Tom’s Diner, Evocative Writing, and an Update

Have you even heard the term “earworm?” If not, you’ve experienced it: a song that wriggles its way into your head and makes a home there, unwilling to leave. Like Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega:

It’s one of those songs that just won’t let go. It’s catchy, pithy, and expressive. But what does it have to do with writing?

I was listening to this song the other day, and it struck me that it’s the perfect example of evocative description. I won’t reprint the lyrics here, but you can find them online. I can’t even think of a worthy sample to give here, because anything taken out of the context of the whole is meaningless. Take a look, I’ll wait.

The song seems nonsensical: just a person narrating their (rather dull) day. Until you get to the end of the song, and you realize that she’s sitting in a diner alone because she’s no longer with her significant other. There’s no indication why they broke up, who left who, if infidelity or death  was involved–just that she’s lonely, and misses him. Then the rest of the song makes sense: she hasn’t been narrating her boring day as much as setting the scene for how she’s feeling. Despite not being very long or eventful, the song is enormously effective.

This works because Vega gives you no indication of the plot until the last verses–and even then, there are so many open questions. The whole song is made up of little details that seem so inconsequential it’s easy to gloss over them. But in looking back on them, they set the tone beautifully, and in a better way than simply telling the listener what’s happening.

When writing fiction, evocative description is the way to go. It’s so much more effective than telling the reader point blank that your character is feeling sad or happy or hungry. It’s economical too: Vega’s character has a complex emotional state that’s expressed in just over 200 words. Even better, she does this without having the character speak, or even really do anything beyond putting cream into her coffee. As a writer, you want to make sure you pull the reader into your story, to make them sympathize with your characters. You can do this by handing it to the reader on a silver platter–but that’s boring, and it’s not respectful to a reader who’s able to figure things out for themselves.

Instead, by placing little details in seemingly innocuous places, you create an emotional tapestry that pulls the reader in without them even realizing it. The continuous rain, the woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched as she hikes her skirt, the man behind the counter who doesn’t pay attention to his customer–these are all external indications of how Vega’s character is feeling. They’re metaphors, and very effective ones. And all without the character so much as lifting a finger.

The added benefit here is that you get to create your world in relation to the characters. Vega’s world seems damp, murky, and unfriendly–a perfect compliment to her character’s emotional state. But the same world, as described, can be used to reflect other characters. Maybe the woman hitching her skirt is meeting a lover for a romantic kiss in the rain. Maybe the man behind the counter is inattentive because he’s secretly in love with the woman with the umbrella. When other characters react differently to the world you’re creating, you’re telling the reader even more about them. Again, without those characters doing much of anything.

Here’s an example from the opening of my upcoming release, Court of Sand:

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click; Alkut stopped for a moment, listening. Content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmel, General  of the Court, watching him.

I think the passage needs some tightening up, but you see what I’ve done here. I could have written bluntly that Alkut was sneaking out of the Empress’ chambers while Ohmel looked on, perhaps even having Ohmel whispering his intent to punish Alkut for the transgression. I could have gone into great detail about how Alkut is having an affair with the newly widowed Empress, that there’s already an underlying tension between him and Ohmel, and that the Empress is an unwitting pawn in a larger plan. But all of that boils down to exposition, and it’s dull. The few lines above tell much the same story, with (I think) a bit more flare. Evocative writing gives a whole new dimension to your work and your characters.

And, frankly, it’s more fun for the writer too.

Tapestry Sample part 2–and exciting news!

Following up on my last post, today I have the second part of Garden, the sample from my upcoming Tapestry project. But first, some exciting news!

Yesterday I got my manuscript for The Astrologers and Other Stories from my editor, Yesenia Vargas. This is the first time I’ve had my work professionally edited, so I was a bit nervous. But it wasn’t as error-ridden as I’d feared. Once I go through the edits, I’ll be ready to start formatting–one more step taken!

This is where it starts to feel really real. Now I have a manuscript that’s been tinkered with, ad somehow that drives it home for me. I’m looking forward to my first real release!

In the meantime, I’m still working on my new project, Tapestry. Here’s the seond half of the sample I introduced in my last post:

Garden, part two

Metedre raced down the stairs and into the garden, her heart in her throat. Kthone didn’t contact her often—she rarely showed herself at all—but she had proved to be a great source of advice. She carried with her an immense store of wisdom, and was eager to share it with her—to the point, in fact, that Metedre often wondered if she were being groomed.
The scent of jasmine was cloying in the garden, but she reveled in it. The aroma of damp soil mingled with the flowers, creating a wonderfully textured sensation. She stepped out of her slippers so she could feel the grass on the soles of her bare feet, and found her way through the winding path, looking for her charge.
Kthone stood beside a tall willow—also imported, and sadly not doing well in its new habitat—both hands resting on a small knobbed cane. She was clothed in an earthy taupe robe, cinched at the waist by a thin green cord that could have been a vine. A tall flat hat was perched on her head and appeared forever in danger of falling off, though it never did. When she smiled at Metedre’s approach, her face folded into a labyrinth of wrinkles and she showed brownish teeth. Patches of coarse hair dotted her face and hands.
“Evening becomes you, Empress,” she croaked, her voice deeper than one would expect. Metedre nodded her thanks, folding her hands into the sleeves of her gown.
“Well met, my friend,” she replied. The unusually cool air chilled her, and she wished she’d fetched a thicker robe than the simpler shift she’d donned after Alkut had left. “And to what do I owe this visit?” She shivered, moving from foot to foot.
The Crone lifted a hand, as gnarled as her cane, facing a palm toward Metedre. The Empress knelt and pressed her palm in turn; a shallow warmth emanated from the Crone, filtering through her own body. She smiled.
“The warmth of the land permeates all; you are forgetting your lessons,” the Crone chided. But there was a lilt of humor in her voice. Metedre stood again, and nodded.
“I have been…preoccupied of late. My people…”
“Yes, yes, my child, I know of your troubles. They matter little, but weigh much. This land,” the Crone said, gesturing with her arm to include the whole garden, “has been transformed. You brought life to it, continue to nurture it. Your people weep for lack of resources, for want of fertile land, but it is all right here. This is all you need.”
Metedre nodded again, but her smile had faded. She had heard this talk before, and while she saw the wisdom in what Kthone was trying to tell her, the Crone simply didn’t understand the depth of the situation.
“My people are starving, Kthone.  Our population grows faster than we can feed it, and for the first time our Empire can’t seem to sustain itself. We have tried irrigation, rotating crops, cultivating hardier strains; nothing holds. We have imported dozens of species from Tornum, but this garden is the only place they grow and thrive.”
The Crone hobbled closer to Metedre, gazing idly around the garden as if taking it in for the first time.
“Yes. And this garden is a formidable achievement. This is harsh land indeed, all desert and sands. And yet you have wrought this bounty from the earth, teased it to your will. Why has it not been so elsewhere in Yzima?”
Metedre winced. It certainly hadn’t been for lack of trying. The problem was a source of water; Yzima had an extensive coastline, but little water flowed through the interior of the Empire. Most of the major settlements were on the shores, and industry followed—leaving little room for the cultivation of crops in the areas that were best suited to it. Many Emperors had tried in the past to pass reforms to clear that land, but the Empire had always been built on Industry; their wealth, their very livelihood depended on the kind of invention that pushed agriculture aside. Their factories and refineries and smelters needed water too, and it was a matter of simple economics that the results of that toil created more wealth than farming.
It had never been an issue before now. They were expanding at a record rate, and people were moving inland. The continent had been plotted centuries ago, and people were delving into the interior for want of space. But neither industry nor agriculture could function well in the expansive desert, and so the coastlines became more and more clogged with people competing for prime land. The result in recent years had created a sever issue of supply versus demand, as both major <industries> competed for the same scarce resources, and both flagged in response.
But Kthone knew all of this; they’d had this conversation several times before. Metedre saw the small woman’s smile and knew she was being tested.
“Other areas of Yzima haven’t received the attention my garden has,” she replied tentatively. The other woman nodded, encouraging her. “I have tended these plants tirelessly,” she continued, “even had the course of the River Umen turned to irrigate it. But the toil of my people hasn’t been any less than mine. “
“Their toil, no,” Kthone said, setting her cane aside and bending to the ground. She gathered a clump of soil, and waddled closer to Metedtre, pressing it into her hands and closing her fingers around it.
“Their will, perhaps not. You have life in you, Empress, and you send it forth as others send words of war and hate. These people, your people…they are hard and sharp, like the sands of the desert. They do not understand as you do. You are a mother, and have wisdom others lack.”
She smiled, placing a muddy hand on Metedre’s abdomen.
“Yes,” she muttered, gathering her cane.
“Mother?” he asked, “why are you out here alone? Who were you talking to?”
Footsteps approached from the palace, echoing in the silent night. Startled, Metedre turned, childishly hiding the soil behind her back, as if she’d been caught stealing. She couldn’t think of who else would be up at this time of night, let alone wandering through her garden. General Ohmelus, the General of Tauri’s armies, walked down the path, and she relaxed.
Metedre gestured behind her, but the gnomish woman had already turned away and was walking into the trees.
“A friend,” she replied. The Knight gave her a curious look, his eyes searching for this “companion,”but saw nothing. He didn’t pursue the issue. Instead, he nodded towards her clenched hands.
“It’s a little late for gardening, mother,” he quipped. “Or are jasmine saplings best planted in the dark?”
She ignored his tone—he seemed surlier than usual—and looked at the wad of dirt in her hands. A small spout had grown out of it, already arching toward the moon for light. Laughing, she tenderly planted it in the ground, wiping her hands on her shift.
“Come, Ohmelus, walk with me.” She offered her arm, and they strolled together down the moonlight path.

Tapestry–A New Project, and a Sample

All Sizes

Image by shutterhacks

While I’m in the midst of planning the marketing and production of my upcoming collection–The Astrologers and Other Stories–I’m also continuing to write. I have a file on the memo app on my phone that teems with story ideas, and one of them is particularly exciting for me.

Those of you who read The Astrologers (which you can find here, here, and here), will have an idea about the World of this project. The setting is one I created many years ago, but my planned novel never got finished. The Astrologers is a stand alone story I wrote partly in the hopes of rejuvenating that world–and it worked. The ideas started flooding in, and now I’ve pencilled out an outline for a large project.

It starts two hundred years before the time of my planned novel–which I still plan to write one day–and The Astrologers. I wanted to explore the backstory of my World, and in the process, help build it. I’m also planning on featuring a favourite character of mine, the Prophet Osir–a character that never appears in the aforementioned novel, but is a significant figure in its mythology. Now, I get to tell his story.

The project–tentatively titles Tapestry–will be written in three phases. Phase one is a collection of sixteen short stories, each working as character studies; they will be released in four sets, each between 8000 and 10,000 words long

Phase two will consist of four novellas, each following the story revealed through the earlier character studies. These stories are interrelated, and some scenes from Phase one will be revisited from other viewpoints, or otherwise expanded upon.

Phase three will be a longer novel that concentrates on Tobias Osir, a young soldier in the army who is caught in the middle of a religious and political war. Osir is forced to question his faith and his place in the world. It will follow him from his naive beginnings to…well, you’ll just have to read it.

In the end, we’ll have nine separate stories, each interrelated and connected to each other: a true literary tapestry. There’s a specific structure behind this–but we’ll talk about that another time. In the meantime, here’s a sample: the opening of the series. Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

Garden

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click. Alkut stopped for a moment, listening; content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmelus, General  of the Court, watching him.

****

Metedre fell upon the door as it closed, resting her forehead on the rough wood. A heavy sigh shook her shoulders, and yet she wore a faint smile; these encounters were always bittersweet. She bit a lip. More sweet than bitter tonight.
But the guilt would come. It haunted the dark, sang refrains in her mind as she held court with her Emperor. She never ceased to marvel that he didn’t know—or if he did know, that he didn’t care. She would be naïve to think that it was as well a kept secret as she wished, and that thought kept her continually on edge.
And yet she would not deny herself. Tauri was cold, distant—he had an empire to rule, and had no time for her. She had known that even before they were married. She had but one role as Empress: continue the line. That she had, with Ohmelus, and though more heirs would be welcome, her function had been served. Tauri had little to do with her, nor should he. His eyes were on the governance of the realm.
When Alkut’s footsteps receded out of earshot, she stepped away from the door and padded her way, barefoot, to the window overlooking her garden. A small marble bench sat by the sill, and she wrapped her robe more tightly around herself as she sat. For once, the breeze was cool tonight. The soft caress was welcome.
She did not love him, and he had as much as admitted that he had no love for her. Their…arrangement was mutually beneficial, and that was all. Occasionally, she revelled in the thought that all she need do was give the word, and he—and his temptations—would be removed. She need not expend any further thought on the matter, and no one would dare ask questions, even tell the Emperor if she bade them not to. Her quandary would be erased. But then, Alkut served not only to warm her bed. He was critical to the Empire’s survival.
The breeze wafted through the window and brought with it a scent of jasmine. They had been imported from Tornum at her request—and no little expense—and had become one of her greatest pleasures. It was a slave for an overwrought mind, and always served to bring her back down to earth.
Tauri had acted interested when she asked for the flowers, and the Court did as they always did, applauding his decision despite the cost. In the end, it had been to him little more than an opportunity; he’d had the flowers planted all through Ais for the populace to enjoy, and spoke at length about the benefits of bringing such beauty to the normally hot and dry city. Indeed, the white blooms had infested the city, and everyone praised the wisdom of the Emperor for bringing such life to their veritable desert. Not a word was spoken about her own involvement, but that was immaterial. She relished in the people’s enjoyment, and was happy that her own request had benefited them.
Still, she was the only one in Ais with a full garden. Many of the richer caste had flowers in their yard, even grass and fountains—but not a real garden like hers. It was a great indulgence in a realm with more sands than people, and the resources it took to cultivate and maintain the plants was considerable, but nobody begrudged her. Occasionally she held lavish public parties in her garden, welcoming everyone, regardless of caste or wealth. The people often called her The Jasmine Empress because of it, and celebrated her generosity. No regent of the Empire had ever done this for the people, and she knew she would be remembered for it long after she turned to dust. It was a legacy that gave her more pleasure than that of the Tauri line ever could.
The parties were becoming more frequent, and more necessary. Her people had fallen on difficult times; populations grew while resources grew thin, and there seemed to be more problems than pleasures. Her garden had become a bastion of peace, a refuge where people could forget their cares, if even for a short time. Something about the verdant growth entrances the Ozym; they felt grounded in her garden, rooted. She liked to think that being connected to the land gave them a new perspective of their problems—that they were fleeting, however taxing, that these blossoms, properly tended, would outlast all of their problems. She wanted this garden to become a symbol for her people, a sign that the problems of their material world mattered much less than the wonders of the world around them. This garden, she hoped, would continue thriving long after all of them had turned to dust.
She smiled at the thought, her indiscretions of the evening almost forgotten. Then, gazing dreamily out the window, she caught a flutter of movement in her garden, and a small gnomish figure stepped out of a copse of trees. Metedre stood at once, and fled to the door. The Crone had news.

Steampunk, (part 3) and short stories.

I mentioned a while ago that one of the introductions I had to the world of e-publishing was Lindsay Buroker. I read a couple of her short stories (Ice Cracker II and The Assassin’s Curse), and got hooked on her writing. But it also got me thinking that  I could get into indie publishing in the same way.

This is something I’ve been thinking about since I started this blog, and set out on this e-publishing journey to begin with. So it was with great pleasure that I came across Ryan Casey’s blog and his recent post, “Short Stories: Four Reasons Why You Should Write Them.” Check it out, it’s a good read.

It also validated part of why I’m going about this the way I am. My short term plan is to write a collection of short stories and use them as a sort of “test drive” through the process of uploading and publishing a book on the Kobo store. The thought was that this would be a simpler project than jumping in head-first with a novel, it would take less time and resources to get my work out there and start building a platform, and it would introduce readers to my work for a minimal fee (I’ll probably charge $0.99 for the collection, and possibly offer one of the stories as a stand alone free download). Ryan hit on those points, and more–which makes me think I’m on the right track.

But his post also got me thinking about what else short stories are doing for me. I’m getting a lot out of it:

  • It’s getting me “in the habit.” Writing the first draft of a short story is taking me, on average, three days, and because it’s a shorter self contained plot, it’s easy to keep engaged. I look forward to finishing them, so I can go onto the next one. The end result is that I’ve written three stories in the last week and a half, have started a fourth, and have a plethora of new ideas.
  • It keeps me accountable. Having a long term project like a novel is great, but it can seem a long ways off. It’s also a large project, which–for me–is an intimidating way to start off. Especially if the novel ends up not selling, in which case I’d probably feel like I’ve wasted a good deal of time and effort. By writing short fiction, I can give myself shorter term goals, which are easier to achieve–which in turn keeps me engaged in setting new, larger goals.
  • Short stories are helping with my “world building.” I want to get into fantasy writing because it means that I get to make the rules; yes, there are tropes and ideas that most fantasy will make use of, but I can still use those as a framework, and dressing it as I see fit. But building a world is a lot of work; you have to be careful about consistency and tone, and doing that over a longer project is challenging. Writing short stories is allowing me to experiment with the world as it’s being built, adding onto things piece by piece until I have a cohesive whole. I’d like to talk about world building in a future post, so stay tuned for that.
  • Finally, it’s Immediate. Not literally–I’ve given myself to the end of September for my first collection, editors willing–but it’s a lot quicker than a novel, which can take months to write, let alone editing and revisions. I’m the kind of person who is generally productive, but likes to see results, and short stories are fitting the bill. I get small nuggets of success at regular intervals, they’re quicker and simpler for my readers to digest, and I can build up anticipation for new stories by issuing them relatively quickly.

So, for me, short stories are the way to go, at least to get started. In my short time in the online writer’s world, I’ve sensed that this is the consensus view; if you have comments to the contrary, let’s open a discussion!

And now, for those of you who have been following my experiment in Steampunk, (you can find part one here and part two here) here is the conclusion of The Astrologers:

Almost everyone in the audience jumped to their feet and started pushing one another aside in an effort to get closer to Vesir. He stepped back reflexively, grinning as he did so–he obviously enjoyed the attention—and tapped the handle on his other palm.

“Not so excited now, please be calm! The Astrologers know all, but they can only answer one question. And, my dear friends,” at this point, he adopted a hang-dog expression, “my magnificent Automata are not inexpensive to operate. Perhaps if someone would be so kind as to make a donation…”

Dolle’s mouth fell open. This man was a…what was the word her father liked to use? A huckster?

Nobody seemed to notice the barker at his game, however. The people started digging in their pockets for coins, waving them and hooting like pigeons begging for a crumb of bread. Vesir placed the rod under one armpit and made a show of applauding his customers.

“Excellent, excellent, my friends! I knew there were philanthropists in this crowd,” he cooed. He leaned into one particularly excited young woman and added: “the last lot were certainly not so kind–nor beautiful–as this.”

With a twirl, his coat flapping behind him, Vesir stepped back toward his Astrologers and tapped the closest one on the shoulder. An arm raised with a mechanical, jerky motion, producing a velvet bag. Vesir saluted the automaton and took the bag. Beckoning to the young woman, he deftly pocketed her proffered coin, and both it and the bag disappeared into his pocket.

“Now, my beauty, what is it you would like to know? Remember, the Astrologers can tell all the secrets of the heavens!”

The woman looked suddenly sheepish and stumbled over her words now that she was on display. Eventually, she leaned in and whispered to Vesir, who smiled, showing pearly white teeth. As she went back to her spot in the crowd, Dolle could see her blushing.

Well, well, well!” Vesir exclaimed, clapping his hands. A secret question! Well, my young friend, it is safe with me–and with the Astrologers! They are modest machines, I tell you. No one will hear of it from I, the Magnificent Vesir!”

With another flourish–his theatrics were wearing on Dolle by now–he retrieved the leather handled rod and whirled it in the air again. He walked up and down the row of mechanical men, choosing one seemingly at random, and fit the rod into a hole in its side. Smiling widely at his audience, he whispered at the automata, his eyes never leaving the crowd.

“This is Aspect, one of my wisest and most articulate Astrologers. He will answer your question, dear lady. Behold!”

He began to turn the rod. As he cranked, the Astrolger made a series of clicks and whirs, its head turning this way and that, arms moving up and down as he marched in place. Thoroughly disillusioned now, Dolle had to stifle a laugh. It was hard to believe that these people were believing such a ridiculous display. It was interesting, however, to see the wheels and dials on its chest move. The pointers cycled around, moving at different speeds.

But they ate it up. People were clapping in time to the automata’s clanking rhythm. Some shouted their own questions, though Vesir paid them no mind. The woman was gnawing at her fingertips in anticipation.

Then there was a faint humming sound which rose in pitch until it was almost a whistle. The wheels stopped turning, as did Vesir; the pointers rested at various angles. The showman examined the Astrologer’s chest with great concentration, giving the occasional nod and “I see”, stroking the small pointed beard on his chin. Then, removing the rod and folding it into his pocket once more, and faced the audience. Without looking at his creations, he addressed them in a loud, triumphant voice:

“And what, my Astounding Astrologers, is the verdict?”

Aspect stepped forward and made a clunky sort of bow, then raised an arm in front of itself, as if preparing to declaim on a stage.

“All signs point to…yes.”

Its voice was tinny, and buzzed on the sibilant sounds; there was no variation in tone, no emotion at all. It could have been a series of pops and clicks and buzzes that conveniently happened to sound like speech–but the audience erupted with applause. The woman who had asked the question rushed forward to Vesier and hugged him, tears in her eyes, then ran out of the tent–dragging her astonished male companion with her. The others seemed to want to stay and ask more questions, but Vesir feigned fatigue–holding out his velvet bag, of course–and told them he must rest before the next show, as must his Astrologers. On the way out Dolle heard at least one man say he’d be back for the next presentation.

The entire show had lasted less than ten minutes. Dolle wasn’t convinced, and felt more than a little guilty for sneaking in–her father seemed to have been right. It was nothing more than a put-on.

Vesir took off his gloves and chuckled to himself, hefting the bag of coins before stuffing it back into his pocket. He approached the Astrologer who had answered the question, and kicked it in the shins.

“Another good one, old boy. This lot pays much better than the cheapskates back in Heira’kol!”

The automata didn’t respond.

Vesir laughed, and punched it on the shoulder. “All right, you lot, back to the wagon! A few of you could use a polish before the next set, I should think…” He trundled back around the corner, and the Astrologers turned to follow.

All at once there was a tremendous racket coming from outside the tent. Vesir came running back, head cocked to the side, listening. Spitting some words that Dolle wished not to have heard, he ducked into the wagon and reappeared promptly with a coiled whip. He ran out of the tent, muttering “Not again…”

Dolle was alone with the Astrologers, who had stopped moving in Vesir’s absence. She inched forward; then, realizing she was entirely alone, walked boldly up to the Astrologers.

“Sirs,” she said, bowing, “That was a very…interesting demonstration.”

There was no response. She tapped Aspect on the side, looking up at him.

“Aspect, sir, what was the question the woman asked?”

The Astrologer whirred softly, as if considering a response, then bent his head down to look at Dolle. His multi-faceted eyes were flashing with hundreds of colours, but they seemed somehow empty. In the same, lifeless tinny voice, it answered:

“All signs point to…yes.”

There it was, then. It was all a trick, a toy, nothing more than a cleverly programmed anima after all. She had to admit that these constructs were more complex than she’d ever seen, but they were no longer magical, or even impressive. They were just big, clunky heaps of metal and wisps of elemental magic. She almost wanted to cry.

A loud crash shook her out of her reverie. There was something just outside the tent. She could hear panicked voices yelling in terror as booths fell and tents teared. Something was thrashing about outside, and even as she heard the ear splitting roar, her father’s voice carried over everything, calling her brother’s name.

The crashing noises were coming closer to the tent. Now she could hear her brother’s voice, sobbing with fear. Other voices, men mostly, clamoured and called, chasing after her family and, apparently, whatever beast had gotten loose.

There was another crash as the animal bowled its way into the tent. It fell on its side, growling, and righted itself quickly. It was a large lion, painted green and with a red mane. Clumps of paper mache clung to its fur along its back and tail. If it noticed Dolle, it didn’t show it; instead, its gaze was trained on the circle of men surrounding it–Vesir included, brandishing his whip–while her brother cowered behind her father’s legs. He was bleeding from scratches on his arms and face.

Several of the Astrologers had toppled over, knocked aside by the animal, but Aspect stood firm. Dolle, hiding behind the automaton, ventured to step around it to get a better look at the lion. It still hadn’t taken note of her, but as she stepped into view, her father did.

“Dolle!” he screamed, more out of relief than anger. “Where have you been, we’ve been looking…”

He was interrupted by the lion’s roar; the beast crouched, ready to pounce, its tail flicking pensively back and forth. Its gaze turned between Vesir and the other men, and its quarry–her brother. Jim whimpered as the men approached slowly, trying to circle around and corner it. Dolle, behind directly behind the lion, was in their way. Vesir called out:

“Girl! Little one…back slowly away so we adults can take care of this.” He sounded more annoyed than concerned for her; his eyes were trained more on his automata than Dolle. Her father noticed.

“Why don’t you order that contraption of yours to attack it?” her shot back angrily, pointing at the Astrologer. “If they can do half what you say they can, surely they could do something other than stand around. Hey!” he called to Aspect, “Get the lion, save her, you great bucket of–”

“You’re not helping the situation, sir,” Vesir said. His voice was calm, but dripping with condescension. He expertly avoided answering the question. The Astrologer stood there, mute and seemingly unaware of the situation.

As they argued, the other men started inching carefully forward in a wide arc. Vesir threw a cold look at her father and followed, snapping his whip to get the lion’s attention. It worked: the creature turned to Vesir and growled; the man swallowed, mumbling something about the missing trainer, and readied his whip again. The lion picked up the cue, and backed away.

Directly into one of the fallen Astrologers.

It almost tripped, and snapped around suddenly, jaws clacking at the perceived threat. Instead, he found only lifeless metal–and Dolle. Its tail flicked again, and its eyes shone. It raised its head to sniff the air, and the lion advanced a few tentative steps. It didn’t seem interested in Dolle herself so much as the fact she was the only one blocking its escape. It made to crouch again, and then everything happened at once.

Her father screamed her name. Vesir cried out. Her brother wailed. The lion leaped forward. Dolle let out a surprised yelp, and clasped the Astrologer tightly, her knuckles going white. The other men charged forward, desperate to get to the lion before it got to her.

And for Dolle, time seemed to contract, moving in slow motion. Her surroundings faded, and her vision went silver-white. Her hands grew warm and began to tingle. They felt almost fuzzy–like when your arm falls asleep if you lay on it wrong–but painless. The sensation swept in a tangible wave through her body, concentrated in her hands once more, then left, flowing into the automata. Her vision cleared and she swooned, falling to the ground. As she closed her eyes, she could vaguely see Aspect erupting forward, tackling the lion and bringing it to the ground, all the while repeating the same phrase over and over in that tinny, humming voice, the last direction he had been given: “Save her, save her, save her…”

When she came to, she found a circle of faces peering down at her. Her father and brother, Vesir, other men–and Aspect. She stared curiously at the featureless automata, and she swore that it regarded her just as closely. The eyes, glittering with colours as before, were dancing. It held out a metal hand to her; tentatively, she took it, and it helped her to her feet.

“She appears to be adequately recovered,” it said. The voice was still mechanical and toneless. Even as she stood, her head still dizzy, her father swept her into his arms, crying. Behind him, she could see the lion being manacled and led back toward the cage it escaped. He brother watched it wistfully; in his hand he held a paper mache tail with a serpent’s head at one end.

The others drifted away, their interests lying elsewhere now, clapping Vesir on the back and congratulating him on saving the girl. He smiled smile and nodded modestly–“no problem at all, just my duty”–but his eyes were awash with confusion. When they were alone, he darted toward Aspect, running his hands all over its chassis, examining every bit of the Astrologer. No longer the unresponsive and obedient machine, it politely brushed Vesir’s hands away.

“Thank you for your concern, sir, but I am quite undamaged. Your ministrations would be more beneficial if directed toward the girl.”

Vesir stood back in shock and surprise, and shot a suspicious look at Dolle.

“What did you do to it?” he asked. There was no anger in his voice; on the contrary, there was a touch of awe, of wonder.

Her father let Dolle gently to the ground, and took her hand.

“Don’t you touch her,” he warned Vesir, who promptly backed away. “Come, Dolle. Jim, we’re going. I think we’ve had enough of the carnival this year.” He held out both hands, which his children dutifully took in their own.

As they started walking away from the tattered tent, Dolle turned, breaking her father’s grip, and ran toward Aspect, hugging its legs.

“Thank you,” she said. The automata touched her gently on the head.

“I am pleased to have been helpful,” it said. “And thank you, for this.” It placed a hand over its chest.

Dolle smiled. “You’re welcome, Aspect,” she replied.

Running back to her father, she waved at the Astrologer. It waved back, arm clinking softly with the motion, as Vesir looked on, agape.

My Attempt at Steampunk

When I started to get back to my writing, my first question to myself was “what genre will I concentrate on?” The things I’d written spanned a few–sci-fi, fantasy, general fiction, even non-fiction–but I thought it best to stick with one or two genres and build a base there. The larger projects I’m working on are basically fantasy, though I’ve thrown in some weird fiction as well; but science fiction has always been dear to me.

I wanted to share the story that first got me into science fiction. It’s by Issac Asimov, the king of sci-fi. I found this story extant on the internet–though I’m not sure if it’s in the public domain, so if anyone has a problem with my posting it let me know and I’ll be happy to remove the link. It’s called The Last Question, and you can click the title for the text.

This story is a perfect example of what science fiction should be. It’s got some solid (for the time) science to it, has real human concerns, and has a wonderful ending. It blew me away the first time, and still gives me chills whenever I read it. Check it out, even if you’re not a sci-fi fan. It might convert you!

Anyway, I digress. When I was considering concentrating on sci-fi, I started looking at some good examples. I read a lot of Bradbury, Asimov, and so on. I also came across Kevin J. Andseron, who, in a whirl of serendipity, I learned was giving a reading at my public library. I got to meet him, and he passed out pamphlets containing the first three chapters of his new book Clockwork Angels, which is based on the latest album of one of my favourite bands, Rush. Talk about synchronicity!

The book is great, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing when it arrives this fall. It also introduced me to Steampunk–along with the oft mentioned Lindsay Buroker–and it got me thinking. Steampunk, as I understand it, is kind of a blend of science fiction and fantasy; a fantasy world where technology and magic intertwine to create a unique setting. Exciting…and why shouldn’t I experiment with it?

So, for the first time on this blog about writing, I’m going to post a sample of my work. This is my first attempt at the Steampunk genre. I’ve taken ideas and the setting from my planned fantasy novel and am trying it out in a steampunk cast; if this turn out, I’ll refit the novel as a whole. I think it has potential, but I’d appreciate constructive feedback.

Please keep in mind that this is a first draft, hammered out over margaritas. Its not going to be perfect! Here’s the first part:

The Astrologers

The carnival was coming. The most exciting weekend of the year–spun sugar candy, games and prizes, a carousel, the Hall or Horrors (Jim’s favourite); and it was finally here!

Dolle got out of bed early that morning, earlier than she had any right being up, and knocked on her parent’s bedroom door. Their room was separated from the rest of the small cabin because, as daddy said, “adults need their own space;” Dolle had never understood why, but being the adults, she assumed they knew best. And one day, she would be old enough to have her own room too, so it didn’t matter too much. For the time being, she was content–most of the time–to share a corner with her younger brother.

Dolle was ten. She was old enough to know the Important Things in Life (or so she thought,) but still young enough to be enraptured by the magic of it all–and the carnival was the shining example of that magic, the one time each year when there were no chores and they could eat all the candy they wanted, when there were incredible things to be seen and wondrous fun to be had.

As soon as she heard her father grumble something under his breath and his mother sigh a muffled consolation that he’d “promised this months ago,” Dolle went to her brother’s cot and shook him awake. It didn’t take much convincing; he was just as excited as her. He sprang out of bed and immediately started rambling about seeing his first Chimera. The schoolhouse had been talking about it for weeks now, after one of the schoolchildren moved with his family to Dakadain from far off Heira’Kol, one of the earlier stops on the caravan’s tour. It had all Jim had been able to talk about. A real live Chimera!

Dolle didn’t care so much about that–though she had to admit she was curious. Mostly, she didn’t care for the side shows in the carnival. It was the games and food and craft fair she was interested in, something her mother agreed on. This year would be different, though. This year, the Astrologers were coming.

For centuries, the Alchemages had been working with Elemental Magic, working it for the betterment of the Toral, teasing the intricate secrets of nature out into the open for all to see and command. But only in recent years had there been significant progress in one of the obscure schools of elemental magic: artificial anima.

Most of these alchemical constructs were little more than basic tools, insect and rodent shaped objects built from cobalt, silver or steel and imbued with elemental magic. They had been around for some time, their novelty long worn off. Dolle had even seen one at work, at one of the richer farms outside Dakadain: a large brass bison that ran on condensed Earth magic, and helped till the fields. It was an interesting thing to see, but in the end it was little more than a magical tool. Most artificial anima were less useful, really just toys and trinkets.

But rumors had been circulating for years that a certain Alchemage-a powerful Aeromancer by the name of Vesir–had achieved an incredible feat: the creation of sentient, thinking automata. He called them the Astrologers, and they were supposed to be able to tell the future.

Dolle was learning about artificial anima at school, but her teacher had scoffed at the idea of automata when she’d asked. Machines couldn’t have souls, she said, and dismissed the idea out of hand. So Dolle intended to visit Vesir and learn all about them herself.

Her father was finally getting out of bed, and her mother had put a kettle over the fire and was starting to tend the flames when she asked if they could see the Astrologers. Her father dropped a slipper he’d been trying to fit over his foot, and her mother just stifled a laugh behind a hand.

“Dolle, you know better than that, I hope,” her father said. “Those things are just toys, I’m sure. Some sort of machine that only has a certain number of things it says, so that fraud Vesir always knows how to answer them.”

“But daddy,” Dolle whined, “what if they’re really real?” She stamped her foot on the floor to accentuate her point. “If people can make anima, why can’t they make other things?”

Her mother, having got the fire going, put some sausages on the flat-iron balanced over the coals, and started mixing some eggs.

“Because, dear, magic doesn’t work that way. Can you tell me what the Elements do?”

Dolle slumped in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest, depressed at the sudden appearance of a school lesson. At first she refused to answer, but with a stern glance from her mother, she reluctantly obliged.

“The four elements each have their special rule over nature,” she recited. It was a textbook answer. “Earth, Air, Fire and Water each have different properties, but none of them stronger than the others. When a mage learns to use Elemental Magic, he learns to bend those properties to his will–but they can never be more than what they were to begin.”

“That’s right,” her mother cooed, placing a plate of eggs and sizzling sausage before her father. He hungrily dug in, grunting his thanks when she added a cup of hot tea to the setting.

The Elements are powerful, but they can only do so much. When they are used for anima, that construct behaves like an extension of its Nature. But a Geoanima wouldn’t be able to fly, no more than a Hydroanima would be able to start a fire. And none of the Elements has the power to animate something so that it can think and feel for itself.”

Dolle had heard this explanation before, from her teachers at school, friends at the playground, and other adults from which she’d tried to learn the secret of automata. Not for the first time, she wondered–not aloud, for she’d learned long ago that such questions would only earn her scoffs and “isn’t she cute-s”–about the Elements. If none of them could animate a thinking, feeling creature on their own, how had GiSek, the Creator, done it for the Toral?

Knowing better than to press the issue, she started eating her eggs, silently chewing and scheming a way to see Vesir, without her parents knowing.

There we are, folks! I’ll put up other samples as they come.