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.