Friday, 28 October 2011

Interesting Is Better Than Strong

So it's almost time for NaNoWriMo again and I've been hanging out some on the forums, enjoying the atmosphere, occasionally posting, you get the picture. Somehow I ended up thinking about the calls for more 'strong women' in fiction, not sure how, they weren't explicitly made in any of the threads I was reading, I guess my brain got there by some kind of sideways route from something else. The following is a general kind of rambling collection of my thoughts on the matter (Oh and they're here not on the NaNo forum purely because this blog needs some love... how many months since I last bothered to write a post? Bad me... or sucky depression, take your pick.)

My first question is what exactly is meant by a 'strong woman' anyway? Unfortunately the definition that springs to mind for me is the tough, independent action girl, I'm thinking of characters like Zoe out of Firefly. I say unfortunately because those characters frequently bore the crap out of me. I mean Zoe isn't a bad character, she has depth and character development and all those things, but she's an example of that particular archetype done well and she still doesn't interest me as much as Inara, Kaylee or River.

I admit that this is purely a matter of personal preference (and incidentally not gender based : tough, independent action boys tend to bore me as well. Colby Granger from Numb3rs gets a free pass for being inexplicably awesome, but he's an exception), but I also have issues with the idea that such a woman is necessarily a good role model, especially when 'tough' is taken to mean 'has no emotions, or at any rate doesn't express them', 'independent' means 'never needs or accepts help, especially from a man' and an 'action girl' is one who thinks with her fists. Actually it may be the role model aspect that bugs me the most, because a character who is all those things (for preference without the 'especially from a man' clause) but they are recognized as being flaws (or at least are capable of being flaws when the situation calls for a different approach) may be very interesting indeed, (the extremely awesome Sabina Kane springs to mind).

Of course a large part of the problem is probably with my definition, there are plenty of other ways to be strong, emotionally, mentally, etc but I think what really bothers me is the assumption that weak characters are inherently bad or (if female) sexist (do I need to point out that not thinking that weak characters are sexist if they're male is in itself sexist? apparently I'm going to anyway). Regular readers (which I'm pretty sure I don't actually have - apart from my boyfriend, who has to sleep on the sofa if he doesn't read my blog), may recall that I loved the movie Black Swan (post may be found here) the main character of which, although strong in some respects (ballet requires physical strength, and she certainly has a bucket-load of resolve) is defined in the story by her weakness, that is to say that she's going steadily insane. She is still, in my opinion at least, a great character (a lousy role model, I grant you, but a great character). The thing is that if the film wasn't about Nina, if her story was just something in the background of somebody else's tale Nina could easily be a bad case of stuffed in the fridge, but because it's her story, because the bad things that happen to her are treated with maturity she's a really compelling and interesting character.

I think that's about everything I wanted to say, sorry if it was incoherent, and also sorry for the ridiculous number of parenthetical comments, but it's late and I'm tired and I want to hit the publish button right about now, so I'm going to stop there and hope that at least some of my point got across, if it didn't, the short version is basically 'stop asking for strong female characters and ask for interesting ones instead'.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Lines To Fall In Love With

This past week my boyfriend talked me into watching Sherlock (the recent TV series) with him. I was pretty dubious about it to be honest, I'm not sure why, I didn't have any particular reason to think I would dislike it, I just didn't have any reason to think I would like it either, well apart from Steven Moffat being involved, which was my boyfriend's winning argument (as I love both Dr Who and Coupling). Basically I think my attitude can be summed up as 'Another take on Sherlock Holmes?' I don't know if there really have been a lot lately or whether that's just my perception but either way I was less than enthusiastic, in short I needed winning over.

And it didn't happen straight away, I watched the first few scenes feeling that okay this was sort of interesting (I wasn't actually aware before watching it that it was a modern retelling... so sue me) but nothing really grabbed me until Watson repeated another characters opinion that Sherlock was a psychopath to the man himself and he replied something along the lines of 'More like a high functioning sociopath.' (not an exact quote because the episode in question has since been taken off iPlayer and my memory isn't perfect) and just like that he (and by extension the series) had me, it was kind of like that eyes across a crowded room moment that only happens in badly written romances only with words...

But this post isn't about Sherlock being awesome (although it is) it's about the realization I had today that this has happened to me before, with Leverage for one, I was enjoying it anyway but Parker asking what it is about women and shoes was the moment I knew I had to keep watching the show, for her if for no other reason. Now I'm wondering if I can recreate that kind of moment in my writing.

I'm not sure, partly because dialogue isn't my strongest suit (although I suspect that in written format any sentence may potentially create the same 'I have to keep with this' effect, because in written format everything is words, not just the dialogue... incidentally I do read a lot, and have since childhood, I don't actually watch a lot of TV / films and yet when I'm thinking of examples of storytelling things I almost always think of examples from visual media, go figure) but mostly because my reaction to those particular characters and those particular lines is obviously a very personal thing, other characters I've had that kind of attraction to over the years include Wesley Crusher and Zach from Bones (I was so mad with the end of season three I've refused to watch the show since) so yeah, I definitely have a type and I doubt that many people share it (in fact I'm absolutely certain that they don't, especially the Wesley Crusher thing, all I can say is I liked that he was an obnoxious know-it-all) so what worked for me isn't likely to work for anyone else.

On the other hand perhaps I can still learn something from this experience (other than I'm pretty weird, which I kind of already knew, I mean I once went weak at the knees when a guy quoted pi to ten decimal places, that can't be normal), I like those specific lines because they're character defining, unexpected and honest and maybe that's a combination of things I can strive for.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Reviewer Isn't Talking To You

If you'd asked me a year ago whether published authors read the amazon reviews of their books I'd have laughed and said 'No of course not.' Turns out I was wrong about that, it appears that, some at least, not only read them but obsess over them. This was, in all seriousness, a major surprise to me.

Partly this is because I rarely read the reviews of a non-fiction book I'm considering buying and have never, ever read the amazon reviews of a novel before buying it, (I mean, there might be spoilers and how do I know which of the random folks reviewing the book share my taste in fiction? I have on occasion read the reviews of a novel I've already read to see if other people agree with me about it, but that's not really the point here).
Obviously people's buying habits vary, so maybe there are people who read every single review before handing over their cash, but on the other hand customer reviews are a pretty long way down the page which tells you something about how important amazon thinks that information is to making a sale.
My point is that I didn't expect authors to read amazon reviews because I don't rate them as being particularly important or informed and if nothing else you only get to see them if you've already found your way to the book's page (unless there's some other way to see them that I, as a casual customer, don't know about) essentially they're preaching, if not to the choir, then at least to the congregation.

However, the main reason I didn't expect authors to read their amazon reviews is because, well, it seems kind of creepy, like eavesdropping to find out what people say about you behind your back. The thing is, it's my belief (and I may be wrong about this) that the majority of amazon reviews are written, not for the benefit of the author, but for the benefit of potential readers. To me it seems as if someone with something to say to the author of a book would do it somewhere dedicated to the author, a fan site, the author's personal website, something like that. Writing a review on a shopping site seems more under the heading of consumer services (much like contributing to wikipedia on a subject you're knowledgeable about is often motivated by the desire to help people who want to know about said subject, but don't). This seems obvious to me, so obvious I'd never consciously thought about it (which doesn't of course mean I'm right), or rather, it did, right up until I heard (or rather read, it was on twitter) a writer ask why anyone would write a two star review.
I was, I have to admit, stumped, if I'd had an immediate answer maybe I'd have replied (or maybe not), but in my gut I knew that writing a two star review was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, I just had to figure out how to put that feeling into words. So I went away and thought about it and this is what I came up with:

The reason to write a two star review (or at least a reason) is that 'this book isn't terrible but it's nothing special either' is valid and helpful consumer advice (or it can be if you accompany it with your reasons for thinking that), and if what you care about isn't the book itself (or by extension, the author that wrote it), but the people that might be considering buying it, then taking the time to give an honest opinion is just as worth it, regardless of what that opinion actually is.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Aurum Inheritance

So, a couple of weeks ago I volunteered to write a flash fiction about estate planning for this challenge set by Dan O'Shea, I'm not sure dragons was quite what he had in mind, but here it is anyway.

The Aurum Inheritance

"Dragons aren't cooperative at the best of times, but if you want to see them at their worst, I mean their absolute, eye-scratching, back-stabbing worst, you want to be there when they read out a will." The old elf lawyer chuckled and leaned back in his wingback chair "Oh there are a dozen tales I could tell you, cousins spitting fire, brothers and sisters all but tearing each other apart over a chest of gold, but the worst infighting I ever saw, the very pinnacle of avaricious spite was when that twisted old lizard Aurum died."
"I think I heard about that." the elf's companion was young mostly by comparison, and somewhat rounder now he'd mostly given up the life of a sword for hire "Was he the one that got run through by that wandering knight?"
"That was the story, though no knight ever did come forward to confirm it. I know there were some folks who never did quite believe it, said anyone could have used a lance if the beast was asleep first."
"Not anyone." the swordsman corrected "It would take strength to drive the shaft in far enough to hit any useful organs."
"I bow to your superior knowledge." The elf nodded as though this confirmed something he had long suspected "But what no one denied is that Aurum was dead, and to the best of anyone's knowledge he had left no will."
The swordsman frowned in puzzlement "That isn't what I heard. Wasn't there a mistress or some such, claimed he'd written one in her favour?"
"Eventually there was, I'll grant you, but I'm speaking now of the weeks and months immediately after the old miser died and at that time there was no whisper of such a thing. No, nor anyone who thought it likely either." the elf explained "It was widely rumoured that Aurum had made a pact with the Reaper herself that he might never die a natural death, and it was certainly known that he had taken measures to ensure that he had no heirs that might challenge him for his gold. As best the records show he ate at least a dozen younglings that might have been his."
"A gruesome business."
"Indeed, and one that caused no small amount of legal wrangling during his lifetime, other dragons claiming he'd wrongly disposed of their offspring. In point of fact there were two cases still being tried at the time of his death. An added complication you understand, none of the claimants to his fortune wanted a single gold piece to be paid out in compensation you can be sure of that." the lawyer chuckled nastily "They were prepared to pay quite highly to see that it didn't happen too, far more than the compensation would have been worth."
The swordsman narrowed his eyes at that but his companion was too intent on telling his tale to notice.
The elf continued "There were quite a mess of claimants in the beginning, an assortment of nieces and nephews for the most part and Aurum's one surviving sister, whom he was known to have been on good terms with and who would likely have taken the largest share had she not mysteriously fallen ill and died herself before the claim could be settled."
"Poison?"
"It was suspected, certainly, but never proved." the elf lawyer stared into the fire, his mind far away, or rather long ago "After that, things became nasty. One by one each of the surviving claimants realised that if one of the others could be blamed for the murder, if murder it was, they would forfeit their share, leaving more for the rest of them. Accusations flew thick and fast, evidence was brought forward and decried as fake. There were injuries and freak illnesses, and with each new incident, there would be a culprit sought, who would then deny the claim and point the finger elsewhere or else back at the injured party, saying that the injury was faked to cast the blame at them." he sighed a little wistfully "It was a time of plenty for those of us called upon to represent the various factions."
Again the swordsman frowned, finding the lawyers glee more than a little distasteful.
"Then, as you say, this supposed mistress came forward, claiming that there was a will, not that she could produce it of course." the old elf shook his head regretfully "It rather spoiled the game. Faced with a common foe Aurum's various surviving relatives joined forces, settling their differences so as to get their claws on a share of the gold before this fabled will could come to light."
"I heard she claimed that you were the one who drew up the will." the swordsman spoke casually, a little too casually.
The old elf looked at his companion, suspicion crossing his features for the first time "Now where could you possibly have heard that?"
The swordsman didn't answer the question "Is it true?"
"That was indeed her claim." the elf lawyer agreed "Though there was never a scrap of proof, and waiting so long to come forward did little for her plausibility either."
"I imagine if the will had existed, you and your fellow lawyers would have made rather less gold." the swordsman suggested.
"Quite likely, quite likely. I imagine the will would have been contested, of course, but agreement would surely have been reached sooner." the elf frowned "I do wonder where you heard that detail however. You can't have heard it from her, she's long dead."
The swordsman rose to his feet and drew his sword "True, but her child is not. Her child, Aurum's child is very much alive." the elf lawyer barely had time to realise he was in danger before his head tumbled to the ground. The swordsman looked down at it with something approaching regret "There's more than one way to get gold out of a dragon."

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Æther Serenade

Okay this makes two posts in the same day, and this one's flash fiction as well, that's just how it goes apparently. This story is in response to another of Chuck Wendig's weekly challenges at terribleminds. The challenge called for mixing two genres from a list and this is supposed to be Steampunk Erotica (I'm not sure it qualifies as the latter as it's not hugely explicit, but still consider yourself warned). Oh and, yes the title is a nod to the Abney Park album Æther Shanties, which got played a lot while I was writing this.

Æther Serenade

Out of blood and chaos and burning the 'ship rose into the sky. For once the carnage Lydia was leaving behind was not of her own making, though doubtlessly she would be blamed for it. Looking back she saw columns of smoke winding up from the destruction, as eager as she to escape the smog-choked streets below. No other craft appeared from the murk and as those ashy beacons fell further and further astern she began to relax.
Her attention was drawn by the woman calmly examining one of the brass, arm-shaped automatums that helped her fly the airship. Shorter than herself, more slender, fey looking, fragile even, though Lydia already knew that that impression was an illusion. She saw again the angry mob, baying for blood and in it's midst this one beautiful, delicate seeming creature, utterly composed in the face of violent death.
As if sensing her attention the woman turned "I know you." she said "I've seen the wanted posters, 'Lydia Vincent, Terror of the Skies'. Hardly a flattering portrait, you're much more attractive in the flesh." the woman smiled impishly "My name's Violet."
"I'm not going to hurt you." Lydia didn't know why she was trying to reassure a woman so clearly unafraid, perhaps it was herself she was trying to reassure "Or do anything that might concern you."
"Like laying claim to my body for your own personal pleasure?" Violet suggested, she smiled wickedly at Lydia's shocked reaction "Oh honey, I'm a whore. The only thing that concerns me about that scenario is not getting paid." she inclined her head towards the distant smoke "Though, you just saved my life, so really you've earned it."
"What if I'm not interested?"
Violet shrugged and walked past Lydia to sit looking out over the clouds "Then I'll just have to find another way to repay you."
In silence she reached up and began to unpin the forest green top hat from her hair. She unwound each braid, shaking loose a deep red tumble of pre-raphaelite curls. Slowly she loosened her left glove, peeling it from her hand and dropping it into her upturned hat, Lydia watched, bewitched, as the right glove followed, just as deliberately. Violet stroked her hands down one leg, pale, slender fingers gliding over green velvet. She unlaced her ankle boots, flexing her toes as they were released from their stilletto-heeled prisons. And only then did she look up, smiling knowingly to see Lydia's gaze fixed upon her.
Violet stood, her eyes twinkling, she winked at Lydia, daring her to look away as she swept her hair over one shoulder and reached for the zipper at the nape of her neck. The dull roar of the engine and the squeaks of the mechanical arms seemed strangely hushed compared to the metallic hiss as the zip's teeth slowly unmeshed. Lydia found herself holding breath as Violet worked her blood-spattered dress over one shoulder at a time, then let it fall to the ground, stepping out of the circle it made on stockinged feet.
Violet tilted her head back, closing her eyes against the evening sun, she stretched out her arms as if to caress the wind that plastered her camisole to her body "Cold up here."
"So I notice."
"I thought you weren't interested."
Lydia sighed "No you didn't."
Violet laughed, sultry and confident "True." She walked slowly across the deck to Lydia, brushed her fingers lightly over the pirate girl's cheek and down her throat "I wasn't wrong though, was I?"
"What you're suggesting could get us both executed." Lydia protested
Violet merely smiled "You're a pirate, you already have a price on your head." she leaned closer and, her breath warm against Lydia's throat, she whispered "What's the point of being an outlaw if you can't have what you want?"

Lord of the Lake

So I found this flash fiction challenge over at Not All Who Wander Are Lost, 500 words featuring a mythical creature, I can do that, assuming 'watery tarts' with swords count as creatures that is (I'm pretty sure they're mythical).

Lord of the Lake

Gwen stood at the edge of the lake and frowned. The water was dull, grey and uninviting, probably freezing cold too and rain was falling into it, all this she was perfectly happy with. The water was also deep, realistically mysterious and possessed a natural grandeur that hinted at ancient magic, and that, she felt, was deeply unfair. If magic was going to exist it ought either to look twinkly so she could laugh at it or not magical at all so she could ignore it. Instead, this was exactly how she would imagine a real magical lake to look, which was annoying because being the secret, hidden heir of a semi-mythical country was no fun at all if you had to go around believing in it all the time.
There was no use putting it off, she took the stone out of her pocket and looked at it, smooth, flat, interestingly coloured, with flecks of glittery quartz in it, totally real, potentially magical, a definite theme going on there. Gwen hadn't been given any particular words to use so she just chucked the probably actually magical stone into the probably actually magical water and improvised "Oh lady of the lake hear my prayer, I've ridden three hours on this trusty mare... and, look could you just give me the damn sword because I suck at poetry."
The ripples made by the stone as it entered the water spread further and further out, then reversed direction and coalesced around the emerging figure which, rather than rising mystically out of the water, simply waded up out of the depths towards the shore. Gwen blinked, long golden hair? check, almost unbelievably beautiful? check, lady? not so much. Or at all. If Legolas had made an advert for jeans he would have looked like this. He looked at Gwen "Well that was original."
"Sorry. Umm... are you the lady of the lake?" Gwen took another look, just double-checking. Still a finely muscled torso, smooth, hard muscles that showed actual use, too, not artificially sculpted in a gym. Totally real, potentially magical, oh yes.
The vision sighed "It's an official title. You know how a Lord Mayor, is still lord even if they're a woman? Same thing, only the other way about." he sounded like he'd had to explain that a lot, though given that he apparently lived at the bottom of a lake in the middle of nowhere, goodness only knew who to "Also, my eyes are up here."
"Sorry." Gwen said again and looked up.
His lips twitched in amusement "It's all right. Nice not to be a disappointment for once. Anyway, your 'damn sword' milady."
Gwen took the rapier, it was of course quite beautifully made. Also practical and weighted such that her fencing lessons might actually prove useful. No need to admit that though. She looked speculatively at it’s deliverer "I don't suppose you have any idea how to use this?"

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Same Thing In Fewer Words : Character Introductions,

One thing that really annoys me when I'm reading a novel is when the author takes two or three times as many words as they need to to say something, or set something up or... well to do anything really. Because it annoys me, I try to avoid it in my own writing or, more precisely, when editing my own writing - needless waffle being part of the process of writing a first draft (I'm also not too fussy about waffling in blog posts I don't really expect anyone to ever read, you noticed that huh?).

There's obviously more than one way to reduce the number of words it takes to say something, but one I wish more writers would do is the following:

Introduce characters in batches.

There is a damn good reason that so many roleplay games begin with some variation of 'everyone meets up in a bar' which is that it's boring to sit around and watch other people play while you have nothing to do. Now admittedly characters in a book aren't literally sitting around waiting and getting bored but some of that sense of impatience bleeds through somehow (possibly because they're metaphorically sitting around and complaining in the writers brain). Also it's tiresome to have scene after scene which are there mostly to introduce new characters one after another. Also, also you get a better idea of what someone is like if you see them interacting with a variety of people.

Of course introducing three or more characters in the same scene can end up in a confused muddle if you're not careful, but when it works it's that much more satisfying. I don't really have advice on how to introduce multiple characters in a brief time other than to point at a couple of examples that I thought did it really well (both from video but the techniques can be adapted, aka shamelessly ripped off).

Example 1: The opening scene from Shaun of the Dead
This starts with Shaun, then introduces his girlfriend Liz because she's talking to him, then as their conversation brings up Shaun's best friend and Liz's flatmates the camera pulls back to show them close enough to be hearing what's said about them. In literally one minute of screen-time (yes I did actually go and time it, I am that sad), five characters are introduced and we know how they know each other, something about what they're like and roughly what they think of each other. Furthermore the scene also introduces a fairly major subplot (Liz isn't happy with her relationship with Shaun) and an important location (the local pub), in one minute. That takes some beating.

Example 2: The Firefly Episode 'The Train Job'
 Not quite as compact as the previous example, but again multiple characters are introduced rapidly (in part because of the awkward situation where this is the second episode chronologically but the first to be aired), if you have it on dvd and watch the commentary lots of little tricks they used to keep things clear in the viewers mind are actually pointed out, Kayleigh rolling out from under part of the cockpit because this is visual shorthand for 'mechanic', various characters describing each other in terms of relatedness (my wife, his sister, etc) or in terms of their jobs (mechanic, medic, etc) and also all the shots showing Mal moving around Serenity to give you an idea of how the interior spaces connect up. Lots of neat tricks to internalize and reuse.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Fake

This story was written in response to this flash fiction challenge over at terribleminds. I don't usually draw attention to my more pretentious literary devices, but this week I just want to point out that the narrator is actually supposed to be first person (in case that's not obvious) and the fact that she does not refer to herself as 'I' is very, very deliberate.

Fake

Bruises fade, even broken bones heal, but that moment when your lover looks right past you and pretends he didn't hear you say no, that moment stays with you.
There were excuses, so familiar they hardly need repeating, he was drunk, that skirt was too short. Familiar, tired excuses, almost comforting, easier to believe that there's something you could have done, or not done, less gut-wrenching than the slowly dawning realisation that in a moment that should have been intimate, you became, in his mind, an unperson, less than human, a mere beast who's cries of protest could be guiltlessly ignored. Easier, not healthier.
Life hardly changed at first, except for the silences, after a joke that would once have been funny, before sex when he would once have whispered 'I love you'. He must have known it wasn't true, not that it stopped him, a line once crossed becomes blurred, scuffed out, easier to believe it isn't there at all. Easier, not healthier.
Time passed, there were more silences, and as if in compensation, arguments. More than arguments, fights, it isn't a mere argument if you end up in the emergency room. If he's stronger than you, if he's angrier than you, it's you that ends up needing stitches, even when some of that anger is at himself and what he's become. You feel guilt for your own anger, because you can't apologise enough to take his guilt away, and you become angry because it's harder to forgive. Harder, still not healthier.
When you become an unperson, your life fades away, a drip at a time, piece by piece, but if you're lucky enough, brave enough there comes a day when you look deep into the oblivion inside and find a way to face it without fear. Today is that day, all his things are piled in the hall, stacks of books and cases of clothes, posters, music, old toys and ornaments. On top of the pile is a note, it simply says 'Leave', this time the message will get through.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Sweet Nothings In An Alien Tongue

I have this theory about Firefly, where all the characters learnt Chinese as their first language but now speak English due to some kind of social pressure. Why would I think that? well because they swear in Chinese and my experience (I have relatives who's first language isn't English) is that people revert to their native tongue to swear. It's easy enough to understand why, it's easier to find the words in a hurry, the emotional release from swearing just isn't the same if you don't know, right down in your soul, what those words mean, and so on. Don't get me wrong, I love Firefly and I get that the show does that to get around the censors, but it still kind of bugs me, just a little bit.
Reason I bring that up is that I've been working on my alien language this weekend, filling in the various places in my work in progress that read something like <replace this with nefari greeting> or more relevantly <insert nefari curse> (nefari being the name both of the alien race, obviously), and I've been trying to make sure I'm not guilty of the same thing. Incidentally, I leave comments like that because working the phrases out as I go along would completely stall my momentum (I do the same for names of places / people / objects that I haven't figured out yet as well) but on the flip side I do have to go back and work them out at some later point, like for example this weekend.
Anyway, the point (and I realise I'm taking a while to get to it) is that in trying to fill in the gaps it was once again brought home to me that the times when people are most likely to revert to their native tongue and to a lesser extent the times when people are most likely to switch to a foreign language are also those when they're most likely to use idiomatic phrases. Which makes it both more satisfying and more difficult to come up with them because these are phrases that are rooted in the culture of the native speakers. Case in point, the aforementioned curse, an alien character was remarking on the stubbornness of another character and used a nefari word for emphasis, relying on the rest of the sentence to get the meaning across (as the phrasing is 'being a stubborn <blank>' I'm fairly sure it's clear).
Now I could just have made up any collection of sounds and run with it, but either because I'm some kind of imaginary language obsessive or because I desperately wanted to avoid going back to writing the scene from hell (or possibly both) I decided that I wanted to come up with something culturally significant, so I sat and thought for a while about what kind of things we consider to be stubborn and what the nefari might consider archetypally stubborn and I thought first of mules and then that I had already established that the nefari anthropomorphize plants quite a lot so I started thinking about what kind of plants might be stubborn and I thought of weeds that keep coming back or are hard to dig up because of their roots. So long story short (way, way too late for that) I figured out that they would call that kind of plant a grip earth and then worked out what the words for those components would be and then I finally had the word I could insert into my manuscript. Hooray, it only took me an hour to work out a single word (a single word that might still end up being cut at that) progress is mine. Or something.
So my question (to myself as much as anything) is 'was it worth it?' was it worth spending that long working out the exact derivation of a word that isn't even translated in the text, all that work that no one will ever see except for those few hardy souls that managed to wade through this terminally dull blog post? and you know what, I kind of think it was, I learned some interesting new things about my setting, for one thing, but mostly it just feels satisfying to have made the effort.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Moon Under Water

This weeks flash fiction challenge over at terribleminds is on the subject of 'An unexpected guest'. I had to trim this a bit to get it to fit in the word limit (a story within a story in under a thousand words, what was I thinking?), but I think it worked out better for it in the end. Also, about that title, yes I know there is no mention whatsoever of either the moon or water in the story, but I did a wikipedia search for common pub names and that one caught my eye (see here for more details), in the end the inn in the story went unnamed for reasons of style and space but the title stuck because for reasons I can't quite explain it sort of fits I think. Or maybe I just like it. In any case story:

The Moon Under Water

The midwinter sun is setting, stretching my shadow into a bluish scarecrow, sprawled across the snow. It reaches all the way to the woods as though throwing a tantrum, childishly clinging to the trees so as not to leave. I'm tempted to imitate it but my arms are not so long and the path down to the village is calling me onwards.
There are few lights lit in the village, fewer than I remember. Several of the darkened windows are boarded up, houses empty and depressingly corpse-like. For a moment I wonder if the inn will still be there, but when I turn the corner I see the old sign hanging from the wall, paint peeling, the words almost unreadable. Here, at least, a light is shining.
The door creaks halfheartedly on it's hinges, the floor boards are too tired for even that much effort. Dusk on the shortest day, early for drinkers, but the empty bar is lonely nonetheless. It seems an age before the landlord appears, an old man, slow on his feet. He eyes me with vague surprise "Can I help you sir?"
"I'm looking for a room for the night."
He seems troubled by my request "Most of the rooms is closed up for the winter. No call for them this time of year. Us being near the sea, folks only want to visit when there's fair chance of the sun shining." he pauses, torn between emotions I can't quite read "There is one room open."
"Is there a problem with it?"
"You'll think me superstitious, a young man like you." he says "But we always keeps one room made up in case old Tobias should call."
"A ghost story?"
"Aye. Do you know it?"
I shrug "I think I may have heard it once."
The old man nods sagely "That's him up there." he says, he means the portrait above the bar "Wife always reckoned him a looker but I can't say as how I ever saw that myself."
"Hard to tell now." I say. Time has darkened the varnish to a muddy brown and the sitter's features are barely distinguishable from the landscape beyond.
The man nods again "Age takes it's toll on us all. But it's quite the romantic tale, if you like that kind of thing. Young couple in love, betrothed to be married, but of course the witch of the woods has taken a shine to the boy and she casts her magic to spirit him away." the landlord laughs now "Got cold feet and run off with an easier bird if you ask me, but I guess that don't make such a pretty story."
"And the room?"
"Ah, well that's not the end. They say the girl died of a broken heart and that when Tobias heard he was so overcome with sadness that he was able to break free of the witch's magic. They say he kneeled at her grave praying night and day for her forgiveness. Until the witch found him and in her fury she struck him dead and bound his ghost to her so he might never leave her again. But the witch's magic is tied to the seasons and every few years, when the winter is especially cold, Tobias escapes and comes looking for his lost love." The man sighs "I expect you think it's all pretty silly."
It's a story I have more reason than most to believe, "I think a ghost has little need of a bed." I say
The man considers this sadly "I suppose you're right. Never did credit it myself, but it kept the missus happy, and the girls when they were here. Don't know why I kept up the tradition." he reaches a decision "Still, perhaps it's lucky for you I did. I'll need a name, sir, for the log book."
I look at the painting again "Dorian." I say. I pause but he doesn't notice "Joe Dorian."
"Well Mr Dorian, if you'd like to sign, room's just up those stairs and on the left, you can't miss it." He roots around under the counter for the key.
I sign the book, take the key, walk up the stairs. It's all hauntingly familiar like I've done this a dozen times before. Then again, I have.
Inside the room I walk to the window. The sun has long vanished from the sky and there's little to see except my own reflection in the glass, but still I stare out into the darkness. A maid taps on the door before entering, I barely glance at her, but she reminds me of Lucy, they always do. I don't turn, or talk to her I just gaze at nothing and wonder. I wonder why I do this, why I still need this desperate hope for redemption. I wonder what I will do when this inn no longer stands, where I will go to keep up this ritual. I wonder, fleetingly, if this is the same maid as last time, but no, she can't be, a decade has passed since I was last here.
The door clicks closed. Strange that a place this run down should still have a maid. I stop, barely breathing, my heart thumping. I feel the floor beneath my feet, the glass of the window pane beneath my hand and at long last I wonder why I expected a ghost to look like one.
Sudden hope awakens, I cross the room in three bounding steps, fling open the door. The maid is still in the corridor and for the first time I look at her, really look at her "Lucy?"
She stops, and for a moment I'm sure I've made a mistake. Then she turns. She smiles at me, familiar and enchanting  "Well Toby. Are you finally ready to be forgiven?"

Monday, 23 May 2011

Where it all began.

I've mentioned this before, but I'm writing a novel (trying to anyway, some days more successfully than others), I've also mentioned a few odds and ends about it, it features hermaphroditic aliens for example, but today I thought I'd take a moment to go back to the beginning and talk about why I'm writing it (admittedly as much to remind myself as anything).
I don't mean why I'm writing at all, that's a question that makes only slightly more sense than 'why are you breathing?' I have a need to create stuff, writing seems to be the most satisfying way of doing that, I mean why this particular story? Well it actually started with a play by post roleplay game (Dark Heresy, if you know what that is, or care) and specifically with the character I was playing, one Severus Gently, charming, elegant, promiscuous and very, very dangerous, oh and he was one other thing, he was enormously good fun to write for. Anyway the game slowly died as roleplay games often do, but I still wanted to write about him, I decided that I would make write a novel about him. I also decided that I needed new novel-writing software (the program I had didn't run on my new computer) so I did an amazon search, but I forgot to specify software and the book No Plot, No Problem popped up. At that point I didn't really have a plot (I'm not one hundred per cent convinced I have one now, I suspect that is a problem) so I had a look, it looked entertaining, it looked useful I liked the idea of having a first draft to work with after only a month, the book got bought, it got read, I discovered NaNoWriMo.  By some quirk of fate it happened to be the middle of October at the time (2009, if you were curious), so it made perfect sense to sign up on the NaNoWriMo forums and spend a couple of weeks planning before starting on the actual writing part of the project.
Well by the end of November I had my 50,000 words, although the story was still lacking an ending and since then it's nearly doubled in length and most of the things I actually wrote in that month have been cut out, rewritten or are sitting on my ever expanding to do list, I have an ending, in fact I have two or three, I'm not entirely sure which is the ending yet but if I just keep working at it I'm sure I'll get there eventually.
The point of this post however (although I appear to have wandered considerably from it) was to share the one piece of stand alone writing about this character which predates my attempts to write him into a novel, it was written to give my gm some idea of what the character I was proposing to play was like and what his background was, it's nearly two years old and the character has grown somewhat more complicated since then and the writing could do with some pretty heavy editing really, but nevertheless this is the birth of the character which started it all, enjoy.


Rivalry

Severus doesn't need to see the woman's face to recognise her, the outline of her figure, the heady scent of her perfume, the tumbling mass of dark hair the same shade as his own, all are memories so well known they are part of him. Hearing the door open, she turns and he knows before they fix on him that her sea-green eyes will be a perfect match for his, in colour and in emotionless intensity.
Severus smiles, polite and steely "Ravia, to what do I owe the great, nay, inestimable, honour of your presence?”
“So cold Severus, you weren’t always so cold.” she purrs, stalking hypnotically towards him, her seductive tone undercut by hatred, her movements by fury.
“No.” he replies softly, his submission as real and as feigned as her seduction “Once, I burned.”
A predatory expression crosses Ravia’s face “You burned for me.”  she insists. She smiles eerily “You still do.” She reaches out a hand to caress his throat, but in the moment before she can touch skin Severus blurs into motion. When the motion stops he stands behind her, his right hand gripping her wrist, her left arm around her waist holding her tight against his body.
“Always.” he affirms huskily. He rips the poison rings from her fingers with greater violence than the simple act of disarming her requires and her cries are nine parts pain to one of pleasure.
“Careful now,” Ravia teases “You wouldn’t want to take my fingers off.”
Severus’s seeming desire turns abruptly to rage, he pushes Ravia violently away from him, sending her stumbling into the wall “Wouldn’t I now?” ire drips from every syllable. He fans out the fingers of his left hand, the velvet glove he wears hides the fact that the outer three fingers are augmetic, but she knows as well as he that they are, and she knows how he came to lose the originals “Some people.” he sneers “Might consider that justice.”
“Justice?” Ravia croons “When have you ever been interested in justice?” she leans back against the wall, alluring and defiant.
Severus doesn’t reply, his face is expressionless as he walks toward her, as he pins her against the wall, as he runs his free hand under her skirt and up to her thigh. He ignores the sudden shallowness in her breathing, pulling the knife from her garter and holding it to her throat.
Ravia’s eyes go wide, for the first time she appears afraid, suddenly aware that she is pleading for her life “Severus.” she breathes “We used to be so good together, you must remember.” She pauses, smiling at her own memories “I remember the way you looked the first time…” her voice trails off.
“I remember” Severus replies, the anger is still present in his voice, but softened now by the raw passion of his memories.
“You could have that again.” Ravia purrs persuasively “You could have me again.”
Severus’s voice is bitter “And how could I ever trust you?”
“You don’t need to trust me, tie me up, hold me down.” Ravia smiles wickedly “I’d like that.”
Severus swallows “No.” he says, but his voice trembles and the knife drops from his fingers, clattering to the floor.
Sensing victory, Ravia slides her arms around his waist, drawing him closer “No?” she queries “But I know you want to.” She lets her eyes drop meaningfully down his body “I can feel it.” She draws closer still, her lips a hairsbreadth from his “Kiss me.” She whispers.
The last of Severus’s resolve crumbles to dust, unthinking he obeys and for one, rash, everlasting moment there is nothing in the world for either of them but their passion. It burns like fire, as hot, as bright and as destructive.
Something like thought returns, Severus reaches out to open the door, and pushing Ravia away from him, he throws her out into the street “I said no.” he repeats.
Ravia curls elegantly to her feet, even in defeat her poise is exemplary “Very well, little brother.” she says, turning to leave “But we will meet again.”
“I will be watching for you.” Severus replies, watching her walk away before he closes the door.
Then, with no one to see him, he begins to shake, gathering his most necessary belongings he packs to leave, he knows this place is no longer safe for him.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Assorted Books I've Been Reading

So, I know I haven't posted in ages, there isn't really a good reason for that. There's a reason, in that I've been depressed in the struggling-to-get-out-of-bed-because-everything-feels-pointless sense of the word, but I'm not sure that really qualifies as a good reason. In any case, one thing I have managed to do in the last few weeks is reduce the pile of books waiting for me to read them. I figured I'd share my thoughts on some of them, so in no particular order:

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Reason for reading: Recommended by my mother. Well sort of, she said I probably shouldn't read it because she thought what I was writing was similar so I'd better not read it in case I ended up stealing ideas from it... so I figured that maybe I should read it, for hopefully obvious reasons. (As it turns out my mother seems to have latched on to some coincidence of clothing colour, otherwise there isn't a lot of similarity as far as I can see).
General impression: V for Vendetta for feminists, only not as good.
Stuff I liked: The central idea is fairly interesting, essentially the handmaid of the title is a woman forced into prostitution, except with the intent of providing babies rather than pleasure. Also what little is explained of the setting is thought-provoking, basically a projection of what would likely happen if the 'women belong in the kitchen cos the bible says so' subset of religious idiots got into power. Some of the imagery is nicely poetic.
Stuff that got on my nerves: Several things, but top of the list would be the epilogue, which isn't really part of the story at all, instead it's supposed to be a scholarly lecture by a professor who's been studying the tapes that the rest of the story was apparently on. I have a number of issues with this, for one thing it's completely unnecessary to have the story have been found on audio tapes, it's been established that the narrator can write (even though writing is banned for women), and it doesn't read like something that's been spoken, it reads like something that's been written, the dreamy poetic descritions of the flower garden for example, nobody talks like that, it's writing in a diary type stuff. The other main problem I have with this epilogue is that it feels very much like the author telling me what I should have been thinking and feeling about the story, it doesn't really add anything else. Well it does, it adds some explanations of what was going on from a historical perspective, which would have been entirely unnecessary if the narrator had ever bothered to mention them. Which, given that she was apparently recording her experiences for some future, unseen person, and she seems bright enough to realise that they might not know much about her situation (she actually comments that as handmaids are left out of family photographs so future historians might not know they existed) it's rather unnatural that she then doesn't explain. All right, all right I'll stop there.
Conclusion: Good but not great alternative history story, spoiled by a rant inducing epilogue.

The Conqueror's Shadow, Ari Marmell
Reason for reading: The author was on babel clash and was entertaining so I started following him on twitter and he was more entertaining so eventually I decided I really aught to check out his actual books.
General Impression: You know that thing in games where in the sequel your character from the previous game is now the villain? Well this is kind of that in reverse. Crossed with a kind of aging hero thing.
Stuff I liked: Villain protagonists, well all right they're pushed just over the line into being antiheros by dint of the actual villain being so much worse. Oh and also by the fact that, in theory, more or less, on average, they're saving the world. Still, one bloodthirsty former tyrant with a pet demon, one moody ogre and a canabalistic witch, this is not the hero roll call of your average disney movie now is it? And they're so much deeper for it, I especially liked the witch Seilloah. Also I really liked the author's take on vampires, all right they're never called vampires, but they drink blood and can only be killed by a stake through the heart plus decapitation combo, so yeah, vampires. Only ickier, they leave bloody footprints everywhere they go and magic people's blood out through their pores. I thought they were a well thought out attempt to make vampires scarier and more monstrous without taking away their intelligence.
Stuff that got on my nerves: The first couple of pages did not really sell the story to me, if I'd been flicking through the beginning in a book store I'd probably have bought something else instead. Maybe it's just an unfortunate coincidence that I've read a couple of other books that start that way, but it does seem to me that 'recently destroyed city at dawn' is the go to media res beginning for epic battles fantasy.  Apart from that I only have a couple of minor complaints, there's a couple of scenes near the beginning where the main character's relationship with his wife seems a bit cardboardy and there was one particular plot twist fairly late on that irritated me because of the way it was presented (the actual twist is pretty cool in hindsight, which is why I'm not spoiling it).
Conclusion:  I'm going to have to buy the next one now.

Persuasion, Mansfield Park & Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen.
Reason for reading: I have an ongoing sporadic quest to read 'classics' partly because I think I should and partly because sometimes they turn out to be really good. Mind you, having decided to try Jane Austen these were probably not the most logical titles to begin with, but Mansfield Park is the book Door is reading in Neverwhere and then Amazon suggested the other two.
General Impression: You know how popcorn doesn't really taste of anything but you keep eating until the bottom of the packet anyway? Like that.
Stuff I liked: Every now and then there was a line of dialogue that amused me or a description I particularly liked. In general the prose style is pleasant enough, I mean I got to the end of all three without actually dieing of boredom, but I can't really explain why not.
Stuff that got on my nerves: The beginnings, each of the three books begins with a long description of the heroine's family background before actually introducing the character round about chapter three. The endings, they don't actually end they just sort of fizzle out and then the last chapter is a 'what happened next' epilogue, which would be less annoying if 'what happened next' didn't include 'how the problems I've spent this whole book setting up were suddenly resolved'. That bit in Northanger Abbey where everything stops for a page and a half while the author rants about the depiction of novels in novels by other writers. While I get that applying 'show don't tell' to the adultery in Mansfield Park would have been way too risque for the time of writing, does it have to be told third hand?
Conclusion: I read these to try and find out why they're considered classics, I still don't know, I feel kind of guilty about that. Then again, I like Shakespeare, I like Dickens, it doesn't make me culturally barren if it turns out I don't like Austen too. Does it?

The Kitchen Daughter, Jael McHenry
Reason for Reading: People on twitter linked reviews of it, it sounded interesting.
General Impression: Like a bored cookbook had an affair with a dashing young ghost story.
Stuff I liked: The heroine, I like that she has a different way of seeing the world, it makes otherwise quite normal events into interesting story points. It also helps show how odd 'normal' people are in some circumstances. Makes you think twice about things that might otherwise have been taken for granted. The ghosts, both their individual personalities and the mechanism by which they're summoned.
Stuff that got on my nerves: I could include the heroine's pushy sister in this catagory, she most certainly did get on my nerves, on the other hand she's quite clearly intended to and the book wouldn't work if she didn't. Which basically leaves me with the vague sense of disappointment I had with the ending, specifically the disquieting feeling that after an entire book defending Ginny's right to be different the ending still had to be made happy by making her more normal, on the other hand I'm not sure how else it could have been ended and worked so hmmm...
Conclusion: Now have the paradoxical problem of wanting more stuff like this, when one of the major reasons I liked it is that (as far as I know) there is nothing else like this.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Plot Magic for Wildly Disorganised People.

I write things out of order, not always, short pieces of writing in particular I sometimes write from beginning to end, but Bloody Mary, for example, was written out of order. Seriously, it's five hundred words long (almost exactly) and I wrote the first paragraph and a bit and then the last and then worked from both ends towards the middle, It's hard for me to tell so soon after I wrote it, but I think it's ended up more or less coherent (I hope). What's more, I plan out of order as well, both in the sense that I mix planning in with actual writing and in the sense that I'll plan whatever section kind of looks like it needs more planning and I have some ideas for, whether that's a scene or a plot arc or some world-building or whatever, there's not even any kind of plan to my planning.

 I know, I know it sounds like a recipe for complete and utter chaos, and quite frankly it is, but it's chaos that seems to work for me. At least it works when I'm writing short stories, until today I wasn't convinced it was going to work out for my novel length work in progress. Today, as I was staring at the screen trying to convince myself to actually write, my mind wandered off for a moment and came back with about ninety percent of the connections that were missing from my antagonists plot arc, I don't mean I fixed a plot hole, I mean my muse tiptoed up behind me and said 'Honey, you know how you have this antagonist here and that one over there and that event that doesn't seem to be linked to anything and that really awesome line that you liked but didn't know what it was about and you were going to chuck it because that character is supposed to always be right? Well, if you twist it this way and kinda squint it looks like a really awesome, rock solid character arc, that echos that arc over there and resonates with that theme and that other thing as well. Go on, rewrite it that way, everyone will think you planned it like that all along.' it's moments like this that prove that letting my mind wander is not necessarily a bad thing... and that my muse is a tad overconfident about what I'm actually capable of writing, but that's a different problem.

So, riding high on the wave of ego-affirming plot fix, I thought I'd share some thoughts about how I create stories, and particularly how I weld the plot together as I go along, in the vague hope that they might be useful to someone, or at least interesting, or good for a laugh... or.... I seem to be waffling a fair bit, and I think that's because I don't know exactly how I generate those leaps of intuition except that it's a process analogous to looking at a cloud or a pile of washing and thinking that it looks kind of like a rabbit or a swamp-monster or something, and then taking a picture of it and using photo-shop to make it look more like a rabbit or a swamp monster.

In this metaphor, my first draft isn't the picture, it's the clouds (or the washing I suppose, but I like the cloud thing better), I'll maybe start by knowing a couple of the characters, though maybe not how they know each other, and I'll have some vague ideas about the plot that probably won't survive the process of writing the first draft and some other odds and ends of ideas that don't look like they really belong, but I like them so I figure I'll find a place for them somewhere and I just start writing things that seem interesting and that seem to belong in the same kind of story space until I run into a place where I realize I can't write the next bit (not necessarily next in the story) because there's something I don't know yet, or things seem too muddled and I want to do some organizing and then I'll brainstorm a bit to figure a few things out, and then carry on with the writing as soon as I know what else I can write about, and so on.

I'm not describing this well, I think I need an example, hmm... Okay, in my w.i.p. there is an emotionally damaged character who for reasons to do with his back story (and how he wound up emotionally damaged) is missing three fingers on his left hand, there's also aliens and magic (and aliens that do magic). At some point around the twenty or thirty thousand word mark I decided I wanted to figure out what my magic system was. By then I had three or four magic users of varying species that I had a more or less clear ideas of what they could do and in some cases very clear ideas of what they couldn't do and I decided that I wanted my magic system to be in a form something like a cross between an artist's colour wheel and a sundial, which is to say that I wanted different abilities to be 'close' to other abilities and opposite to others but also with some bits linked to conceptual times of noon, midnight, dusk and dawn. Deciding what to put where and how to get the overlaps right was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle and the resulting wheel is a little odd in places (thought manipulation overlaps with earth control for example) but that oddness sort of has interesting knock on effects when it means that it effects the way magic users view the world, which I find far cooler than if I'd started out with a nice neat system and given the magic users their powers based on it. Anyway, a day or two later I was doodling a picture of an alien (not any specific character, just a generic member of the alien race I was creating... having just decided to go the whole hog on the mysteriously androgynous aliens trope and make them hermaphroditic) and because they're magic users, and kind of inspired by that da vinci man picture I ended up putting that picture over my rough sketch of my magic wheel and realized that, among other things,  the left hand lined up with emotion based magic, I was looking at this through the lens of the plot problem I was sorting out at the time so it was only much, much later when the penny dropped and I looked back at this character I mentioned and realized that the injury he'd had all along lined up perfectly with the magic system I'd created to satisfy completely different criteria, it was a happy moment. That's the kind of patterns in the cloud thing I'm talking about.

Both the examples I've mentioned here (one in very vague terms I admit) happened accidentally, but it's also part of my process to go looking for happy accidents, or when necessary to make them up. What I do is I take a bunch of unrelated things that I kind of like about my story but that don't really quite fit and instead of assuming that they don't belong and throwing them out like conventional wisdom says I'm supposed to, I arbitrarily decide that they actually form the basis of a hitherto unnoticed but extremely important subplot and go looking for what that subplot is, it's extraordinary how often I actually find it, in fact it's so frequent (and the results so satisfying) that I've concluded that my liking something for reasons I can't quite put my finger on is my subconscious's way of telling me that it's worked out a new story solution and also that my subconsciousness writes way better stories than I do, lucky for me there's only one person it can tell them to.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Bloody Mary

You wanted yet more flash fiction, right? yes? no? maybe? Well even if you didn't, tough, here more is. The latest Wendig challenge is restricted to a mere 500 hundred words rather than 1000 which proved surprisingly tricky (especially as two of my previous stories weighed in under that). The challenge (if you didn't follow the link) was to pick a cocktail and use it as the title of the story. Tempted as I was to go with something smutty, I eventually picked Bloody Mary on the grounds that I thought it made a interesting title, and certainly not because I like the drink - if you ask me, tomatoes should stick to things they're good at, like being pizza toppings and not get any fancy ideas about messing up my vodka, but on the other hand it takes all sorts and if you like that sort of thing at least it leaves more Tia Maria for me... Annnnyway, story:

Bloody Mary
It ended in a bar, the last of the creatures flashing into fire and dust. The girl cocked her head towards the jukebox, listening as the last chords of Sympathy for the Devil faded into nothing "Do you know my name?" she asked.
The barman cowered against his display of bottles, staring, wide-eyed at the mounds of ash, all that was left of the evening crowd "B-bloody Mary."
She smiled, a blunt-toothed, human smile "That's right." she said, she stalked towards him "And do you know what I want?" she didn't bother to wait for a reply, instead she vaulted the bar and slammed him against the display "Where the hell is Xane?"
It began in a bar as well, a dimly lit club, Stoker's Angels. Years younger, her hair dyed black, she'd called herself Magdalene. There had been dancing and drunken flirtation, when Xane's fangs had turned out to be real she'd thought her dreams had come true. It hadn't lasted, she'd thought him gentle, beautiful, loving, but blood loss wasn't the romantic bliss she imagined. Week by week she faded away.
She'd woken in the hospital, cold and alone, on the bedside table a dozen bright red roses, the card simply said "I'm sorry." and that was all. She'd kept the roses long after they shrivelled and died but he didn't visit, wouldn't answer the phone when she called. A month passed, and then another but Mary didn't forget her lover, she asked at the club, found others like it, kept looking, eventually someone gave her address.
On a grey spring morning she'd knocked on a door. He looked sad when he answered, guilty "I can't see you anymore." he said "I almost killed you."
She'd begged him to change his mind, pleaded until her voice was hoarse. Eventually she walked away, heartbroken and sobbing, through her tears she saw a woman, wreathed in cigarette smoke.
The woman had sneered "Did he tell you you were special? Did you think he would make you one of them?" she'd laughed at Mary's expression "Can't have paid too much attention in biology class then, can you? Couple of love bites aren't going to turn you into something you're not."
Mary remembered that woman, almost more than she remembered Xane, the bitterness of his betrayal still stung, but it was the mockery that drove her fury.
The barman swallowed nervously "Hell's about right lady." he said "Xane's dead."
Mary released him "What? How?" she asked, she paused "When?"
"Must be six or eight months now." he told her "It was an overdose, always is with the blood junkies."
Mary frowned, uncertain, hurt, confused "Blood junkie?"
"What else would you call it? they get addicted to the high but it kills them in the end." the barman watched Mary's face as the anger drained away and tears of loss trickled into the gap it left behind "Didn't you know?" he asked gently "Blood is poisonous to vampires."

Monday, 4 April 2011

Space Refuge 39

So another week another flash fiction challenge from that man Wendig (yes, yes I know I missed a couple), this time the game is to pick one of these supposedly unusable stock photographs (I say supposedly because surely basing fiction off them is a use of sorts... maybe) and write a thousand words or less about it. I picked no. 39, which in the event the link isn't working, the image has been randomly changed or whatever; features a girl wrapped up in what looks like one of those silvery insulation blankets they hand out at the end of the London marathon (and presumably other occasions too), next to the girl is a partially unwrapped chocolate bar with very similar looking silver wrapping. Our word for chocolate is thought to come from the Nahuatl (language spoken by the Aztecs) 'xocolatl' meaning 'bitter water', this may be relevant.

Space Refuge 39

The temperamental wind would not fix on a single corner, rattling the tent canvas from a new direction every few minutes and throwing handfuls of rain about like grim confetti. Muttered conversations mingled with the sound of the weather, infants whimpered, a mother recited an ancient myth from memory, hoping to distract her children from their hunger. A rescue shuttle roared overhead, engines spluttering. Supplies were running low and still they came, wave after wave of refugees fleeing before the alien menace.
 Xoco shivered and wrapped  the insulation blanket tighter around herself, feeling numb from more than just the cold. Around her dim figures were stirring, hope bringing them to life, faith that this time the shuttle was bringing the companions and kin left behind when they ran. For Xoco there was no such hope, Latil, her lover, her life, was months dead, slaughtered, long before the invasion, by a human warlord intent on taking the riches of Teoti for himself.
Three days before a shuttle had brought the warlord and his household to this desolate place, his guards claiming more than his share of the dwindling rations. For two nights the sounds of merriment had echoed down the valley from his fortified encampment, mocking the huddled poor. Now Xoco touched her hunting knife like a talisman and swore that there would be no third night.
Leaving the tent, Xoco was just one more miserable figure among those flocking towards the landing pad. She saw a young boy, near blue with cold, teeth chattering, she offered him her blanket. The silvery material, ironic echo of the deep mines of Teoti, was too reflective for her purpose. He smiled. The gratitude warmed her more than insulation could. "Be strong." she told him. She walked away.
Scrub grasses clung to the valley walls and wiry bushes, denuded for winter. Xoco slunk from one tenacious patch of vegetation to another, her footfalls no louder than those of her shadow, her outline no more noticeable in the falling dusk. She skirted the warlord's encampment. Grey green boulders formed a rough wall, smaller ones dragged or rolled to fill the gaps nature had left between the largest, an imperfect defence, the rocks would be an easy climb.
Watching the guards, Xoco was reminded of the mazat herds of Teoti, which she and Latil had hunted together. She remembered the hot winds of the plains, smelling of damp earth and spices. She remembered the warm ache of muscles after the chase, the fierce joy of the successful hunt. She remembered the touch of Latil's hand, silently reminding her to remain cautious. The memory brought fresh tears to her eyes and new resolve.
Xoco steadied her breathing and focused on the task ahead, the guards were too thinly spaced to mount an effective defence and they must have known it, starting at small sounds and staring too long into empty shadows, nervous behavior so reminiscent of herd creatures expecting a predator. Xoco suspected that fully half the warlord's garrison must have been down at the shuttle pad commandeering whatever luxuries they could for his personal use. His selfishness angered her, but it had it's uses, she doubted she could have crept into the encampment unseen if all his warriors had been present.
Instincts honed by the hunt allowed Xoco to slip through the gaps in the warlord's defence, the stealth learned on the plains had it's place here, careful movement that left loose stones untouched as useful for evading notice by guards as by prey. The warlord's tent was easily identifiable, by it's relative opulence, by the bodyguards flanking the entrance, by the voice Xoco heard in her nightmares raised in petulant anger.
Under the sounds of argument the faint rustle of tearing canvas went unnoticed, Xoco cut a single slit in the fabric, a mere forearm's length from the ground up and peered into the dim interior of the warlord's personal tent. A disorganized pile of cushions and discarded clothes was not much in the way of cover, but it was the best Xoco was likely to get, she crawled through the gap she had made, careful to make neither sound nor sudden movement though she need hardly have bothered, all eyes within were focused on the warlord.
The girl in rags was dimly familiar, a villager from another tribe, glimpsed at some festival, barely recognizable without her ceremonial make-up. Something she had done or not done was the source of the warlord's current displeasure, he sneered at her as his guards hauled her away, leaving him, just for a moment, alone in his tent.
Xoco didn't hesitate, in her eyes it was fate, this one moment in which to act. A half dozen swift strides took her to the warlord's bedside, a hand a cross his mouth before he could call out, her hunting knife to his throat. Xoco looked into the warlord's eyes, widening in sudden fear "For Latil." she whispered and drove the blade into artery letting his life spill out in a ragged scarlet stream.
"For Latil." she repeated. Whatever came next, her lover was avenged.