Elizabethan London is in the grip of devil fever, teeming with thievery, sorcery, and black magic. Lovable rogue Jack’s biggest talent is not being noticed in-amongst the fray, but when he turns his dab-hand to pickpocketing a mysterious traveller, he finds himself drawn into a metropolis of danger like none he’s ever encountered before...
As part of the Prentice & Weil blog tour, celebrating the brassy and magnetising novels BLACK ARTS & DEVIL'S BLOOD, I have for you a post by Jonathan Weil himself on his favourite character: Beth. Described as perfect for "fans of Jonathan Stroud, Charlie Higson and Rick Riordan", this series is sure to be a hit. Intrigued? Then read on!
When asked to write about Beth, I started thinking in terms of ‘writing female characters.’ Is it harder to do? What did we do right, and wrong, in creating Beth?
Then I realised ‘creating’ wasn’t quite the right word. Like all the successful characters we have written, we didn’t create Beth. We found her. And out of all the characters we’ve found over the course of writing two books over several years, Beth is my favourite. Getting inside her head, imagining how she’d react in a given situation, writing scenes from her point of view – all of these things are a pleasure, and come easier than with any other character.
This wasn’t always the case. In early drafts of Black Arts, Beth was a very different and less loveable character (by ‘loveable’ I don’t mean ‘nice’ by the way: it is Beth’s sharp edges that make us love her the most). She even had a different name and parentage – not Beth Sharkwell, the thieves’ princess, but Beth Plaistow the sailor’s daughter. And instead of being easy to write, she was a bit dull.
I’m afraid the reason for this is simple. We had done her a basic disservice, one that often happens to female characters written by men: we started off with our male hero (Jack) and then tried to create Beth in relation to him. Jack was a dare-devil thief – so we made Beth into a law-abiding, rather priggish girl, constantly criticising him for his criminal ways.
In these early versions, we also had a minor character called Queen Moll, who was much more fun. A lot of the fun came from the fact that she was real. Born shortly before the Spanish Armada, , aka Moll Cutpurse, was the first woman that we know of to appear on the London stage, singing lewd songs and accompanying herself on the banjo. (She also once rode across London on a performing horse, dressed as a man, for a bet.) A cross-dressing, pipe-smoking brawler, underworld kingpin (queenpin?) and expert disposer of stolen goods, she was finally condemned to death after robbing the Earl of Fairfax (England’s number one soldier at the time) at gunpoint – only to escape the gallows by paying a £2000 fine (an enormous sum in those days).
In the real Moll Cutpurse, we had a memorable swashbuckling character, ready-made. The only problem was, she was a minor character – and as we went from draft to draft, with the story changing along the way, Moll’s scenes kept getting cut down or cut out entirely. Here was a character we loved, who was a joy to write, and who was surplus to the plot. We desperately wanted to keep her in, but the harder we tried, the more we gummed up our story.
The solution in this situation, as any editor and any wise writer will tell you, is to grit your teeth and cut. And this is what we did – with a heavy heart. Queen Moll was gone.
We wouldn’t have been so upset if we’d known that by cutting Moll, we were actually making room for an even better character, and one who would be central to the story.
It took a couple more drafts, and several months, to realise it was even a possibility. The setting for the story had changed, from a secret monastery of magical adepts to a thieves’ den in Southwark. Beth Plaistow didn’t really fit in here, even though she’d become an integral part of the plot. The solution, when we realised it, was beautiful: we could take the things we had loved about Queen Moll, and give them to Beth. No longer Beth Plaistow the sailor’s daughter – but Beth Sharkwell, criminal royalty, grand-daughter and prize pupil of the dreaded Mr Sharkwell.
This is what I mean by finding Beth, not creating her. Because once we’d realised who she really was, everything else fell into place. There were even bits of the old Beth Plaistow that worked now: her devotion to rules was no longer boring once they were thieves’ rules (Elizabethan thieves really were a highly-organised profession, with their own quasi-guilds and codes that were strictly enforced). Combining two very different characters into one resulted in a sort of alchemy: we ended up with a Beth who was alive, filled with the same sorts of contradictions that we all recognise in ourselves and each other.
This is why I love Beth the most. Jack is righteous, driven, single-minded. He has a simple mission and goes straight at it. Beth is devious, pragmatic, scornful, exasperated, ambitious. She is as proud as Lucifer; she thinks she knows it all; she is sharp with those she considers beneath her (i.e. most people). Most of the time, her ‘mission’ is self-preservation, self-enrichment and following the Sharkwell Family Laws (which are mostly about self-preservation and self-enrichment...) All of which means that when she does do something brave or altruistic, she usually has to drag herself kicking and screaming to do it.
She is, in fact, my favourite kind of hero – doing the right thing despite herself, and even getting annoyed with herself for doing it.
Did we write this Beth differently because she was a girl? Once she’d come alive, there was no question of writing her in simple contrast to Jack, like we’d been doing before: a living character won’t stand for any such nonsense. On the other hand, and especially in a story set in the 1590s, a character’s sex is always going to affect the choices open to them, and their reasons for making them. Beth doesn’t cut through gender inequality in a : she clocks it, weighs it up, then coolly turns it to her advantage. Not that we have her do these things because we think they’re more ‘what a girl would do.’ They’re more what Beth would do – and Beth is always playing her own game.
Behind BLACK ARTS and DEVIL'S BLOOD, are Andrew Prentice and Jonathan Weil, who have grown from editing their school magazine together to running a circus and writing dialogue for robots. Their latest feat is writing novels together, namely the explosive Elizabethan adventure featured here, that's sure to thrill readers.
Tweet your enthusiasm @DFB_Storyhouse and @prenticeweil and make sure to add the books to your TBR here!