“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.
First, an exciting contest announcement: Favorite Thing Ever is giving away a copy of Indigo Springs. Entering is easy: surf here, leave a comment, and you’ll be in the running to win. No skill testing questions are involved.
Speaking of skill-testing, I am embarking on a new novel this morning.
I had been thinking to write a couple more squid stories, to go with the three already published and the two that are about to hit the market. However, after a couple of weeks of thrashing around the Battle of Las Vegas, I’ve conclusively determined that my head’s not currently in the Proxy War. So, as an experiment, I switched over to detailed planning on THE RAIN GARDEN, my next mystery project. Things clicked immediately. Presto, plotto, kazam!–I have an outline.
My plan as of two weeks ago had been to blast through a very rough draft of this book in November, as a Nanowrimo thing. Barring fire, flood and the common cold, I find that two thousand words a day for thirty days (less a couple days off) is a pretty sustainable pace for me. But since I’m ready now I’m darnwell gonna start now, keeping the end-of-November finish date but moving at more of a 900-word daily target. That will leave time for days off, a visit to Alberta, and Orycon.
I like the sustained push-push-focus of Nanowrimo, but it does tend to leave me bug-eyed and gibbering well into December. And there’s no reason to hold off if I’m ready to write the book now.
So, hey! What are all of you working on this autumn?
“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.
Here’s a snippet and a link: I hope you all enjoy it.
The eerie thing about Paige Adolpha wasn’t just that she turned up right when I was reading about her in the paper. It wasn’t her fame as the star witness in the big local werewolf trial. What brought on the gooseflesh, first time I saw her, was that she was the spitting image of her murdered sister. Identical twins, you know?
The story is part of the Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy spotlight at TOR.COM, and here is a handy index of everything posted so far.
By all rights today’s photo should be of East Vancouver, which is where this story is set. But this shot of Coal Harbor is classic summer Vancouver, in a part of town and from a point of view I don’t get often. It’s also ever so slightly shiny and new because the convention center, in the background, hasn’t been there that long. Even once it was built we couldn’t get near it, because of Olympics-related security. Since the fences came down, you can walk all the way from Canada Place to Stanley Park along the water.