Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Smell of the Earth - by Joan Savage

I started writing “The Smell of the Earth” one day when I needed a break from the novel I was working on. I had been exploring, in the novel, how music affects those who play it, as well as those who hear it. So the Jongleurs and their world and their history were already deeply engrained in me, and the problem of music was chasing itself around inside my head.

I had been working on something so large-scale, with such huge problems facing the characters, that I really wanted to play with something more intimate, where the character only had one dilemma to face, one problem to tackle. But the novel was still stuck in my head. I kept mulling over the danger of how music could make its listeners happy but how that power, in the wrong hands, could be turned and used for something quite the opposite of happiness. So I began to wonder. What if another Jongleur had the same musical power as the main character in my novel, but he didn’t have her level of commitment to something beyond himself? What would a fundamentally good but self-centered man do with a power he didn’t see as dangerous? And that was when the protagonist, the Jongleur of this story, stepped onto the stage, and I met him for the first time.

When I write, I feel like I meet characters, not like I create them. It’s as if they already exist without me, and it’s through the process of writing about them that I learn to know them. So this story really began, for me, when I met this Jongleur.

He was sitting in the bar, mourning his dead wife, and I just happened to overhear a wizard ask him what he wanted. Which was exactly the question I wanted to ask him, so I suppose the wizard was doing my work for me. And because I’m a musician I guess I can confess that the Jongleur’s longing for greatness was my longing, at one point in my life (though I’m happy to say it’s not any more!). And his fear is the greatest fear of most of my musician friends—the fear of losing the use of a hand, or a finger, and being unable to play. I think the fear is deeper than the loss of livelihood. I think it’s a fear of silence—the silence of being unable to say the things you need to say.

I wish I could say that, once I had the initial concept and had met the characters, the story wrote itself. (I wish I could say any of my stories wrote themselves!) I knew from the beginning that the farmer’s young wife had traded away the farmer’s favourite pig, but it took me a long time before I knew what she had traded the pig for. (I read somewhere—I’m sorry I don’t remember where—that you should always take the third or fourth answer to a question you ask the story—never take the first answer. I have long lists of possible answers to story questions from this story.) As I wrote, the farmer kept asserting himself and developing a life and problems of his own, until he became a much more important character, and much more interesting to me, than I had originally intended. His life in some ways began to mirror the life of the Jongleur—or at least enough that the Jongleur began to see it that way, and learn empathy.

I have to confess that the wizard and her motivations remained a mystery to me long after I thought the final draft of this story was done. I didn’t find her interesting and, I have to admit, didn’t spend as much time thinking about her as I should have. It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me that she needed a motivation more real than the stock motivation I had assigned her that I went back to the story and began to see the wizard as a three-dimensional character. So I sat down and asked her the questions—who are you and why are you doing this? And I not only learned her story, I also discovered that, if I ever go back to explore this historical period of the Jongleurs’ world, she is probably the character I would most like to follow around and write about.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Unrhymed Couplets of the Universe - by Sharon Shinn

"The Unrhymed Couplets of the Universe" was one of those stories that just comes together for you when the disparate elements of ordinary life suddenly crystallize into a recognizable pattern. My sources were wildly different conversations and interactions I'd had over two or three months with a handful of different people. My friend Mark had been forwarding me junk emails with bizarrely lovely nonsense subject lines. (I quote actual emails in the story, as well as Mark's comments about poetry, which is why I named a character Mark). My friend Laurie had been complaining how her house steals objects from her (in one week, her cell phone charger, her iPod, and her checkbook). My brother Ray had explained how such thefts could be remotely possible, given what we know about quantum physics. I had been in a seminar where the ringtone on a stranger's cell phone was Pachelbel's "Canon." I had recently re-set my mother's engagement diamond into a filigreed white gold ring.

I so often write alternate-world fantasy that I don't get much chance to draw on the mundane details of everyday life when I'm putting together a story. Maybe I enjoyed writing this one so much because all the elements were so familiar. When I read it at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, someone in the audience asked me if I'd just looked around my house to find the objects I'd described. I admit, I own boxed sets of the first couple seasons of "Moonlighting"…and a purple sweater…but no turtle…

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"After This Life" by Janna Silverstein

The first germ of this story was planted when I saw a news piece about a prison inmate named Tommy Silverstein. He’s no relation of mine (though the fact of our identical surnames certainly drew my curiosity), but he is the longest held prisoner in total solitary confinement in America, possibly the world, maintained at a supermax prison in Colorado. I was fascinated and horrified by every angle of the story. It led me to try to learn more about him and other prisoners, to read the online diaries of solitarily confined and death row inmates, and to think deeply about how I felt about such treatment.

The second germ of this story came out of the fact that I am an unrepentant fan of Star Trek and have been interested in the idea of teleportation for years. I always wondered, among other things, where the developer of such technology would find human test subjects.

The last germ came from a challenge that writer Michael Heibert and I posed to each other, to write a story in which a coin played a prominent part. I wrote the first draft of this story with these three ideas in mind. I didn’t go into it with the idea that a parent-child relationship would play any role in the story at all. That theme, however, crops up again and again in my writing. I have learned to let it be, so once that element appeared, I knew it was there to stay.

It was science fiction writer Michael Burstein who led me to reading more thoroughly about the theory behind real teleportation. If I was going to write science fiction, he insisted (and quite wisely), the science had to be there. Part of me rebelled; I just wanted to write the story, dammit, and not bother myself with all that pesky research. He was right, of course. The reading was fascinating. In the end, the horror of what I discovered—that every teleportation would be a death—took me that last step toward making this story what it ultimately became when I submitted it to IGMS. Edmund’s insightful revision requests made me think about who would be willing to sacrifice lives to develop such technology.

Friends who read early drafts criticized my softening the details of prison life, suggested that I’d made Jake too smart, too sensitive, too sympathetic. But if I learned anything by reading all those inmate diaries, it’s that prisons are full of people who are intelligent, articulate, sensitive, and very sharp. It’s a frightening thing to consider: that people who share characteristics that we on the outside value highly are incarcerated for committing acts that we could never conceive of committing ourselves. This is the line between us, and it’s a fine one indeed. It wasn’t my intention to diminish the horror of what such people have done with their own hands. It was one of my goals, however, to find the animal commonality between us, to consider what it means to look into the abyss and the possibility of coming out the other side. To suggest that Hell may be what we create for ourselves rather than anything supernatural. If I haven’t dwelled on the details of prison life, if they don’t appear harsh enough, and if I haven’t espoused one position or the other on the question of capitol punishment, well, these issues aren’t really the point of the story.

I didn’t decide to deal with Louisa’s spirituality until very late in the writing process. By the second-to-last draft (and this story went through more drafts than almost anything else I’ve ever written), I found myself wondering if the story shouldn’t have been told from her point of view. Ultimately, she changes more than Jake does. On the other hand, I wanted very much to be inside Jake’s head when the teleportation started, when he faced his own end in the wake of the deaths he caused, to see where his thoughts might lead, to feel the process as it occurred.

If I hope readers come away with anything from “After This Life,” it’s that they find themselves wondering about the costs of technology to our own humanity. It’s also that they find an awareness of how fragile our lives are, how our choices rest on an edge fine and wicked as a paper cut, and ultimately to find some kind of compassion for the people around them, each one being faced with the same decisions moment by moment every single day.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Braiding - by Pat Esden

I believe that in every profession there are moments when a person stops using logic, truly focuses on their work and acts automatically in a sort of hypnotic state--a state of magic.

It was with this notion in mind that I decided to write a series of fantasy tales about women artisans. Glassblowing, with its intrinsic beauty and connection to alchemy (and because it was an art I knew nothing about) felt like the perfect place to begin. Besides, I was quite sure there had to be more to the art form than sticking a blob of molten glass on a pipe and blowing.

Research is where I began my search for the details of setting and character that I needed to take my story seed and make it blossom. I knew nothing about the history of glass, but I quickly uncovered fascinating details that were beyond anything that I could have created out of thin air.

I don’t want to spoil the story, but I was totally unprepared for the similarity between the freedoms modern day women enjoy and those experienced by woman glassblowers during the early years of the Venetian Republic. Actually, I was shocked to discover women could become master glassblowers. The opportunities available to these women glassblowers (or women fortunate enough to belong to glass blowing families) exceeded those available to other women and most men. They could marry a man of any level of society--even royalty, they were more highly educated than most men . . . but these benefits and freedom came at a cost.

Because glass was the foundation of the Venetian Republic economy, no glassblower could ever leave the boundaries of the Venetian Republic or they would be assassinated out of fear that the secrets of working glass could fall into another country’s hands.

This research into glass working and Venice’s past gave me my main character: Iseau, a creative woman both liberated and imprisoned.

Now that I had the time period and the main character I moved on to learning about the art itself.

Armed with a newly learned and very basic idea of how glass is worked and a mental list of questions I wanted to ask, I drove to Waterbury Vermont where Ziemke Glassblowing Studio is located. By this time, I knew I wanted my main character to make a heart, so that was my first question. Can it actually be done? I also wanted to know things you can’t learn in books: what the furnace’s heat feels like, how much do the tools weigh, how balanced does the pipe feel in your hand? I wanted to watch the glass blower’s movements, see which muscles he used. How strong would Iseau have to be? Would she still appear feminine? Did the work require an assistant . . . little details that make a story come to life.

In my short visit to Ziemke Glassblowing I learned more than I ever could have ever hoped for.

Glassblower, Terry Pagel was working that day. He is not only an amazing artist, but also has a true love of his craft and is a vault of knowledge. He talked about the history of Venetian glassblowing from an insider’s point of view, about early alchemy used to create clear class and other early trade secrets. But beyond that, he gave me a glassblower’s perspective on how writers often misrepresent glassblowing to a laughable degree. Then he did the most amazing thing: he and his assistant created a heart from molten glass while I watched.

I left with my mind overflowing with ideas. Five minutes into my drive home, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I pulled my car over to the side of the road and I wrote the glassblowing scene for “The Braiding”. Watching and talking to Terry Pagel put me into a writer’s “state of magic” and at the same time had allowed me to feel (as much as a non-glassblower can) like I was actually holding the tools and feeling the heat.

So if the history in “The Braiding” feels true and what happens when Iseau takes up her tools feels right, it’s because to a great extent they are accurate. And personally, I like to think that the magic in the story is nothing more than a magnification of what any person experiences when they focus on their chosen profession, relax and let their mind slip into a hypnotic state.

Here’s a link to Ziemke Glassblowing Studio—enjoy.

You can find another of my woman artisan tales, “Suck of Clay, Whir of Wheel,” at AnthologyBuilder

Friday, January 04, 2008

Silent As Dust - by James Maxey

I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, in a little house on Courtland Road that was full of hidden rooms. Most adults probably wouldn't have been aware of these rooms; they were really just gaps and spaces leftover by architectural flourishes. For instance, above the front door of the house, there was a little gable in the roof with a window in it. The gable was purely decorative. But, in the attic, where the roof sloped down, there was a paneled wall about a yard high. If you pulled off one of the panels, there was a wedge-shaped crawlspace where my mother used to store Christmas decorations. If you wriggled inside onto the plywood floor, then crawled along it until the plywood ended, you could continue along the rafters until you reached the little gabled room with the window. It couldn't have been more than a yard wide and deep, maybe four feet tall at the midpoint. There were loose boards across the rafters that formed a place to sit. This tiny forgotten room was useless space for any adult, but for a young kid, it was a top-secret clubhouse.

This wasn't the only secret place. There was a pretty cool cave under the basement stairs. There was also the kitchen table with the drop down leaves. With those down and chairs at the ends of the table, it was a practically a fortress. I can still recall being able to crawl under beds, or climb inside kitchen cabinets. The world just offers more spaces for children than adults.

All these hidden spaces were in a little two bedroom house. I haven't been back as an adult, but, if you didn't count the basement and attic (which weren't heated), I'm guessing the whole house was maybe 900 square feet. Growing up, however, it felt like an enormous kingdom that was forever yielding some new secret. I remember digging in the dirt near the front porch and finding a little plastic army man. An archeologist pulling a golden cup out of the sands of Egypt couldn't have been as happy.

"Silent as Dust" has its origins in those childhood explorations. There's a mansion a mile away from me in Hillsborough called "Seven Hearths" that's reported to be haunted, so I loosely based "Seven Chimneys" upon it. And, like the town of Seven Chimneys in the story, Hillsborough is a city where a core of large houses downtown give way to old mobile homes and tin-roofed houses just a few blocks away. I myself live in the tin-roof and mobile home district, in a cinderblock house about 900 square feet in size. I actually have a conventional roof, with a decorative gable above the front door. In the attic, there's a panel that can be pulled aside, revealing the rafters beyond.

Alas, I've never ventured into that dark, narrow crawl space to discover if the tiny gable holds its own secret room. I'm 6'2" and some of the useful spaces of my childhood would be extremely uncomfortable to explore.

Still, I sometimes wonder about that space, and whether any children ever discovered it. If I were ever to crawl into it, I would discover some childhood treasure? Perhaps a green plastic army man, forever standing sentinel over a forgotten kingdom?