Friday, March 02, 2007

"Miniature" - by Peter Friend

In 2005, Orson Scott Card came over to Wellington to run a two-day writing workshop immediately before iCon, the New Zealand National Science Fiction Convention, and I was lucky enough to attend. Our overnight writing exercise forced us out onto the streets to look for story ideas, and my writing partner and I found ourselves interviewing an elderly train enthusiast at the library. Oddly, he didn't seem all that interested in trains in general, yet at the same time clearly felt strong emotional links to trains he remembered.

As a science fiction writer, this struck me as a charmingly human foible, ideal to confuse any visiting alien anthropologists. As a model maker, the idea of model trains appealed - both more practical to write about than real trains, of which I knew little, and of course model trains are themselves symbols of real trains. Now I had a theme going. A story about symbols, miscommunication and misunderstanding. Perhaps a comedy.

But as I lay in bed that night, thinking about a possible plot (I do much of my best writing half-asleep at midnight), I realized I wanted more than two bewildered sentient creatures arguing with each other. Sure, we use things around us as symbols, as links to other things. But is that really so uniquely human? After all, Pavlov's famous dog understood perfectly well that a bell wasn't edible, merely a symbol of an expected actual meal. Why shouldn't aliens understand symbols too? Perhaps even better than we do.

By the time I woke up, I had a much deeper plot in mind - still with the alien anthropologist and the human interviewee, but now their misunderstandings were more subtle, and they had more in common than either realized. "Miniature" began there, as a hundred or so words scribbled on an index card during breakfast.

The synopsis was well received by the other workshop attendees, but wasn't yet a story. I knew Tom was an old man, using his model railway to remember his wife, but nothing else about him. Where did he live? What was his personality? What was the alien like? How did it communicate? What should each say out loud, and what should they actually mean? Would the story include other humans, other aliens? What was the relationship between humanity and the visiting aliens? Would the story take place over weeks, days, or just a few minutes? And oh, the historical research - what sort of trains rolled along New Zealand's railway tracks in the 1960s?

A dozen rewrites and many months later, I was finished. Naturally IGMS had to be my first choice of market.

Trivia note on the railway station names - "pumahara" is the Maori word for "memory", and "paenga kore" means "infinity". Not that either Tom or the alien know that, but I think they'd both appreciate the irony…

1 comment:

Juliette Wade said...

Now, this is the kind of story I can get jazzed about. I love subtle misunderstandings. And I'll say this explanation is going to be sending me to my newly-purchased issue with an eye out for "Miniature," despite the fact I have virtually no time for reading!