In Stephen King’s case, he makes an unlikely connection between two unrelated objects or scenarios and asks the question: “What if?” and the novel grows from his attempt to answer that question. Kurt Vonnegut claims that every novel begins with a question. Bernard Cornwell takes this further and says that if the opening question is right, then the pursuit of the answer will propel both writer and reader through the book.
Cornwell also says – and this is one of the most important pieces of advice I have ever read – that it’s important to remember that you are a storyteller, not an historian. Research is vital in order to get the facts correct, but your readers are there for the story, not for the history lesson.
What if the fact on which you are basing a story turns out to be a possible fiction? I had just such a problem with my 2011 novel The Epidaurus Inheritance, in which a long ago fact from my past education had stayed in my mind, quietly churning there for decades. Always fascinated by anything to do with theatre, from as far back as I can remember I had soaked up facts about ancient Greek theatre like a sponge soaks up spilt red wine, simultaneously feeding my appetite for knowledge about how any onstage illusions were created behind the scenes.
I don’t remember how old I was – somewhere in primary school – when some teacher told my class about how ancient Greek theatres had a tunnel running beneath their foundations, down which rocks were rolled in order to simulate thunder so real that the audience sitting above could experience the shuddering through every bone in their bodies. When this was later reinforced by an art history teacher in high school, I still didn’t think about the practicalities of such a construction, or question whether such a thing had ever really existed, but instead became caught up in the idea of it.
I believed in thunder tunnels from then on. With a degree in Speech and Drama, and still fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes, I began a career as a stage manager. The thought of thunder tunnels slipped to the back of my mind and nestled there like a comforting shadow. I visited the ancient theatre of Epidaurus on my first trip overseas at the age of twenty and imagined that deep under the stone seating was a long, curvy, twisted tunnel and even though it wasn’t used in the production I saw, my mind told me that it was still there beneath me, exactly as it had been in ancient times...
Many years later when I began to write The Epidaurus Inheritance I decided to set part of my story beneath the auditorium at Epidaurus, in the thunder tunnel. It was just a matter of good research to check on my facts. Well, I found to my horror that no such thing had ever been proved to have existed. I did find several online tutorials on art history, in which sweeping statements were made about such things, but no actual proof. Not a sausage!
And then I remembered Bernard Cornwell’s words about being a storyteller, not an historian, and I knew that Cornwell, if no one else, would be on my side. That was good enough for me. Just because a thunder tunnel had never been found didn’t mean that it wasn’t actually there! I mean, no one had ever taken Epidaurus apart to find out, had they? So how could anyone prove it didn’t exist?
In my novel I covered all my bases by having an archaeologist who insists that such things are the product of fantasy and the over-active imaginations of generations of art history teachers who have never bothered to check the facts. Opposing him is a theatre set designer who – like me – wants to believe that such things exist. Imagine the surprise of both of them when they discover the underground passage and the ancient store of precariously piled rocks...
Of course, I wasn’t going to go into too much detail about how five thousand years of earthquakes in Greece had failed to shake them loose and yet just one little push from a bad guy starts the ball rolling, so to speak.
To any of you out there who have read The Epidaurus Inheritance I hope I have provided some insight as to why I chose this supposedly fictitious path, and to anyone who hasn’t yet read the book – don’t worry, I haven’t given away any vital pieces of the plot. And to anyone out there who studied art history and learnt about fictional thunder tunnels as a reality, please feel free to believe that they just might be real!