Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Infancy of the Heron: from Honky to Indian

The original cast of the story looked a lot like the role-playing game it had come from. There was a fighter (Sister Dagmar), a wizard (Bjornsterne), a cleric (Qoyor Sube), and a thief (Hjalmar). ASIDE: If you're not familiar with role-playing culture, this "thief" is more like Bilbo Baggin's burglar, a clever and sneaky helper of the party, than a criminal. The only character who didn't really fit as a roleplayer was Rabbit. Very few role-playing systems have a character class of "peacemaker."

Part of the inspiration for Rabbit was actually Butch Cassidy. I was watching one of those "Movies with Commentary" shows in Boston ("The Movie Loft," if that means anything to anyone). The commentator remarked that Cassidy was neither the cleverest, nor the toughest, nor the best gun in the gang. Why did people follow him? "Because they liked him." Interesting, I thought. The hero who is the leader simply for his relationships with people, without force, title, or cunning.

I wrote an entire draft of the novel with the wizard and the honky Rabbit, before I realized that was wrong. I axed the wizard, ultimately, because he was too standard. I've always had trouble with the role-playing convention of having both wizards and priests, both casting spells but drawing on different power. How can there be gods who shaped the order of the universe, and a power in the universe that is other than what the gods shaped. Magic and religion have to be integrated, I've always thought.

In historical examples, this is always the case. Magic and the sacred are never separate realms. Granted, in medieval Europe, witches and priests were co-existent and separate. But they both drew on the same divine power. When a priest performed a miracle, it was the power of God. When a witch cast a spell, it was the power of Satan.

So how did Rabbit finally become a part of a tribal people? I think I knew he ought to be before he did. When I finally agreed that he needed to, I had to square my shoulders and take a deep breath. I'd been afraid to do it. I didn't want to be accused of co-opting Indian culture, or making a poor-Indian story, or anything of that nature. But then I realized that what I was doing instead was writing a story about white Indians, and that was worse. So... I had to do it right.

After some years of struggling with this story, and bringing it nearly into its final form, it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't have made up a fake society. It is based in fair part on Indians of the North-east, the Iroquois Confederacy and the Abenaki, but mostly it was my invention. I deliberately did not have the children of Uliante grow corn, because that, it seemed to me, would literally brand the tribe Native American. But I was always uncomfortable that the Children of Uliante, and all their kin, were hunter-gatherers before the coming of the lowlanders, rather than the farmers of the Americas, with their own domesticated crops.

Similarly around this time, it occurred to me that I had created the Old Tongue largely by messing with Japanese as a model, although I added many non-Japanese phonemes, and maybe I should instead have worked off of Abenaki. I'd used Japanese for convenience: I know it. I experimented with Abenaki, and I even rewrote the first chapter with the new language.

Ebidzani of Uliante lay still on his pallet in the cool summer night, quieting his nerves. His night terrors came frequently these days, it was unfair to disturb his family... When he was a child little older that his grandson Zegleuna was now, there had only been a vision of flames and a feel of heat on his face and an overwhelming sense of loss. Later he had known it for a funeral pyre, later still for the pyre of his wife, W'bala. Recently, he had seen the faces of the people gathered around the pyre, seen his chief, Zokatese, strangely without his sword, his daughter Ditsala, utterly bereft, his friend Nazante wide-eyed in sorrow. He had never seen his son W'sigwa, he didn’t know why. This time he had clearly seen his grandchildren, Zegleuna and little Inasa, though he had always thought they were present.
Only W'bala, as always, W'bala, did not see it as his shame but his strength. "Se w'dô, your soul walks in fears others cannot face even in their dreams, w'dô ho? If ever you can face your dreams, se, you will be the wisest of us all."
 But finally I realized that if I used the Abenaki language, I would have to use more clearly the Abenaki culture, and that meant the Abenaki cosmology, and that meant the story fell apart. So the Indianifaction of Rabbit remained as I had made it, and that would be good.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Birth of the Heron

Now that The Heron in His Vigilance has finally hit the shelves, I thought I could write a bit about where it came from.

The seed of the story was a role-playing game. The old-fashioned kind, a bunch of friends sitting around a table with paper, dice, books, and beer. The players were the folks listed in the dedication. Mallgeir was in the names, as was King Balás, and Qutuchin, Uliante, and Celio, although the names were different. The basic plot, the struggle against Balás, was the same. The attack on Norcincó, the escape through the tunnels, and the murder of the Heir of Jan was there--although the Heir of Jan was male and the Temple of the Dust did not exist.

It was a great way to develop a story, interacting with other people, drawing from other creativity. I conceived the idea of making the story in 1998, flying from Burlington to Los Angeles for the Writers of the Future Award ceremony. You spend a lot of time in the air, between Vermont and California. That was in the days when Babylon 5 was on the air, and the notion of a television serial story (as opposed to a series of stories) was novel in America. It occurred to me that I could adapt the game into a TV serial, so I wrote up a treatment, a list of episodes, describing the development of the story.

Some changes occurred immediately. The invention of Rabbit as the central character, the addition of Sister Dagmar and Bjornsterne. The player's characters quickly transformed.The only character who is recognizable is Deb Hayes's K'Shan, who became Qoyor Sube. The backstory and the nature of her power are original to the book, but K'Shan was a shaman of the Bayan Govi.

Two non-human characters are largely gone: Tony Galbraith's Beast and Carrie Rouillard's Ithiel. Coincidentally, both are visual artists: you can find Tony's paintings and wool sculptures at, and Carrie's masks at Beast was adopted out of another novel, so I couldn't use him. Ithiel, a unicorn, survived into the TV show, but when I decided to do the novel, I decided to drop her. A unicorn is a powerful archetype. It seemed impossible to have a story with a unicorn in it without the unicorn and the nature of unicorns being central. I replaced them with Tlikkipit, who was part of the TV show all the way through.

Also, as the story evolved, it became much more humanocentric. All manner of magical creatures, trolls, man-eating bird people, banshee birds, and others were dropped. Not to mention the issue that Marion Zimmer Bradley's estate, which wouldn't have objected to her banshee birds being pulled wholesale out of her books for a role-playing adventure, would have had something to say about a published novel.

Amy Freund's Ghost lasted through the entire story in the TV version. When I wrote the novel, however, I got as far as Skowe before realizing he didn't have a role, anymore. Not coincidentally, this is when I realized Tlikkipit could not always be there. It was then left behind by the old trick of spirit creatures not crossing water.

Jeremy Freund's Ben Barak survived in Bjornsterne. Ben Barak was a Leane Si from a far northern people which I later dropped. Obviously I couldn't have another Leane Si just banging around with the party, so that had to go. But Bjornsterne's character came a lot from Ben Barak, particularly the speechifying, although I don't believe Ben was quite as obtuse as Bjornsterne.

But there was still a long way to go. For instance... the people of Uliante, and Rabbit himself... were all white.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Is a Bison not a Buffalo?

AHEM. Scientists are not the arbiters of language.

In North America, there is an indigenous animal usually called the buffalo, which is not related to the Asian and African buffalo. Therefore scientists insist on calling the NA buffalo "bison." Good for them.

Curiously, I hear much less complaint about how in North America people call elk "moose," and then call a completely different animal an elk which is not an elk but a deer.

Meanwhile, a killer whale is not a member of a whale family. It's a dolphin. Neither the sparrowhawk (falcon) or redtailed hawk (buteo) are hawks. The jackrabbit is a hare and the snowshoe hare is a rabbit.

Despite getting an enormous kick out of taxonomy, and the difference between Artiodactyla and Perrissodactyla, I use all these "wrong" names. By and large, the common name is a much more evocative name than the "correct" one. "Bison" is a species. A buffalo is the animal that thundered in great herds over the plains, the lifeblood of the Sioux, the animal the pale-face shot by the hundreds for sport as their trains rattled by. A buffalo is the spirit of the American west.

In the 19th century, we like to say, people thought whales were fish. Listening to Moby Dick, it occurred to me, that is completely wrong. People called whales "fish." They defined a "fish" as an animal that swims in the ocean, and by that definition, they were absolutely correct, a whale is a fish. It simply isn't true that they mistakenly believed whales to be fish. They understood that there were significant differences between whales and fish, like breathing air. But the medium of life in water made such demands upon creatures that the whale is, in many ways, more like a marlin or swordfish than it is like a buffalo (sorry, a bison). What happened was that the definition of what makes a fish changed, so that it no longer included whales.

Apparently, by the same standard we now use to exclude whales from the name of "fish," sharks are not fish either. Sharks are in a different order from fish, they are no closer relations than are whales. But I've never heard anyone protest that a shark is not a fish.

The notion of whales as distinct from fish is now so firmly fixed in the modern mind (and, yes, the distinction is a very good one), I don't call whales fish. But I no longer feel a need to wince listening to some old sea shanty about "chasing the whale-fish."

Current Projects

I've been away from here so long. Many apologies. What am I doing? A lot. Most current bits:

The Cracked Earth: (Working Title) A bit ago I tried the "share your story with your daughter chapter-by-chapter while you write it." Kept me on my toes to be sure each chapter made you want the next. This is an odd Middle-Grades story about  a handful of kids who haven't been eaten by the creatures who've eaten most of the people on Earth. The first draft is done.

A Time Traveler's Guide to Messing Up Your Life: (Firm Title) A Young Adult story about a high school girl who time travels, and tries to "adjust" history toward better outcomes. I thought it was all done, when I discovered Steven King had just published a story about time travelers trying to save Kennedy, so now I have to change the climax so it doesn't look like I copied him. I think I might have her go after J. Edgar Hoover instead, which will have the advantage of my hero having to fend off advances from the POTUS.

Inka Argus: (working title). A middle-grades story about a girl reporter in large and strange city similar to 1900. To be a mystery, which I haven't really done before, so we'll see. This is in early stages.