it ever descending into a lecture. There’s always a temptation to ‘show your working’ when you’ve spent hours on research but DD (who had to slog a lot harder for her information than we do in the internet age ) never seems to grandstand in that way. If it made the final cut it had a reason to. I find sometimes that successful authors stop listening to their editors and allow their later works to become bloated and self-indulgent compared to their earlier taut works but DD avoided that somehow.

  3. I made it three years between each book and I can remember waiting impatiently. I started to read the series in about 1970 or 71. One thing I gained from Dorothy was to learn about wild flowers. She was describing a piece of land giving all the plants which meant nothing to me. At least now I have learned some of them!

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