“The Children of Port Allain” is the example I pull out when someone asks me where I get my ideas… because I happen to remember exactly.
The story is a distorted vision of life on the rainy, forestry-dependent West Coast of B.C., this place:
It was back in the days when I still followed current events, which would put it before 2001. I would usually have CBC Radio One on for an hour or two when I was cooking or playing Asheron’s Call, and in that time I might catch the local news twice, as well as a national or international broadcast.
On one such occasion, the B.C. news had two stories back to back. The first was about a Vancouver Island town whose core employer, a pulp mill, was closing down. The town council was, therefore, wooing a medicinal marijuana operation to come in and set up shop, the idea being that the government-anointed pot growers would replace the lost jobs.
The second story was about a newly paroled pedophile who was getting hounded from town to town. He’d settle somewhere, there’d be an outcry, and eventually he’d try somewhere else.
“Where should these people go?” the interviewer asked one of the most recent hounders in this story.
“What do we care as long as it’s not here?” was the reply.
What happened, naturally, was my writerbrain came up with a mashup: the same desperate pulp-mill town, working up a scheme to create jobs by becoming a haven for paroled child molesters.
“The Children of Port Allain” is a prickly, uncomfortable story. There’s no overt violence in it, but it’s unsavory by design: if it was something you found in the back of your fridge, you’d imagine you could still smell it weeks later, even after giving your kitchen a nice bleach flambe. It’s about how kids live where their parents do, whether it’s next to a toxin-emitting mill or a prison; it’s not a great conspiracy, just a fact of life. It’s about the idea one hears lofted, sometimes, that anything is okay as long as one’s creating jobs. It wasn’t much of a surprise, once it was written, to find I had a little trouble finding it a home. But then I found myself at Norwescon on a panel where someone asked where my inspiration came from. I told the above anecdote and my friend, Derryl Murphy, who happened to be in the audience, said I should send it to On Spec.
“It’s too long,” I replied automatically. (Their word limit, then as now, is 6000 words.)
“Tell ’em I said it was okay,” Derryl said, and the eventual result was that the story appeared in their Summer 2003 issue.
“What Song the Sirens Sang” was commissioned by Xtra West, Vancouver’s queer newspaper, a couple of years ago. The paper was doing a special issue on the future of the local community and the Davie Village, which is where most of the local bars, Little Sisters bookstore, and the paper itself are based. As they were planning, someone asked: what if we get an SF writer to do a story? So the paper’s editor, Robin Perelle, reached out, and we agreed I’d write them a piece.
During the time prior to all this, there had been a couple gatherings–birthday parties, mostly–where the idea of a small group of friends potlucking its way through a disaster had been bandied about. All in fun, you understand. Nobody took it seriously, nobody built a bunker or hoarded food or actually tried to plan. It was one of those in-jokes that come up: Muffy will figure out how to sterilize water, Buffy will run the goat farm, Tuffy will learn to make brick walls, and so on. For this story, I imagined a global-climate-change-meets-falling-human-fertility type of eco-disaster, and then elevated the Potluck of the Apocalypse from a joke into a necessity-mothered creation. In this story, the world we know lives on only in remnants, and one of those is this thriving community of tough old queers from my age cohort.
I further imagined that this queer community, despite the ongoing need to put survival first, would maintain some of our important cultural traditions, even as it continued to embrace people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or genetic mutation.
When I write about activist communities, I tend to celebrate what I like best in them: the way people can act in solidarity, the way these actions sometimes bring victory. I skip the endless tedious meetings, the drama, the arguing over semantics, the people who threaten to quit whenever something doesn’t go their way, the exhaustion, the burnout, and the soul-crushing defeats. “What Song the Sirens Sang,” (much like my more recent story, “The Cage“) is a rose-colored view of a complex and often fractious group process. It is grassroots activism dressed in its holiday best. These stories are about the times when everyone shows up, pulls together, and where–collectively and as individuals–we really are the people we imagine ourselves to be.
This story’s comparatively recent, which means I remember quite a few of the initial sparks for “Five Good Things about Meghan Sheedy” when I wrote it in 2004.
First, I was developing the (loosely) standardized critique style that I now I use for most of my UCLA Extension Writers’ Program classes. I had settled on a ‘rule’ for myself that no matter where a student was at, craftwise, I would find at least five positive things to say about every story submitted for workshop. Five things. It’s arbitrary, I know, but it ensures that everyone gets a comparable amount of encouraging feedback, and that I’ve identified a few good things they can build on. When your students never see you face to face, when you’re just keystrokes on teh Internets, the being positive up front component of critique is even more important than when you’re in the room together.
As teaching discipline, it has worked out well, and I still do it with Creating Universes, Building Worlds, Writing the Fantastic, and most other classes. (Novel Writing II has been a different kettle of fish.)
So… five good things. The fact that it was a fixed number snagged on something in my writerbrain. It occurred to me that there could be aliens with whom something like this was an actual custom. A lot of cultural things are arbitrary in some way or another; the answer to “Why?” is often “That’s just how we do it.”
Another second component of the story was Meghan’s temper. I’d had the opportunity to closely observe someone who was going through some really difficult things, and went through a stage of dealing with it by biting off the heads of everyone within hearing range. I’m more of a conflict avoider, so it was on my mind.
As for how this evolved into a squid story… well. I had been reading a good deal about the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the Sixties, and thinking about proxy wars, and how it might look if two offworld powers started kicking Earth around in some fashion. I thought of setting it in the same universe as the Slow Invasion stories, further on down the timeline, but that Earth has a dense offworlder population that considers our mudball home, and those individuals wouldn’t go anywhere just because a war busted out, and I didn’t want them added into this particular stew. They didn’t quite fit. So, despite the fact that the two universes have similarities (offworlders who are far more advanced than us, exploiting their supremacy) I decided they couldn’t be lumped together.
Later, as I wrote more squid stories, especially the ones about Ruthless, it became apparent to me that “Meghan Sheedy” probably takes place late in the Proxy War–the U.S. is the last country of any significance to fall to the Fiends, who work their way from the Mexican border to Canada. (We fold like the paper kitten we are, maybe five minutes after they get here. Ten if they stop for coffee.) Since this story takes place in Seattle and Seattle’s near the border, the geography makes that much apparent. But those were decisions I made later; in the meantime, I was imagining the Seattle I know, the familiar skyline pocked with Dust craters while ordinary twenty-first century peeps tried to cope with bombing and the destruction of their way of life, with occupation and collaborators and the danger of constant surveillance by both sides.
This is, essentially, a post about where I get my ideas.
In the months when I was gearing up to attend Clarion West in 1995, I spent most of my writing time on short mysteries, because I was hoarding my SF ideas. As a result, I got to Seattle with a healthy little clutch of index cards jammed with scribblings. One had notes on an image I’d had, of teenaged human girls caught in the midst of a fashion fad: they were wearing the four-armed coats made for members of a race of aliens, half a million of whom had come to live on Earth as refugees. I imagined one of those aliens, also female, watching them through a window, and trying to make sense of the behavior.
I wrote the story at Clarion. In various incarnations it was called “Voice of Reason,” and “Sotto Voce.” It was long and imperfect and dear to my heart; I think it was the first time it really occurred to me that even a nice fictional character might lie, might promise to do one thing and then go in an entirely different direction. It also had some thorny, autobiographical stuff. I’d never attempted that before either.
I never got “Sotto Voce” into anything approaching submission readiness–having gone to Clarion to experiment, I came home with a number of unviable mutants–but a passing reference in that story to a second alien race, the Nandieve, spawned “The Dark Hour.” Its main character is a young human pilot, Oriole. Like those girls with their four-armed winter coats, he’s embraced otherness; he sees the Nandi as a wiser, more sophisticated and more powerful culture than the one he was born into. When his ship gets hijacked, he ends up on the Nandi homeworld, which affords him a closer look at their best and worst qualities. Basically a rose-colored glasses go smush type of thing.
The story was initially published in Tesseracts 8, which was edited by John Clute and Candas Jane Dorsey. It came out in 2006 and I’d have sworn it was the first of the stories set in this universe to see print. (The Internet Speculative Fiction DB says otherwise.) It was definitely one of the earliest of the batch in terms of when I actually wrote them. Here’s a snip:
Days after she rescued Brother, a black ball of feathers flailing in wet leaves, Momma was killed by a white riot cop. Her son divorced his species, changing his name to Oriole and taking the crow as his only family. An orphanage run by Momma’s church took them in, and he lived there in silence for two years. He didn’t say a word to another human, black or white, until Contact, the day that emissaries of seven alien races came to Earth, transmitting messages of friendship from their fragile, exquisite spaceships.
The nuns found him outside that night, face tilted to the stars, mumbling alien words. His voice was hoarse from lack of use–like Brother, he croaked.
“Yah Kurar. Sky’s calling,” he said, as Sister Beverly carried him to bed.
I took to calling this series “The Slow Invasion” because in this universe, Earth’s economy gets bound up, to humankind’s detriment, in the trade of bigger and more advanced cultures. Eventually, we’re no longer self-sufficient. There were four of them published, and a few false starts–“Sotto Voce,” of course, and at least one fragment I workshopped at Turkey City but never finished. Each was written as a stand-alone, and they aren’t as tightly interlaced as the squid stories. They’re unified by that idea of a well-established intergalactic community, with its treaties and alliances and a well-established economy, and how Earth might fare if we enter it as a latecomer.
“Ruby, in the Storm,” started with an image not unlike the one that led to “Sotto Voce.” This time, it was a human watching an alien, again through a window. The frame this time was a recurring visual from my childhood: a heavy, windless Alberta snowfall, a blizzard of irregular, pea-sized clusters of snowflakes, falling in impenetrable curtains. In these storms, the flakes stream down so slowly it seems possible they might hover, or even reverse direction. Air just below freezing, sound deadened by the sheer density of the gently falling precipitation… the world is hidden in a glow of amber from the street lights as the snow piles and piles and piles.
The inspiration for “A Slow Day at the Gallery,” meanwhile, came from a CBC Radio story I heard, about a B.C. First Nations tribe that was having to jump through hoops to get a museum in Europe to repatriate a stolen totem pole.
I wrote “The Spear Carrier” just after I’d joined a choir. I was in the process of learning the names of all sorts of exciting new people who’d just come into my life. Something about that experience got me to thinking about coming-of-age rites and naming and reinvention and, well, nametags. I’d discovered that I remember names better if I see them written down or, better yet, if I write them down myself. That led to my creating another offworld race, one with peculiar dueling laws and a complex naming ritual that ends with the celebrant getting a piece of ornate name-related jewelry that is their legal ID and their badge of adulthood.
I’ve been mostly wrapped up with novels in recent years, and a good deal of my short fiction energy lately has elsewhere. The squid stories fed off the Slow Invasion energy: I couldn’t quite imagine the Nandi and the Yeti and the rest getting involved in that particular civil war. (I sometimes think of the squid stories as the Fast invasion.) But I like these stories, and I’ve always had the idea that I’ll return to this universe again.
The individual introductions to short stories are one of my favorite things about reading single-author collections. The stories themselves are delightful in their own right, of course, but I love it when the author gives us an extra glimpse into what was going on when a given piece was written. It’s a little like getting to unwrap a high-end truffle; there’s an extra layer of ritual before one settles down to enjoy. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put a bit of that kind of love into the short fiction area of my site. What will accumulate, I expect, is a cluster of notes about the writing process, all tied to the various stories I’ve got sprinkled out and about the Web and in print.
This is my first foray into this territory–I hope you enjoy it.
“A Key to the Illuminated Heretic”
In 2001, I met Charles N. Brown at Norwescon and he asked me to start reviewing books for Locus. For the next three years I did four, five, even six books a month for the magazine–the ARCs flowed to my door, a glorious river of words. This was not long after I’d first encountered Harry Turtledove, and his unforgettable How Few Remain. I was in love with alternate history. I inhaled the series spawned by How Few Remain, and the Worldwar series. Happily, none of the other Locus reviewers seemed inclined to wrestle me for the AH, so for a couple of glorious years I didn’t just get my Turtledove fix. I got it all: Kurt R.A. Giambastiani’s awesome The Year the Cloud Fell saga, Steven Barnes’ Lion’s Blood, Hannibal’s Children by John Maddox Roberts… it was like falling into a cave full of pirate loot, literary doubloons for history nerds.
Naturally, all of this stimulated my writerbrain to start considering the prospect of writing some AH of my own, which in turn drew me back to one of my oldest historical passions–Joan of Arc. I started reading, and noodling, and reading some more. Maybe twenty history books later, I had a fine amateur-historian grasp on Joan’s short personal history, a reasonable grip on that little slice of the Hundred Years War, and the perfect point of divergence. I didn’t have a hook though, or any kind of grasp of the story. I started it a few times… and abandoned those openers. A few of my best pieces have gone this way, with three or six or even twelve failed starts. Then again, some of those same failed starts have gone nowhere… at least so far.
Joan of Arc
As all this cogitation was taking place, Harry was producing books. Lots of them! Books, delicious books, and I was reading them all for Locus. As a result, I’d gotten to know Harry in that distant, online, ‘we’ll meet at a con one day, huh?’ way. One spring we were back-and-forthing about something, and he asked: would I like to submit something to Alternate Generals III? In six weeks?
With the fiery impetus of a short deadline and the ubercool prospect of writing for Harry dangling before me, I dropped everything and started scribbling. I wrote draft, longhand, over pots of mint tea at a vegetarian Indian place on the Drive; I wrote more at Mosaic Creek Park. I got “Heretic” drafted, workshopped, revised, rerevised and off just barely in time… and a week later, I got what was the fastest acceptance I’d ever had. (It may have been my first electronic submission: this was 2003, and things were still going out in hard copy a good deal of the time.)
As stories go, “Heretic” remains one of my personal favorites. At that point in my life, it was among the best things I’d ever written, and when I revisit it, I’m still satisfied with how it came off. I remember it as a breakthrough, as the first time I felt as though I’d brought off precisely the emotional effect I was striving for. The process of writing it was unique, too, because I had done all that research. It was a ludicrous amount of reading, considering that we’re talking about a 9,500 word novelette. But wow! Historical fiction sure feels easy when all the big facts you could possibly want have been poured into your brain, when they’re just waiting to spill out onto the page.
This is my ideal model for research now: read as much as I please on whatever’s interesting, and hope the noggin will be crammed full right when someone asks me for a story, NOW. It hasn’t happened again, not yet. I don’t mind the “I’m chugging along and now I suddenly I realize need to learn more about X,” model, but the sensation, with “Heretic,” was magical. It’s probably as close to omnipotence as anyone can hope to get.
Time passed, Alternate Generals III came out and “Heretic” got good reviews; it made the Nebula Preliminary ballot that year, and got shortlisted for the Sidewise Award. I have thought occasionally of writing a follow-up, at novel-length, set in a Jehanniste present, but I have never quite found the hook–I haven’t even gotten as far as a false start. So that idea is very much on the backburner.
Here’s a snippet:
Frontispiece: Joan of Arc stands chained in a horse-drawn wagon, wearing a black gown. Leaning against a pair of nuns, she seems almost to swoon. Her right arm is portrayed as bones without flesh. The horses’ ornate curls and gleaming teeth lend a ghastly note, and blackened angels border the image.
The scene is easily recognized: the Maid’s debilitation, the nuns, and especially the cloud of larks above serve to identify it as Joan’s journey to the trial that ended her 13-year imprisonment for heresy. It was at this “Exoneration Trial” that she encountered Dulice Aulon, the Jehanniste artist responsible for the holy pictures on which the codex illuminations are based.
“We mustn’t face the King in battle.” Joan had the light, clear voice of a young woman, even after her years in prison and the hard decade since her release. She’d asked one of the new archers, a girl of perhaps seventeen, to cut her hair, and a few broken strands of silver hair clung to her neck. The rest lay at her feet, bright in the glow of the dying fire.
“Not fight Charles?” Hermeland was incredulous. He was a badger of a man, with a dramatic, pointy face and remarkable speed with a sword. “We must turn his army back before it unites with the force of mercenaries coming up from Rome. If you can’t see that–”
“Can’t see it? Who ordered us to turn north, days before anyone knew the King had pursued us into Burgundy?”
“You–” he began, and as her brow came up he corrected, “your Voices.”