The Muse Plagues Me

From a newsgroup post dated December 16, 2009:

And here’s another idea I didn’t need — suppose there’s a secret government project that’s opened portals to other realities, maybe on purpose, maybe accidentally. The other realities are inhabited by humans, or at least creatures indistinguishable from humans, who appear to have a lower tech level than ours — or at least a different tech level.

Our guys want to know what’s going on in these other worlds, but they don’t want to interfere, they don’t want to start any wars, and they’re not ready to make any direct, open contact; for one thing, they want to know who they should contact. Who are the good guys over there? Who are the bad guys? Who’s gonna be trouble?

These are other realities — are the laws of physics the same? Close enough for humans to exist, but is everything the same?

Someone gets sent in to scout. This isn’t something you can trust to civilian contractors, and it’s not really the military’s job, and we aren’t ready for the State Department, so the CIA gets the call.

So we have a 21st-century CIA agent trying to blend in in a fantasy world…

The Muse Plagues Me (again)

From a newsgroup post dated September 23, 2009:

So I was going to post about a family legend in a discussion of privateering on rec.arts.sf.written, and thought better of it when I realized that it really is just a legend, we can’t document it at all — but then it occurred to me it’d make a pretty good basis for a story.

See, one of my ancestors was allegedly a Welsh privateer, but that may have just been a cover story for smuggling. (He wound up with a French wife, which seems more likely for a smuggler.)

And it only just now sank in that that could be a story set-up.

The Muse Plagues Me (again)

From a newsgroup post dated April 17, 2009:

I just watched the new trailer for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and thought they’d made the movie look unrelentingly dark. Which it may be. But that got me thinking about Dark Lords in general, and about their usual esthetics, which are pretty goth.

Ever notice that most goths are under thirty? They tend to outgrow it eventually.

So now I’m imagining a Dark Lord who’s conquered his world, and has been running it for a decade or so, who gets bored with all that darkness.

“Yes, General, I know I was the one who dressed your men in all-black uniforms. I don’t care. I’m tired of them. As of the first of the month I expect to see the troops in pastels. Now, send in my Imperial Architect — I want to talk about cutting more windows into my throne room, and I had better not hear another word about load-bearing walls.”

The Muse Plagues Me

From a newsgroup post dated March 26, 2009, and oddly relevant now as explained below:

I got invited to write a story for the next “Lace and Blade” anthology, and I’m giving it serious consideration because it looks like an ideal venue for a story set in the Bound Lands.

Except I didn’t actually have a short story planned. The Ermetian Jar isn’t going to be that short, and besides, it’s not really suited to the anthology.

I started thinking about possible tie-ins to the story of Anrel Murau, but nothing leapt to mind. I didn’t want to tell the story of how his parents died, and I didn’t think of a story set during his student days until right now. I wondered about maybe a story about the Burgrave of Lume, but didn’t have anything obvious to work with.

And then I realized that this might be the place to tell the tale of the murder of Lady Arissa Taline, which is referred to several times but never explained in detail (though there’s a brief, biased account in On A Field Sable).

Now, I’ve known for over a year how Lady Arissa died. I’ve known for months who killed her, and more or less why. I know how Lord Blackfield was involved. I didn’t, however, actually have it in my head as a story; it was just a nasty scandal that ended badly a year or two before the start of A Young Man Without Magic.

But once I had the idea of making it a short story, it started accumulating details. A LOT of details, very quickly. I now know exactly why Lady Arissa was killed, and why it happened the way it did, and what’s more I suddenly have a whole lot of backstory on Empress Annineia, and her childhood in Ermetia, and why she hired necromancers from the Cousins, and who the current King of Ermetia is, and why Prince Sharal behaved so badly, and why the murder was never investigated properly, and why the birth of Lurias XIII was such a big deal, and where the demons in Above His Proper Station came from…

The trick is going to be turning this into a short story.


June 12, 2017: And in the end, I couldn’t make it a short story. I got distracted, didn’t finish it, and missed the anthology deadline. It still isn’t finished, eight years later. The working title is “Fearless,” and I’ve forgotten a lot of stuff I talk about having thought out above.

I never did submit anything to Lace and Blade 2.

But last year I got an invitation for Lace and Blade 4, and was determined not to miss out this time. I dug out “Fearless,” looked at it, and couldn’t see any way to keep it to a reasonable length or include all the elements I thought the “Lace and Blade” series should have. If I ever do finish it, it could well wind up novella length.

So I dug out another unfinished story I thought might work, “The Dancing Teacher,” and labored on it for months before concluding that it wasn’t going to work, either.

And finally I started a new one, “Sorcery of the Heart,” which wound up a novelet, 8,500 words, but which did get finished and submitted. No idea whether it’ll be accepted; we’ll see.

All three stories, incidentally, were set in the Bound Lands. “Sorcery of the Heart” and “Fearless” are set in the Walasian Empire, while “The Dancing Teacher” takes place in the Cousins.

On the Perversity of the Muse

From a newsgroup post dated March 25, 2009:

I have lots of stuff in progress, and a shortage of time, so of course last night, was I working out plot details of Realms of Light, or perhaps considering finishing touches for Above His Proper Station?

Of course not. I was trying to remember all the details of “Tales of Sha’ar,” a collection of eight stories/vignettes I wrote in 1974, and wondering whether I could maybe actually turn some of them into publishable stories, now that I have thirty-five years more experience and know what I’m doing.

I’m pretty sure I still have the manuscript around here somewhere. Obviously not on disk, though.

I’ve tried to salvage these before, incidentally — they were incorporated into my abortive first attempt at a novel, Shadowdark, back in the ’70s. Didn’t work there, either.

Let’s see how many of the eight stories I can remember now…

“The Mansion of Lord Fire” — I remember the title and some of the descriptive passages, but not the plot — assuming it had one.

“How the Party Ended At Goldsand” I remember pretty well. I tried to recycle the central conceit in a different story in the 1980s, but never finished it.

“How Dal Fought the Death in the Palace of the Mute” is an absolutely dreadful title, but hey, I was nineteen. I remember most of that one.

Coming up blank on the other five. I think I had a couple more last night.

The Writing Life

From a newsgroup post dated February 10, 2009:

So I’m cleaning my office, trying to get it fit to allow prospective homebuyers in it, and this includes sorting through papers and filing or tossing most of them, so that’s what I’ve been doing this afternoon, and I’ve just now been going through a stash of story ideas — print-outs of Usenet and SFF Net posts, scribbled notes of one sort or another, sketchy maps, correspondence with editors about planned projects, etc.

And one of the scribbled notes is a story idea I had completely, totally forgotten, which has the potential to be an absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking story. How could I not have remembered that one?

Note, June 8, 2017: I haven’t forgotten it again, but I still haven’t written it, either.

The Wooden Heads

From a series of newsgroup posts dated July 14, 2008:

My mother’s parents were British. They wound up on this side of the Atlantic by accident when a series of flukes stranded my grandfather in Halifax, and they wound up in the U.S. when Halifax Harbor blew up and the closest place Grandpa could find work in his field (he was, at that point, a naval architect) was Baltimore. They did not come to America seeking a new life. They had no objection to anything in Britain. They only got here more or less by mistake, and would happily have gone back if circumstances had made it practical.

My mother therefore had a rather Anglophilic upbringing. Part of this — well, when she was a little girl in Chester, my grandmother loved a British children’s magazine called Chatterbox. Chatterbox was a monthly, and ran serialized stories, as well as a lot of other stuff, and always concluded every serial in the December issue. They would then take the original printing plates for all twelve issues and print a collected Chatterbox Annual, which was simply the twelve issues put together in hardcover. The Annuals made great Christmas presents for British kids.1925 Chatterbox Annual

And when they had finished printing the British annuals, the publisher shipped the printing plates to Boston, where an American publisher printed a U.S. edition of the Chatterbox Annual. I think it appeared one year after the British edition, rather than simultaneously.

When my grandmother discovered that the American edition existed, it became inflexibly ordained that my mother would receive the Chatterbox Annual every Christmas, starting at age two and continuing as long as they could be found.

Mother liked Chatterbox a lot, despite it being thoroughly British and a bit stodgy, and saved all those Annuals, and when she had her own kids we all got to read them. I liked them a lot. In particular, I liked some of the serials from the early 1920s — “Bushranger’s Gold,” “The Dim Red Dawn,” “Dragons At Home,” etc.

I sometimes wonder whether more people read these stories than is generally known. To me, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear looks a lot like “The Dim Red Dawn” with added sex and a lot more verbiage. Some of the ads for the movie “Night At the Museum” look like scenes from the last part of “Dragons At Home.”

“Bushranger’s Gold” (to name the example I best remember; there were others) starts out as a boarding-school story before sending the protagonist brothers off to adventure in the Australian Outback, so the school scenes in Harry Potter felt very familiar to me.

Nothing, however, looks like “The Wooden Heads,” my favorite Chatterbox story of all.

People sometimes ask me what the major influences on my writing are, and I usually cite several stories, but the fact is, the single work with the greatest influence was “The Wooden Heads.” It warped me for life.

The author’s name was C.L. Hales; as far as I’ve been able to determine, he only ever published two works under that name, “The Wooden Heads” circa 1924, and more than a decade later something I’ve never seen called, if I remember correctly, “Bats in the Belfry.” (Note, 2017: I have since acquired and read a copy of Bats in the Belfry; it was severely disappointing, as it’s a badly-dated attempt at socio-political humor.) There was apparently a book edition of The Wooden Heads, but I’ve never seen a copy and it appears to be quite rare. (I’d love a copy.)

So what’s it about?

The story opens with the Sidhill family awakening one morning in their home in London and discovering that the world is strangely quiet. Their own household — mother, father, five kids, housekeeper, dog — is completely intact, but everyone else in London has vanished.

They try to go on with normal life on the assumption that everything will right itself in time, but that gradually becomes less and less possible. What’s more, they find they’re being watched by mysterious creatures they dub “the wooden heads,” who are apparently responsible for the disappearances, and who are now trying to pick off the Sidhills, as well.Mr. Sidhill vs. the Wooden Heads

For the most part the story focuses on the two oldest Sidhill children, Rolfe and Chad, though their two sisters and their father get some attention. (The mother and baby are left utterly undeveloped, unfortunately, and the housekeeper’s few appearances are mostly comic relief; I think Tim, the dog, gets more attention.)

The Sidhills respond with English pluck, first figuring out how to defend themselves, and then going on the offensive, eventually defeating the Wooden Heads and bringing the rest of London back from limbo — but the story doesn’t end there; it follows through the aftermath, as the Sidhills try to convince the world what actually happened.

I loved that. I had never seen any other story where defeating the big menace wasn’t the end of the adventure. (I didn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” until a few years later.)

Another thing I loved was the changes in mood; “The Wooden Heads” is genuinely creepy in some scenes, funny in others, touching in others. The heroes are brave and clever but never superhuman; when I was eight I wanted to grow up to be Chad Sidhill. (Rolfe was a bit too cocky for me; Chad was the clever one.)

The thing is, no one outside my immediate family seemed to have ever heard of the story.

All my life, I’ve found that frustrating. I wanted to talk about the story with other readers! I wanted to share this treasure.

So many years ago, I began trying to track down its history, to find out whether there was some way to make it more widely known.

Before the net, getting information was almost impossible unless I wanted to devote far more time and money than it was worth. I made inquiries with used-book dealers. When I was in England in 1993 I did try to find out more, and couldn’t uncover much. I even tried to track down Hale’s heirs, completely without success. As the web has developed, I’ve periodically researched Hales and “The Wooden Heads,” with very little result.

Recently, though, I discovered that someone has transferred all the U.S. Copyright Office renewal records to electronic form — the Copyright Office itself never did this because they were never given the budget for it, but academic researchers tackled the job, and earlier this year the data finally came online.

I downloaded the entire database in late June, but at 380 megabytes of XML, I didn’t have the capacity to actually use it on Chloe.

Today, though, I’ve discovered that there are university webservers that can run a 380-meg database just fine, and they’re available to the public, so I’ve searched on “Chatterbox” and “Hales” and “Wooden Heads,” and have concluded that the copyright was never renewed.

“The Wooden Heads” is in the public domain in the U.S.

(Best evidence is that it’s still got about five years left in Britain, though.)

So — it’s public domain. I can do whatever I want with it. I have a copy of that Chatterbox Annual.

And the question, the reason I’m posting this, is: What should I do with it?

Why I Love My Wife Part 1,326

From a newsgroup post dated June 15, 2008, which I’m taking slightly out of sequence:

So I was mulling over possibly drastically rewriting a key scene in Sorcerer’s Justice, and I ran it past Julie, the only other person in the world who’s read the first draft of Sorcerer’s Justice, explaining the changes I was considering, and why.

She thought about it for a moment, then said, “It would cut down on the blood and gore.”

I agreed that it would.

That can’t be good,” she said.

Note: “Sorcerer’s Justice” was eventually published as A Young Man Without Magic.

Story Titles I Like But Will Probably Never Use

From a newsgroup post dated May 24, 2007:

“The Scott Girl’s Thighbone”

“Our Lady of Vengeance”

“In the President’s Harem”

5/18/17: I don’t think I ever had stories to go with them. I’ve always been prone to coming up with titles without stories — in fact, I have several long lists. Many of them are taken from song lyrics; Counting Crows and Jefferson Starship provided a lot of those. The theory is that eventually I’ll either come up with a story to match, or I’ll be able to attach one of the titles to an existing unfinished story. In at least two instances (“Teaching Machines” and “Richie”) I actually started with a title, came up with a story to fit it, and then wound up with a different title on the published version.

These three aren’t from song lyrics or puns or twists on other titles or stock phrases, they just imply interesting things.

Those Who Can

From a newsgroup post dated April 10, 2007:

Down in another newsgroup a couple of people posted pitches for their unpublished novels. I wasn’t impressed — in fact, I thought both were pretty lame, though the novels might not be.

I should have just let it go, but I didn’t — I rewrote ’em both.

I pretended this was an educational effort, but I’m pretty sure I was just showing off.

The thing is, though, that the reason I bothered to do it was that it was so easy. I mean, both pitches contained, as originally written, all the elements needed to make a good pitch — plot, setting, character — but they didn’t make it sound interesting.

One of them spent too long explaining how a disaster happened, when the novel is about the after-effects of the disaster. Who cares why it happened? The cool stuff is what the survivors have to do afterward!

The other had long unpronounceable names all over it, when what matters is the romantic triangle of a mad lord, his loyal henchman, and the courtesan secretly plotting the lord’s overthrow.

They could both be great stories — but alas, I’ll bet they aren’t. It’s a shame.

And it demonstrates a couple of things:

That it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the execution.*

Why I stopped trying to teach writing — it’s too frustrating, seeing all this potential that’s never going to be properly used. That romantic triangle could be a classic, done right, but the odds that it’s done right are mighty slim.

Feist’s Corollary: There is no idea so brilliant or original that a sufficiently untalented writer can’t fuck it up.**


* My great-great grandfather was born on an estate in Maine named Execution. It’s kind of a family mystery why anyone would name a house that, but it almost certainly has something to do with the concept that it’s the execution that matters.

The house is now a hole in the ground in the middle of a forest; the only part of the estate that hasn’t gone back to wilderness is the family burial plot, which is maintained by veterans’ groups because there’s a Revolutionary War hero buried there. They consistently put the Memorial Day flag and flowers on the wrong grave, though — there were lots of Goodwins with the same few names. So much for execution.

** This corollary to Watt-Evans’ Law is the only time I have ever seen Ray Feist use the word “fuck.” I think I cleaned it up for the version on my webpage, but this is the original.