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.”
Tor.com’s Urban Fantasy spotlight continues and there are goodies on offer–if you post a comment here by Tuesday, you can win a grab bag of books (including, possibly, mine). There’s an editorial round table discussion on the heroes and heroines of paranormal romance, a story, “Olga,” by C.T. Adams and many other intriguing and delightful goodies.
I’ve spent this morning experimenting with my various electronic gadgets, by way of podcasting my own novelette for this TOR.COM spotlight. “The Cage” is eight thousand words long and takes over forty minutes to read, so naturally I did a few shorter dry runs, testing out bits and pieces of equipment. For one of these tests, I used the six-minute snippet that I read far and wide at Broad Universe Rapidfire Readings in 2009. That’s right, folks, I am finally making good on my promise to record and post the Indigo Springs sex scene. If you don’t mind a few spoilers or you’ve already read the book, you can listen to it by clicking here.
I do have a Rapidfire-sized snippet of Blue Magic, too, and I will post that in the not too distant. It’s not nearly as (cough) romantic.
It’s hot out. I live near a busy street, and I’ve had the windows shut as I made recordings, so that there wouldn’t be too much road noise. A side bonus of the fact that it’s ninety-plus degrees in my office is that the cats didn’t feel a need to contribute–Rumble, in particular, punctuated my last podcasting attempt rather ferociously.
Now I’m going to crack some windows and try to get this place ventilated before I venture out in search of library books and fresh fruit.
So much of my knowledge seems to come from the Twitterverse these days: I was flipping through the tabs on my browser yesterday when a SFWA tweet caught my eye. It had my name on it, and Cory Doctorow‘s and when I hit the link it gave me the happy news that Indigo Springs (and books by Cory, and Charles de Lint, and Karl Schroeder, and Robert Charles Wilson) are up for the Sunburst Award in the adult category.
Congratulatory messages started coming in about twenty seconds later. I’ve tried to answer them all; if I missed you somehow, thank you! I am excited, thrilled, and frankly boggled to be on any list with these guys. A laundry list would be amazing–though, admittedly, weird. A short list? Wow.
I feel awash in good things at the moment, actually. I’m taking it as a memo from the Universe, to the effect that good things, like crappy ones, sometimes come in bunches. Response to the first Journey interview, with Louise Marley, has been very positive and pleasing, for example, and I am lining up the next interview even now. Moving to the realm of personal satisfaction with the whole writing process, I have been working this week on what I expect to be the final edit (before it goes off to the agent, that is) of Daughters of Zeus … and I am sincerely pleased with it. It’s gone from the scabby feral draft stage to something quite limber and pleasing.
And while my cup is runnething over, I’d also like to announce that my urban fantasy novelette, “The Cage,” will be appearing on Tor.com next month as part of their Urban Fantasy spotlight. This was a thoroughly fun story to write and I hope you all enjoy it. Badger and Snuffy were kind enough to read an early draft of the piece–thank you both!
I hope to have a new short story announcement for you all very soon, but in the meantime my website is getting another revamp, and as I figure out how all this lovely WordPress stuff works and where I want to locate content, I’m also figuring out which of my online publications are still out there and available for interested readers.
Here’s the list, by venue:
“Five Good Things about Meghan Sheedy”
“The Town on Blighted Sea”
“What Song the Sirens Sang”
“A Key to the Illuminated Heretic”
“Faces of Gemini”
“Ruby, in the Storm”
“Origin of Species”
“The Dark Hour”
“Three Times Over the Falls”
“The Children of Port Allain“
What’s here represents about a third of my published stories–there’s a list at Wikipedia.