The Domestic in the Epic: Advice on Structure

The Domestic in the Epic: Advice on Structure

Naomi J. Williams’ historical novel Landfalls, which recounts the travails of a French scientific voyage begun in 1785, offers many treats to love, among them this sentence: “Who among us does not have the odd friend whose virtues we admire, but whom we do not wish to impose on others?” But the craft lessons this book has to offer go far beyond the strategic use of dry wit. Williams’ story is grand in scope: it’s a voyage into the unknown that covers danger, fear, loss, and violence–both violence suffered and violence enacted. Its characters bond through struggle, and struggle with each other. If it were a movie, the poster would probably feature one of the commanders staring bravely out to sea, wearing a weathered and courageous expression. You know: it’s an epic.

But where does Williams’ story begin? Not with any dudes staring bravely out to sea. Not with anyone toting a sword, or hauling on an oar. Not with any Master-and-Commander-style leaping about in the riggings in dress uniform. Not even with the carnage European expeditions created in the New World.

Landfalls begins with the ships’ stoves. The two vessels–the Astrolabe and the Boussole–attempted to install imported English stoves before their voyage, with mixed success. Much bashing with tools. Much cursing when the stoves wouldn’t fit, followed by much MacGyver-ing to make them fit. Much swearing when the sailors barked their shins on the knobs that protruded into what should have been their walkways through cramped galleys. Much smoke, followed by jokes about the imminent possibility of explosion.

Williams’ strategic decision to begin her epic in the domestic offers a lesson for other writers. Think about it: if you are preparing for an epic voyage, what is among your first concerns? Food. You aren’t posing with your chin’s best angle prominent over the railing. No way. You are accompanying your carpenter down into the hold to make sure your new stove gets installed.

The lesson here, I think, is to consider the large in terms of the small. To tell even a story of global scope in terms of individual daily concerns. I’ve been carrying this thought around for the past week, pondering how to apply it to my own projects. Maybe you will, too?

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