Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pearls of Fire, Dreams of Steel Story Notes

I love reading "the stories behind the stories," so here are some background musings from the stories
in my new collection from Book View Cafe, Pearls of Fire, Dreams of Steel.


As I put together this collection of short fantasy fiction, I realized it comprises a retrospective of my writing career. Although it does not include my very first professional sale (“Imperatrix” in Sword & Sorceress), it spans the decades from novice to seasoned writer. To my delight, I found many of those early stories still spoke to me—delighted me—as much now as when I labored to create them. Often the output of a young writer will be justifiably relegated to the Trunk of Doom (hence the term “trunk stories”). When we’re learning new skills, we need to practice, and not all of those early experiments succeed. More than that, in order to grow as artists, we need to take risks, to “push the envelope,” even if it means falling flat on our faces, so to speak. But it does not follow that every early effort is best forgotten. Stories ignite within us, waiting to take shape on paper. Once we have acquired a certain basic level of craft, it no longer matters if this is our first sale or our fortieth. And one of the gifts of new publishing technologies is the ability to revive those stories, even from decades ago, so that new generations of readers can enjoy them.

“Storm God,” “Fireweb,” and “Dragon-Amber” all come from those early years, when I was trying out lots of new ideas. Astute readers will recognize a touch of a well-known American folk tale in “Storm God.” “Fireweb” was an early exploration of the “wounded healer” theme, and also taught me that whatever I thought a story was “about” when I started writing it, I was sure to be wrong; I developed the wisdom to let the “underneath” story tell itself. When I wrote “Dragon-Amber,” it seemed as if everyone and their cousin was writing stories based on Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” series. True to my contrary nature, I insisted on something different. No oversized fire-breathing flying reptiles here, but a creature of magic nonetheless.

“Bread and Arrows” and “Nor Iron Bars A Cage” were written within a couple of years of one another. Both stories arose from a turning point in my life. When I wrote it, I had just moved from a large city to a redwood forest. I’d started a full-time day job to support myself and my younger daughter. It’s about new beginnings, and also making choices that close off other avenues. “Bread and Arrows” echoes “Summoning the River” (Transfusion and Other Tales of Hope) in its journey into a dark place, grappling with loss and mortality. I also wanted a different role for the charismatic, sexually attractive stranger; Celine looks beneath the handsome exterior to the suffering man, and draws compassion from her own struggle. And the bakery salamander was irresistible!

Sometimes readers ask where I get story ideas, and often I honestly have no idea. I suspect the Idea Fairy leaves packets of them under my pillow at night. For “A Hunter of the Celadon Plains,” however, I had been thinking about the place of women warriors in peoples of the steppe or plains. In Azkhantian Tales (later developed into The Seven-Petaled Shield trilogy), women used horsemanship and archery to compensate for lesser physical strength. In thinking of how the North American Plains peoples were able to hunt buffalo on foot, I kept the arrows but substituted long-distance running and superb tracking skills for the advantages of horses. Where the rat-thing that gnaws the bonds between worlds came from, I am not at all sure. Probably a nightmare.

Likewise, “Poisoned Dreams” came from a specific idea and then took off in its own direction. The Greek general Xenophon wrote (Anabasis) about a honey that intoxicated his soldiers: “A small dose produced a condition not unlike violent drunkenness, a large one an attack very like a fit of madness, and some dropped down, apparently at death's door.” How could an author resist? But one idea, not matter how bewitching in itself, does not a story make. Hence, the fairy who is crippled in body but not in capacity for malice. I leave it to the reader to decide whether she has just cause.

“Under the Skin” also explores the effects of festering hatred. I wrote it not too long after my mother had been raped and murdered, and I wrestled daily—sometimes hourly—with raging fury. I remembered Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot saying that if you invite evil into your heart, it will make a home there. The story first appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine and when Marion selected it for The Best of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, I sent her background notes for the introduction. “Are you sure you want to make such a personal issue public?” she asked, for the murder was not referenced in the original publication. I did and I do. The seductive nature of hatred thrives when kept in the dark. By putting words to page, the pain and anger lose their power over me, and others who suffer similar tragedies are invited along the healing journey.

“Silverblade,” like several other stories in this collection, began as a dream. The scene with the land-crabs approaching and a child running to open the gates woke me in a cold sweat. Following the advice of Octavia Butler, I took what really frightened me and spun it out into a story. After its publication, a fan composed a “filk” song based on the story and sang it for me at a convention. Until then, I’d had no idea how deeply the story touched my readers.

“The Sorceress’s Apprentice” is just plain fun.

“Our Lady of the Toads” had its origins at a late-night gathering at a science fiction convention. I was hanging out with Mike Resnick (who also wrote a blurb for my first published novel, Jaydium) and he’d just signed to edit an anthology of the “Fantastic” series for DAW. An invitation for Witch Fantastic ensued, and this is that story.

Ah, “Pearl of Fire,” for which this collection is named: another dream, this one of looking into a mirror and seeing the reflection of a brass dragon instead of my own face. What to do with this image? By this time, I had 40 or 50 short story sales, and I realized that the story wasn’t about an outside dragon, an independent creature, but an inside dragon. I also needed something that affirmed joy and life itself as a foil for the becoming-a-dragon theme: the love story. A few years after publication, the Pearl still had me in its clutches. The untold part of the story demanded with increasing urgency to be told. The heartbreak that conquered the dragon wanted its own space, and so “Pearl of Tears” came about.

When I wrote “The Casket of Brass,” I was heartily tired of pseudo-medieval Western European fantasy. I had loved (a children’s version) of The Arabian Nights (the original version being judged much too violent, not to mention erotic, for young minds). While flavored by those stories, this one takes off in its own direction, and certainly features stronger, more active women than Scheherazade described.

The last tale in this collection, the capstone, is one of my personal favorites. I have loved horses since I knew what they were. When editor Gabrielle Harbowy asked me to submit a story to When The Hero Comes Home 2, I knew at once that my hero must be a horse. I won’t say more about it lest I spoil the deliciousness of the unfolding. Consider it a gift, to be savored as it is unwrapped.

So I offer you a potpourri — or bouquet, if you like — of tales of dragons and toads, horses and thieves, mothers and daughters, lovers and villains. Enjoy the journey!

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