Story intro: “A Key to the Illuminated Heretic”

Posted on July 10, 2010 by

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.”

Urban Fantasy Spotlight and a hint of smut…

Posted on July 9, 2010 by

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.

Memories served cold…

Posted on July 8, 2010 by

As I write this it’s Wednesday afternoon, three-ish, and the living room thermometer claims it’s about 85 degrees indoors. I am alternating bursts of work with little forays into emptying out our fridge and packing away the perishables in temporary cool storage. All this because kelly-yoyoKelly and I bought a new fridge about a month ago; between one thing and another, it is only just arriving today… sometime between four in the afternoon and bedtime.

I am thus trying to find the perfect balance between having to empty an entire fridge if the guys arrive early with taking the food out and then having to wait so long that, even in coolers, it melts. All while keeping enough of the kitchen clean to accomplish dinner.

The new fridge is black, energy-efficient, and a hair bigger than its predecessor, a lowend GE model with no Energy star rating whatever, chipped paint, two decades of accumulated grime, busted crisper drawers and assorted condensation/mildew issues. Since I’m allergic to mold, I’m thrilled to be rid of the thing on that count alone!

I am pretty sure I have never cohabited with a fridge that wasn’t on the old and wheezy side. The Moldebeast is the only fridge I’ve even owned.

The landlords of my youth, not surprisingly, favored disastrously cheap appliances. I can remember a weeks-long battle to convince our first BC landlord that food was rotting in our fridge overnight. He’d have kept fake-fixing that one forever while we fought food poisoning, if I hadn’t taken advantage of its single working feature–beautiful, well-oiled casters. I slammed it into the wall repeatedly one afternoon, until the various non-working bits were too busted up to sustain the game of pretend. The guy then got us a reconditioned fridge which was large and flesh colored and heroic and functional; we named it Cyrano.

Shortly after that we moved on to Chez Frank, whose freezer was supposed to be self-defrosting. It wasn’t, and so we had Frank up every six months or so to pull it out from the wall and power-thaw the bits we couldn’t reach. Since Frank sincerely cared and kept it working, we lived with it.

The first fridge I remember was in the house in Bonnyville. These rocks lived on it–they are rocks my grandmother Maudie picked up in the Nevada desert. She then cut, polished and glued them to tragically weak magnets. I am sentimental about them; I think the three-toned one looks like a lake with ice on it, and I cannot tell you how many hours I spent watching them all lose the war with gravity, sliding down to the floor.

That fridge handle, in Bonnyville, had a wicked sharp edge; just a little rasp of metal that would reach out to snag clothes or your arm. One of those dumb things, a pain, but not worth doing anything about. We all scraped ourselves on it at one time or another.

Anyway, cruising toward a point, I swear: as a tween, I had the job of clearing the dishes after dinner, and one night I was multitasking, by which I mean putting away food and, simultaneously, scrapping with my sister. I have no idea what we were arguing about or what was said, but soon enough she was lunging at me. This I remember as M coming at me in a classic X-men Wolverine lunge: body canted, head low (and of course she didn’t have claws like that).

I was opening the fridge door anyway, but I gave it a bit more arm. Malice aforethought: it’s embasassing to admit to premeditation, all these years later. I figured she’d hit the flat part and bounce. Haha, argument over.

Or… not! Instead of bouncing like a wacky cartoon animal, poor Sib cracked her bean open on the sharp bit of the fridge door. Chaos ensued. The magnets probably all hit the floor, but between the spray of blood, the screaming, and the sudden mustering of a Trip to ER, I don’t remember that. Three stitches later, the wound was sufficient to leave a small vertical scar right in the center of her forehead. Did I mention that my father nigh faints at the sight of blood? Yeah, it was a fun night.

So. Not one of my shining childish moments of humanity. However, I am a better person now and as proof I will point out that I did not name this post, despite strong temptation, “Fridge over troubled daughters.” (And if you read this, M–Oh! Still damned sorry about that! I cringe when I think of it!)

Ahem. Grandma’s fridge was green and had its own collection of fridge-rocks. Plus it was magic! You could find Hostess Ding Dongs and kid-sized cans of sarsaparilla soda in it.

Naked Brunch

Posted on July 7, 2010 by

This past Sunday, after the usual coffee-and-cookie outing at Calabria, kelly-yoyoKelly and I hit the Vancouver Art Gallery to see The Modern Woman: Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

It wasn’t quite a hit and run visit, but we didn’t linger either. The point of having a VAG membership, for me, is to go often and to leave as soon as my brain fills up or my feet get sore. I’d say we took the first two-thirds of the exhibit in at a leisurely pace and the remainder at a brisk walk.

I had been prepared to be underwhelmed: travelling exhibits are a mixed bag, and the fact that this one was all drawings suggested, to me, wall after wall of tiny scribblings and little else. I want variety, and I like big stuff, with lots of color. I’m glad to report that I was wrong-so-wrong on this apprehension. There were sketches aplenty, of course, and some of them were indeed miniscule. But there were glorious big pastel pieces too, colorful, rich and satisfying. The overall mix had a good deal of variety.

As is often true, wherever you go, the most interest was to be had from the people. Early on, we came into a good-sized room and confronted the word NUDE, emblazoned on the wall, in letters one and a half feet high. NUDE was accompanied by a short paragraph which discussed how artists had moved from depicting their nude models as idealized Greek goddesses (and other babes of the Classics) to doing portraits of real women, with flesh and wrinkles and fat rolls. These subjects were, increasingly, engaged in bathing and dressing and other types of private, thoroughly unethereal activity.

The walls, of course, were covered in nude sketches. And about ten steps behind me, half-a-room ahead of their adult escort, were an eight and ten year old girl.

They were visibly discomfited to be standing in a big room full of adults–maybe six men and eight women–all in contemplation of womanly nakedness. They also seemed to know it wasn’t cool to be uncomfortable. So instead of shrieking with laughter and running for the door, they kind of gabbled inarticulately. Then they gravitated, all in a rush, to an image by Paul Albert Besnard, of a woman with a peacock feather fan. Her back is to the viewer, with no breast exposed, and the fan itself covers her butt crack. Very demure. Very lovely, too, by the way–I liked it.

“This one’s okay,” the older girl said; she seemed relieved.

sketch by Paul Albert Besnard

Right next to the Besnard was a sketch of a girl of seven or eight years, face on to the viewer. I’d been stopped by that one. Images of older-than-infant kids without their clothes on aren’t something I encounter much. My assumption is that today’s artists aren’t making many these days, especially if they need models, for fear of getting arrested for making porn. (Is that so? I don’t actually know.)

So I was processing this and waiting to see what the girls made of it, this image of a girl essentially their age, staring at the viewer, starkers. Then their adult turned up and swept them on to an image of a woman with a robe over her chest. End scene.

Two galleries on, a six-ish boy asked his male adult, “Where’s the Mona Lisa?”

“Not here,” was all the reply he got.

So… kids in museums. Eavesdropping on the girls left me with that sand in my oyster shell feeling, that tickle of Hmmm, what, exactly?

I am certainly not one to think kids shouldn’t be exposed to nudes in art, or that museums should rate shows–PG, PG13, R, can you imagine it! I would argue it’s impossible to ensure a young person won’t experience any number of moments of alienation from or disconnection with the adult world throughout their growing years. You can probably all remember times when you bumped up against realities that were inexplicably adult and alien, whether they were from the sexual realm or elsewhere.

But I felt for this particular pair of girls as they coped with that awkward moment.

The exhibit being all about women, the whole thing felt eerily meta, too. Here we had two young proto-women, taking in what a bunch of mostly male Euro-painters thought femininity was, a couple centuries ago. Meanwhile, a feminist blogger was spying on them.

I didn’t reach any useful conclusions. I’ll go back and look at the room again, and peoplewatch some more. At some point, maybe, the oyster-itch will find its way into a story or book. That’s part of how it works for me. In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Speaking of VAG, localfolk, they are in the process of trying to get a new space–it has room to display a trifling 3% of its collection, and no lecture space. They have a site explaining the issues here, which goes on to say how we-all can support the move to the old bus parkade at Georgia and Cambie.