Guest post from Lou Kemp, author of magical realism The Violins Played Before Junstan
While on a mission to avenge the death of his lover, the immortal peyote-eating magician Celwyn is hired to deliver an automat, Professor Kang, to a priest. But Celwyn quickly learns that everything the priest told him was a lie. Now his ship, the Zelda, is stuck in a horrific storm and Celwyn knows he must reconsider his allegiance if he is to steer his vessel in the right direction and continue his quest.
Excerpt from The Violins Played Before Junstan
San Francisco, 1865
Late in the evening, thick ribbons of fog moved like a living animal, breathing, then thinning to vapor before revealing the shadows between the wooden barrels that lined the docks. Beyond the Opera House’s silhouette, oily glimmers of the bay cut through the darkness, only to be obscured by the fog again.
As Celwyn neared the docks, he heard virulent cursing above the commotion from a carriage as it charged down the cobblestones toward him. When the coach drew level, the driver raised a whip above his horse. On its descent to the horse’s back, the tip suspended mid-air and snake-like, the whip shimmied out of the coachman’s hand.
The man steered the hackney to a stop. As he slithered out of the high cab, the whip followed him, wrapping around his ankles, lifting him feetfirst into the air. His cursing echoed to screams as he disappeared into the night sky. A moment later, a splash could be heard, and a satisfied smile crossed Celwyn’s lips; he couldn’t stand to see anyone mistreating an animal. The horse trotted down the street, rather jauntily, back toward the stable yard as the magician stepped around a snoring drunk and into Salty’s tattered and dingy atmosphere. Celwyn could have sworn it was the same drunk he stepped over last night.
Buy The Violins Played Before Junstan
Suspension of Disbelief
Or, How Authors Cause Rational Readers to Jump on a Supernatural Train
By Lou Kemp
The suspension of disbelief has been around a long time. In modern times, even the most unexpected genres of novels not labeled as fantasy or science fiction suspend belief in their readers. It could be manifested in the unlikely physical powers of the characters, or weather phenomena that is a bit unusual, or something mystical that the reader is willing to take a chance on. The Preston and Child’s Pendergast series has at times blended the eastern philosophy of reaching a person’s inner “rooms” as a vehicle into revelations by the title character. It is done masterfully.
Definition: Suspension of disbelief
“Is the intentional avoidance of critical thinking, or logic, in examining something unreal or impossible in reality, such as a work of speculative fiction, in order to believe it for the sake of enjoyment. Aristotle first explored the idea of the concept in its relation to the principles of theater; the audience ignores the unreality of fiction in order to experience catharsis.” —Wikipedia
The term “suspension of disbelief” was introduced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817. He demonstrated it in his most famous work.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge—The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner
Within a few lines, his poem introduces a ghost ship. How did he do it? Coleridge maintained that if a writer inserted “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the suspension of belief would occur. It sometimes takes a bit more. Coleridge also called the phenomena “poetic faith”, citing the concept as a feeling analogous to the supernatural, which awakens the mind. If it is done well, it will do more than “awaken” the reader.
Tolkien says the reader must believe. Otherwise, the narrative does not work. It is the job of the author to make the reader believe.
As a reader, after you finished a story, have you ever looked back and noticed:
1. That you never saw the point when the real world changed to something else. Exactly when did it occur? And then go back looking through pages for when it happened?
2. Or, did you find that you not only knew when it happened, but it stopped you dead on the page because you found it jarring, and made you roll your eyes… but you continued to read?
3. You have just picked up a new book, and as you turned the pages, you noticed the author was pulling you along, bit by bit, giving you minor fantastic things that led to a large leap of faith into a new world?
4. Or, you squirrel away a new book you have been looking forward to for months, …. and you noticed the change in the story from what is real to something else, and you read faster, thrilled to have your secret wish that ghosts did exist come true, or saw verification that a handsome man in a topcoat and breeches from the past did watch you as you slept.
Any, or all, of these scenarios have happened to readers. One way or another, their disbelief is suspended, or they do not finish the book.
The Set Up
In most cases, a new world has been painted for the reader that rewards them for believing. For the suspension of disbelief to work, the author writes the story as a set up: either the plot has already crossed over to the fantastic, or the reader must be ready for it. An example is the protagonist Nora in Emily Croy Barker’s Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.
In this novel, Nora slipped through to the other world seamlessly because the scenery and her senses did not change…. until something odd happened afterwards. It took several pages of Nora exploring and gradually concluding that she wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The readers did not notice either. At the end of the novel, when she went back to her own mundane world, it was again believable because of how it was done. This time, the author took care to hold the reader’s hand throughout each step until she was home again. In contrast, the newest book by the same author, How to Talk to a Goddess and Other Lessons inReal Magic
the process of initially going back to the fairy world for the bulk of the novel was deliberate by Nora, no suspension of belief needed: the protagonist suspended the disbelief and set up the reader to accept the situation. Yet, the details of how she went back were just not good. Why? Because the well-used plot devise of a wrinkle between the worlds didn’t live up to the standards of this great author, and the debut book. In this case, there was no suspension of disbelief, but instead a wish for a more real transition. Another transition that could have been done better was the original Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
A pile of rocks, and the protagonist tumbles in, and into the far distant past? The skill of the author right afterwards smoothed over the suspension of disbelief, and as the story went along, the suspect cliché transition was a faint memory as a wonderful adventure ensued.
Do readers resist suspending their disbelief? Probably. But, if a reader has voluntarily picked up a particular book to read, they must be willing to suspend their disbelief, especially if they’ve read the book jacket.
A Different Kind of Transition
An example of a different, and great suspension of disbelief is Daniel H. Wilson’s Clockwork Dynasty (insert the pic from the file)
This time the author used a prologue description of the male protagonist (in the past) doing something rather supernatural that the reader would have read with wide-eyed interest. When the story began with an everyday non-fantastic world, the reader would be expecting something supernatural to happen because of the prologue. The other protagonist, a most human woman named June, had no clue things were about to change drastically, but the reader knew. (and isn’t it marvelous how the author named a character with a soft, sweet name that by the end of the book is not exactly a match? Perhaps, this was a playful approach by the author) For those who enjoy history, witches, and a great story: how did Deborah Harkness suspend belief? In her first novel, A Discovery of Witches,
Harkness used a clever set up: within the first few pages, she put the protagonist, who was also a witch, into a surprising position (things a great deal more fantastic than meeting an ordinary witch were about to happen). Diana Bishop had encountered other witches before, and only then with reluctance. She had no training on other beings, and what they either looked like, or were capable of. Diana knew something was odd in the university library that night. The manuscript she held reacted to her, as she did to it—this was the first clue….
Then the author added a palimpsest to the story. It was intriguing, unusual, and an instrument of fantasy that Diana recognized as something not normal. Another big clue to help the reader, and Diana, accept the fantastic, and believe what was coming.
“My hand was raised to push open the door on the ground floor when the air around me constricted, as if the library were squeezing me tight. The air shimmered for a split second, just as the pages of the manuscript had shimmered on Sean’s desk, causing me to shiver involuntarily and raising the tiny hairs on my arms…”
An enamored vampire she would eventually marry had arrived.
How do I suspend disbelief in my novels? With care, and in the Violins Played before Junstan, I do it in the very first paragraph so there are no doubt things are not as expected, and the reader doesn’t mind jumping on the supernatural train.
About Lou Kemp
Early work was horror and suspense, later work morphed into a combination of magical realism, mystery and adventure painted with a horrific element as needed.
I’m one of those writers who doesn’t plan ahead, no outlines, no clue, and I sometimes write myself into a corner. Atmospheric music in the background helps. Black by Pearl Jam especially.
More information is available at LouKemp.com. I’d love to hear from you and what you think of Celwyn, Bartholomew, and Professor Xiau Kang.
2009 The anthology story Sherlock’s Opera appeared in Seattle Noir, edited by Curt Colbert, Akashic Books. Available through Amazon or Barnes and Noble online. Booklist published a favorable review of my contribution to the anthology.
2010 My story, In Memory of the Sibylline, was accepted into the best-selling MWA anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris. The immortal magician Celwyn makes his first appearance in print.
2018 The story, The Violins Played before Junstan is published in the MWA anthology Odd Partners, edited by Anne Perry. The Celwyn series begins.
Book 1, The Violins Played before Junstan reissue with the publisher, the 4 Horsemen on 10-17-22. The 4 Horsemen will publish the remaining books in the series beginning with Music Shall Untune the Sky, The Raven and the Pig, The Pirate Danced and the Automat Died. The companion book, Farm Hall continues the story of Pelaez, another immortal magician and Celwyn’s brother will also be available.
Lou Kemp will be awarding $25 Amazon or B/N GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.