Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Great Horse 8 – Endings

Endings are like beginnings – not as easy as you might think, because no creation ever really ends. If you’ve created a world that seems real, and populated it with characters your readers cares about, then your world and those characters will live on beyond the end of the book in the reader’s imagination, and may even (as the number of unplanned sequels on the shelves prove) give rise to whole new books. So how do you decide where to end a book?

In the same way you might be tempted to start a book with the birth of your main character, the most obvious ending is when your main character dies – but, of course, this rarely makes a satisfying ending! Who wants to spend time reading about a character they care about and will hopefully fall in love with, only to discover that character dies on the last page? (Muse: not me!) Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but in general the best endings occur well before this happens.

How much before? Well, I think this depends on the genre you are writing. For example, many romances end with the main characters falling in love and getting married - or at least kissing each other passionately - on the final page. This is an excellent ending for a romance, because in real life marriage is where things start to get more complicated! In genre fantasy the ending usually comes when the final epic battle of Light against Dark is won. In a murder story things get turned around - the death usually comes first, and the ending of the book is actually at the beginning, when the mystery of the murder has been solved. But I was writing a historical novel about a well-known historical character and wanted to complete the story in one book. So, although I didn’t start my book with Alexander’s birth, in this case I did decide to end it with his death.

What?! I hear you say. But you’ve just said this doesn’t make the best ending! Ah, but if you’ve followed my previous posts you’ll see that Alexander is not the true hero of this book. Heroic, certainly, but not a character I expected my readers to fall in love with and care about enough to cast the book down in disgust if I killed him off. Anyway, a glance at any history book will tell you Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323BC, so I’m not giving too much away by telling you the book ends with his death.
At this point my story ended neatly too, because Alexander left no heir to his great empire. When his generals asked him on his deathbed to name the person his empire should go to, he mumbled something historians usually translate as “to the strongest”. As you might imagine, this set off a major power struggle between his generals, who ended up dividing the empire between them and destroying much of what they had achieved. No one person was strong enough to take over from Alexander the Great.
Muse: Roxanne was pregnant at the time, but nobody knew if her child would be a boy or a girl or survive long enough to take over from Alexander – later she gave birth to a boy, named Alexander after his father, who was assassinated along with his mother when he reached the age of 13.

From the point of view of the other main characters… Bucephalas, Charmeia and her friend Tydeos… this ending was actually quite a happy one, because by the end of the book Alexander had become more of a villain than a hero, even to his own men. Killing him off certainly felt quite satisfying to me, after some of the atrocities he had committed along the way. His men might have loved and mourned Alexander, but the fighting was over! They could at last go home. They were also quite rich after plundering the treasure of the fabulous Persian empire, so even common grooms like Charmeia went home with enough gold in their pockets to set them up for life. This enabled me to give most of my fictional characters, humans and horses, a happy ending.

The exception of course was the Great Horse himself. If you read the history books, you’ll discover that Bucephalas was badly wounded in Alexander’s final battle against Prince Porus’ elephants and died in India. Alexander set up a statue to him on the banks of the Indus and named a city after him, called Bucephala, before leading the remains of his army back to Babylon. But since I’d chosen Bucephalas to narrate my book, this clearly was not going to work if I wanted to end it with Alexander’s death! The problem niggled away in the background as I was writing the first few chapters. At one point I even considered ending my book in India before the final battle, or maybe halfway through it. But fortunately I am a fantasy writer, and in the end I shamelessly employed an element of fantasy to get around this.

In a fantasy novel, whenever your plot starts getting tricky you can always add a bit of magic to sort it out. Wave a wand, or better still invent your own magical rules. As long as you stick to those rules throughout your book, your readers should believe in them when you use them to make your plot work later on. In this case, I used Bucephalas’ ability to see ghosts, which you may remember I set up right at the beginning of the book with his damaged eye, and used several times throughout the story when he sees the ghosts of dying men and horses fleeing from battlefields. With this fantasy element firmly in place, fixing up the ending so the horse could continue to tell the story beyond the Indus was simple enough. I won’t give away all the details here, in case you haven’t read the book yet, but suffice to say that in “I am the Great Horse” Bucephalas does not die at the Indus. Instead, Alexander leaves Charmeia in charge of the wounded horse and leads his army back to Babylon, believing Bucephalas – now a ripe old age for a horse – will never carry him in battle again. This proves true enough, since the Indus proved to be Alexander’s last battle.

So I had my final scene. Alexander’s death should be simple enough to write, you might think - and yet this event proved to be one of the most intriguing parts of my book! How exactly did Alexander the Great die? Not gloriously in battle, as he would probably have liked, but slowly in great pain on his sickbed. I believe the historians are still arguing over the exact cause, the most common theories being poison, sickness, or an old war wound. I think the current favourite is that he died from drinking bad water, and what killed him were nasty bacteria in the Euphrates river that runs past Babylon. There are pleasing echoes of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” here… the invincible conqueror defeated by tiny microbes. The war wound theory is also possible, I suppose, since he took many nasty wounds while leading his men into battle and storming cities. But being a writer, I’m on the side of the more intriguing poison. With the number of enemies Alexander made during his short life, I’ve no doubt poison would have been in many people’s minds. But who did it, and how, and – more importantly – WHY? No, I’m not going to give this bit of my ending away, either! But suffice to say I could just as easily have written this book as a murder mystery, and it would have made a good story.
Muse: Katherine did begin to write a sequel about Roxanne’s son as a murder mystery starting with Alexander’s death… but her publisher wasn’t keen at the time, so it’s gone back into her safe for the time being.

And so we come to the end of the writing process... which is only the beginning of the editing and publishing process that brings a book to the shelves so you can read it. At this point, in late October 2004, Katherine had a version of the book that was 200,000 words long and was called BUCEPHALAS (after the great horse, naturally!). This is what authors and publishers call a working title, and the actual title for this book came after much discussion – more about titles in a later post.

Next week we’ll move on to editing, when we hope to bring you a guest post by freelance editor Helen Wire, who worked on Katherine’s words so you could enjoy reading this book… the Muse is very excited!


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