I did a bit of field research last night for a medieval setting I’m currently writing.
I saw Spamalot at the National Theater in DC (hey, it’s medieval!).
My husband and I are longtime Monty Python fanatics, er, fans, and we passed that gene along to our kids, who were spouting lines like "Wot, the curtains?!" and "Yer muzzah waz a hamztah an yer fazzer smelt of eldterbewwies" when they were very small. So we trooped off to see the show, delighted that a company had come to DC so we didn’t have to arrange a family trip to NYC to see it on Broadway (which we had been discussing).
Here’s my quick review: Spamalot is flat-out hilarious, and wildly creative. It deserves every Tony Award they can throw at it. Eric Idle wrote the show, adding new scenes and new songs with John Du Prez. They translated the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" brilliantly to the stage, adding send-ups of several Broadway musicals while they were at it. Somehow it’s all just as funny, and even funnier in some bits, than the movie. The sets and special effects are amazingly creative, and the cast is excellent, with some truly extraordinary talent among them. The connection with the audience is a big part of the show: not only did applause break out as soon as familiar characters and bits appeared (all the French knight had to do was pop up from behind the battlements for a huge round of applause) — the show takes it further by involving audience members toward the end.
And though the performers must have done this a zillion times by now, Spamalot maintains a sense of spontaneity and unpredictable humor, with flashes of creative brilliance. It’s exhilarating. I could have watched another hour of that raucous madness easily. And many of the audience members left whistling, and singing …Always look on the briiiiiiiight side of life….
Spamalot is inspired lunacy.
That’s all well and good, you may be thinking…but this is Word Wenches territory, and what does this blog have to do with writing?!
Hmm…. Creativity in action. The benefits of teamwork and brainstorming. And of course, the benefits of field research!
Creativity in action: No matter what a writer is doing, part of the brain is always in writing and creative thinking mode. My head was whirling as I watched the show, and I was in awe of the ecstatic creativity that brought the whole thing about. And some of the solutions the writers chose to translate the story and characters from screen to stage were fascinating. For instance, the character of Dennis the peasant, who flings mud and talks about the autonomous collective, only has a short scene in the movie. On stage, he’s transformed into Sir Galahad (in a funny parody of The Phantom of the Opera). A terrific, but throwaway, character is linked to an essential one in a great little plot twist.
In a draft of Waking the Princess, I had introduced the hero’s crabby old uncle, who ultimately didn’t move the plot along much, so he had to go. But I liked one aspect about him: he flung teacups at people when he got into a snit. So I transformed the character into a pet monkey who throws china across the room, and worked that into the first meeting of the hero and heroine. Et voila! The bit I liked was salvaged, and the plot moved along.
Teamwork and brainstorming: Writers work primarily in isolation (whether it’s in a spare bedroom or home office, or a sunny deck, or the blissful quiet of a Toyota Camry…), and that comes naturally to writers for the sake of the work. But sometimes I’ll reach an impasse in a story, and I’ll appeal to a couple of writer friends–we’ll toss that thing around like a volleyball until it gets going again. And if one of my friends gets stuck, the help is reciprocated. Then we go back to our isolation chambers. <g> As for teamwork, let us not forget the publishing team of agent, editor, and production departments that gets that book out there on the bookstore shelves!
Brainstorming with others can help unstick a stuck story – just as the creative teamwork in Spamalot was essential to the success of the story and the show (yeah, I realize it’s an entirely different genre/medium, but the idea applies!). Too much brainstorming isn’t good for writer or story, but the right dose, now and then, can stimulate a miracle cure.
Field research: I love experiential research, and maybe another time I’ll blog in more detail about that. It’s great to step away from the stacks of research books to absorb information and atmosphere another way. Though I’ve poured long hours into researching Celtic harp playing and fiddling, archery, blacksmithing, falconry, and several other topics, often the best research bits come from trying something myself. I’ve flown hawks and practiced archery, and I even learned to catch an arrow for the sake of a plot point. And I own a customized longbow (ok, so it’s not that long, I’m under 5 ft. tall…). Shooting that bow has come in handy for more than one of the medievals I’ve written.
So there’s a bit o’ Spamalot morphed into some observations on writing. When you write, whether historicals or contemporary, let yourself be creative not only with the writing, but with your resources too. No matter if it’s a stretch–if it gets your creative wheels turning, go for it!
And remember to Always look on the briiiiiight side of life… <<whistling>>
King Arthur and his knights from Spamalot