The Story Behind the Story: A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration

You may have all noticed that I won’t shut up about this story competition I won (preorder the anthology here! It’s awesome!). Well, for one thing that’s because the release date for the anthology is May 4th, which is also known as “this Monday,” and I’m working my little heart out here trying to make that launch a success, and this blog is probably the best way I have of doing that. That’s not all, though. I’m also trumpeting about this thing because I’m damned proud of myself and of my fellow winners, all of whom are spectacularly talented and all of whom deserve to get noticed by the reading public. This anthology is one of the best ways for our names to get “out there,” and I’m going to try and make the most of it.

However, you lovely people are probably tired of all the publicity yakkity yak, so I’m going to take a page from my friend, Martin Shoemaker, and have  substantive discussion about how my winning story, “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration,” came into existence.

First, listen to the dulcet tones of Mr. Scott Parkin reading the first few paragraphs:

Michelangelo once said that his sculptures weren’t things he made so much as uncovered – they had been there all along, hiding in the stone just waiting for him to chip the extra bits away. I feel that way about my story, too. I didn’t so much “tell” this story as “find” it.

Behold the Undercity of Illin (still blown away by Shuangjian Liu's illustration of my story!)

Behold the Undercity of Illin (still blown away by Shuangjian Liu’s illustration of my story!)

The world of Alandar and, most particularly, the West is a place I have fashioned slowly over the course of more than a decade of world-building. When I create a world (and I am always creating worlds, mind you), they begin as broad, historical narratives or epic mythology – they are unpopulated, as it were. I start with the big (How does magic work here? What are the dangers of this world? Who holds the power and why? What are the world’s religions and creation myths?) and narrow it down until I get so close that, suddenly, I find I need characters to have the place make any sense. That level is usually right about at the “what kind of jobs do people do here” and “what do people eat on a daily basis” point. All of that little stuff, you see, is informed by the bigger stuff. Think of it this way: why do you eat hot dogs at a baseball game? Here’s a food imported by Germans (and adapted for American tastes) being ritually consumed at a sport descended from cricket and made popular in the late 19th century. Seems odd, doesn’t it? Yet, you can trace those things back to large religious and political movements which are themselves side-effects of things like geography, climate, and biology.

So, here we have the city of Illin. You can read my full treatise on the city and its environs here, if you’re so inclined, but in brief, Illin is a city built on the tip of a swampy peninsula commanding the outlet of a major trade river. It was designed as a way to control and limit the access the Kalsaari Empire (political and religious rivals to the Western nations) had to Western trade routes. Gradually, this city and principality became more militarized. As it is poor in material resources and arable land, it remained a poor nation propped up by its neighbors as a kind of buffer state. It has been invaded many times over the centuries, but this past time was by far the most successful and destructive invasion the Kalsaaris ever implemented. To win, they used sorcery in a way unseen in millennia. To win it back, the West did the same. Who was caught in the middle? Illin and, most particularly, its poorest citizens (i.e. the people who always pay the highest price when wars are fought).

Now, that’s just the tip of it all – there’s a hell of a lot more, but most of that world-building stuff never makes it to the page. It just exists in the back of the author’s mind, ready to be accessed if needed, but mostly there to fill out the picture of the place in the author’s mind. I’ve been to Illin, to the extent that anyone has been. I’ve run role-playing games with my friends set there. I’ve written poetry about it (bad poetry, mind you). I like to think I know how it smells.

But that’s just a city, not a character and certainly not a story.

In our workshop out in LA, Dave Farland (aka Dave Wolverton) said something that really struck me. He talked about how setting makes character and story more than anything else, so he always starts with the setting. I realized that I, also, do that (I just didn’t fully realize it). It isn’t until I have world that I feel like I could live in that I figure out who actually lives there. This is where Abe comes from. What would a young man from the Undercity think of his world? What would he want? How would he try to get it? All of these questions can be answered if the world is well-developed enough. And they were.

What’s interesting about the end of this story, though, is that I put the story down – trunked it, basically – for almost a year without an ending. I just couldn’t think of one. I’d painted Abe into such a corner that he was basically doomed (this, incidentally, was something Tim Powers told us was a good way to go, so, again, I was accidentally doing something right!). I had to put it down and walk away. When I (finally) came back, the end was as clear as day. Just goes to show you how fickle the imagination can be sometimes.

As a final note: for fans of The Saga of the Redeemed, this story is set about 12 years or so prior to Tyvian’s day and, obviously, in Illin and not Galaspin/Freegate. Yes, the man in the tooka den is Carlo diCarlo (a younger, thinner Carlo, though). Yes, that does mean young Tyvian (about twenty years old) is somewhere in Illin at that exact moment, doing something untoward. Yes, I do think of these things. Maybe, someday, I’ll tell that story too. Illin, though, does not give up its secrets easily.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on May 1, 2015, in Alandar, Critiques, The Saga of the Redeemed and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This is awesome, Auston. Fascinating!

  2. Martin L. Shoemaker

    There’s power in world building, but I do it more bottom up. I learn a little more with every story, every scene. In my latest story, I had so much world established that story elements just kept coming to me as I needed them. Somewhere in my head, they were already there.

  3. That’s some mighty fine prose there, sir. Do you find that you need to plan out your plots as much, or does the setting help things to progress more organically as you write?

    • The setting very much assists the organic growth of the plot, at least in the earlier stages. It kinda handles your opening conflicts, your stakes, and provides the story with a lot of possible paths. The trick comes towards the end, where everything is supposed to go pear-shaped and things start exploding. That requires some planning (and often revision) to pull off.

  1. Pingback: Read Campbell Award-eligible Stories For Free! | Auston Habershaw

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