Writing Wednesdays: Orphans

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about orphans lately.

I don’t mean that in the literal sense. Though, come to think of it, there’s probably a lot to be said about orphans, and I’m writing my share – Maddie from Fall is an orphan, after all; so, too, is Willow, the protagonist of my back-burnered children’s book, Ten Witch Grave. There are a lot of orphans in literature, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. We seem to be drawn to them as characters. There’s probably a whole other blog post there. File it under Posts I’m Not Writing for now.

But that gives me a great segue into what I’m actually writing about: J.K. Rowling (as revealed on Pottermore) calls them orphans. My writing group calls them Stories You’re Not Writing (or Poems You’re Not Writing, or Plays You’re Not Writing, or…you get the idea). They are, simply put, the Very Good Ideas (and occasionally the horrifically bad ideas) that, sadly, have no place in whatever you’re actually creating. Because let’s face it: we all have good ideas. Even great ideas. Except, of course, when we don’t – but, for the most part, ideas are everywhere. They can be found in abundance. And the surfeit of ideas can be more of a problem than the absence of ideas.

In previous posts, I’ve used the machine analogy: your novel (or story, or even poem, in some cases) isn’t a simple thing. It’s a machine filled with many moving parts. You have to choose those parts well, and assemble them with the utmost care. As a rule, you can’t afford to waste your time and effort on useless frippery – or, worse, design and build mechanisms that actually interfere with the functioning of the whole device. You may also have heard of the concept of bandwidth. It’s mostly a computing term, referring to the amount of data you can transmit over a given connection at a given time. But human beings have bandwidth, too. Projects have bandwidth. You can only process so much information; you can only fit so much into a given work.

So this is something that anyone working on a creative project has to deal with. You have ideas. Many of them are Very Good Ideas. But even the best ideas may have to be ignored, or cut, or shouted down until they slink away, tail between their legs. You only have so much bandwidth. You only have so much time. And so, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes painfully, you force those Very Good Ideas out of your story. You create orphans. And those elements of your story will never see the light of day, except perhaps in author’s notes, or interviews, or blog posts like this one.

When I think of Fall‘s orphans, I think first of the two bits of Irish folklore that first inspired me. One of them is an old story (with a few different variations) that I’m not going to talk about just yet, as it may lead people to guess the outcome of the novel, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone before I’ve finished writing it. The other, as I mentioned before, was a charm against the Good Folk that I have been unable to find again – but it went vaguely like this:

Today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. You folk who live in that hill over there, stay over there and don’t bother me.

I’m sure it was much more poetic in its original form (for that matter, it’s probably much more poetic in Irish Gaelic), but as I said, I can’t recall the exact wording and haven’t been able to find the charm again since I first heard it in a folklore class many years ago. But I was struck by the idea of wielding the natural order of things as a weapon against the Good Folk, of using logic and reason and nature against the illogical, the insane, the supernatural. It is not, perhaps, an entirely original concept – see the animated film version of The Flight of Dragons, or certain interpretations of Changeling: The Dreaming – but I found it fascinating nonetheless.

As I think on it now, there is, perhaps, still something of that dichotomy in Fall as it currently stands. Certainly the Fair don’t play by our rules, and their magic is not readily explained or explored through the scientific method. (Sidebar: Isaac Asimov wrote a terrific essay on magic, science, and Clarke’s Third Law in which he argued that, in fact, magic by definition is not bound by rules, where science is – appropriately enough, it’s in his fantasy collection Magic. I did not agree with the essay when I first read it. I’ve come around on the subject.) But they’re not creatures of madness and irrationality anymore. They would generally agree that today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. They would, in fact, point out that today is Wednesday and you’ve actually got it all wrong. The light of reason would not drive them out. It’s a wonderful idea. But there’s no place for it in the story I’m writing.

Actually, a lot of folklore has fallen by the wayside as I’ve streamlined the society of the Fair. As I was researching the book, I drove myself a bit crazy trying to catalog and codify all the fairies in European folklore, chasing down stories of shapeshifting witches and wise druids and talking cats and river monsters. This, too, I’ve discussed before. For a while there, it was enough to make me want to tear my hair out. Finally, for the sake of my sanity, I decided on two rules:

  1. I would only draw fairies from the folklore of Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and the surrounding islands, with a particular focus on Ireland.
  2. I would only allow a particular species to join the ranks of the Fair if it filled a specific niche that no other species quite occupied.

With those rules in mind, I sketched out the following list in my notebook. This is taken verbatim.

  • The bòcans became true shapeshifters.
  • The coblynau retreated beneath the earth.
  • The daoine sidhe came to resemble humans.
  • The dullahans became night terrors.
  • The leannáin sidhe adapted to feed on human blood.
  • The murúcha retreated beneath the waves.
  • The spriggans became more like humans, but kept their strength and power to grow.
  • The fir liath became creatures of air.
  • The ferrishyn became diminutive sprites and formed bonds with dogs.
  • The leanaí na gcrann became creatures of the forests.
  • The sluagh na marbh survived by recruiting/preserving the dead. (also consuming?)

Obviously I’ve expanded on that since, and some of it has changed since I sketched out that basic list. But there’s the skeleton: twelve species, each with their own niches, their own parts to play. And it fits the basic ideas of my story well. The Fair are not their ancestors, the legendary Tuatha de Dannan. They can’t change their form on a whim (with the possible exception of the bòcans, but even they have their limits), they can’t move mountains with a whispered word. They are changed. Codified. Diminished.

I had to bid goodbye to so much in the process: trolls and kelpies and knockers, nixies and nucklavees. There are a lot of orphaned fairies out there, and I wouldn’t want to run into any of them on a dark and lonely night. But Fall is stronger for it. The world is more coherent, more defined. The machine is not yet running perfectly, but it’s running well.

Don’t be afraid to make orphans. If something isn’t working, cut it out. Be ruthless. Cut and rearrange and cut some more until it fits – even if you’re losing Very Good Ideas in the process. There will be other stories. Or there will be notes, or interviews, or anecdotes to be told with a small, rueful smile. You don’t have to cram everything and the kitchen sink into this story.

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Writing Wednesdays: The Evolution of Fall, Chapter One

Earlier this week, I posted the first chapter of Fall. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to go and do so before you continue – this week’s Writing Wednesdays post is all about the evolution of that chapter, so it’s not likely to make much sense to you otherwise.

At this point, Chapter One has been through approximately four and a half drafts. The half-draft is my original handwritten version, which I never managed to finish. At the time, I actually wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going, so I didn’t really know how the chapter should end. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), that draft was written before I moved last year, and the notebook containing it is still buried in the bottom of a box which is buried beneath a pile of boxes deep in the wilds of the junk room. So I don’t remember a lot of specific details. I do recall that I was still using the characters’ original names at that point, so Kira was Aisling, and Bree was Siobhan, among other things. I also recall that the story did not start with Bree’s dream. In fact, I hadn’t yet hit on the idea of giving her strange, prophetic dreams at all. That only emerged as Bree’s story expanded beyond her romance with Maddie, and I decided…

Well. That would be telling. In the words of River Song, spoilers.

Anyway, that early draft actually begins with Bree/Siobhan already on campus, heading to class with her sister. Kira/Aisling doesn’t have much of a part in that draft at all – Siobhan complains a bit about how perfect (and evil) her sister is, but Aisling runs off pretty quickly, and then Siobhan literally bumps into Maddie, who reacts to her meeting with one of the daoine sidhe with rather more fear and distaste. I had the basic idea of who Maddie was in my head, but I hadn’t yet thought through what that meant.

Really, the point of that very first draft was to get myself to start writing this story. In that, it succeeded. But I hadn’t done a lot of the groundwork, and it shows. In fact, as I recall, I hadn’t yet explored the world of the Fair in full, so at that point in time, I was just writing about the daoine sidhe. I’m not even sure I’d brought Professor Gahan and his family into it yet.

You may be wondering why that initial draft was handwritten. That’s a habit of mine that I haven’t yet fully broken. I got my first laptop at eighteen. Before that, I was primarily using the family computer. Since I was, as you might guess, sharing that computer with my family, I only had a couple hours on it each day, and I didn’t want to waste that time pondering. So I’d write out my initial drafts on hand, then type them up when I got my turn on the computer and start making corrections and revisions from there. If I ended up throwing out the whole draft, I’d write the second one longhand as well, to save precious computer time. I still tend to do this on some projects – particularly when I’m running a tabletop RPG – even though I’ve had one laptop or another available to me for most of the past decade. Further, at the time I had an extremely long commute which involved a very lengthy bus ride, and I was nervous about bringing my laptop along. It seems silly to confess that now, as I am literally writing this during my 30-40 minute commute on the Red Line, but there you are.

I do have access to my first complete draft of Chapter One, though I had to go digging through my writing group’s archives to find it. Strangely, it seems I didn’t save a local copy. Actually, looking at it now, it doesn’t seem so strange – I’ve found myself wincing at several points. But I tend to hoard old files, sometimes to my detriment, so it’s still a little surprising that I didn’t keep this one.

With the first draft, the general shape of the chapter begins to emerge. All the characters have their proper names: Bree is Bree, Kira is Kira. Looking back, I see that I’d even settled on Deirdre as their mother’s name. There was a time when I was going with Gwynn, which ultimately became the name of Deirdre’s late mother. (You haven’t heard the story of Deirdre and Gwynn yet. You will.) That said, a lot of the details differ. Most notably, I hadn’t yet figured out Kira’s characterization. In the first complete draft, she was even more bratty and obnoxious than she is now. In fact, she initially woke Bree by dumping a bucket of ice water over her head. When I put this draft before my writing group, many of them pointed out that Kira seemed awfully immature for someone who was over a century old, and her relationship with Bree was not what they would expect from someone who was already grown when her little sister was born. In the course of that discussion, someone mentioned the idea of Kira seeing herself as a sort of surrogate mother to Bree, and I latched on to that. Kira still has moments of immaturity, but it’s all artifice. We see a little of her deeper nature in Chapter One, and we’ll see more as the story continues. Kira has motivations that go far beyond simple malice.

I was also describing Kira very differently – in fact, I was describing all the daoine sidhe of the Winter Court differently. In the first draft, they tended to be short and slight, and Bree, who stood at least a head above most of them, stuck out like a sore thumb. I ultimately decided to make them all a bit more like supermodels, and that meant upping their height significantly. They’re still slender and pale and coldly beautiful, and Bree, with her healthy farm girl glow, still sticks out like a sore thumb, but the differences are there nonetheless.

Speaking of the Winter Court, Bree’s first day of college was originally much colder – cold enough to make her put a nice thick sweater over her shirt and under her jacket. Here’s the thing about early September in New England: as a rule, summer hasn’t left yet. It’s hot and muggy and actually really unpleasant. So my writing group didn’t really buy that even the Winter Queen’s ambient magic would make the first day of college that cold. In the end, I decided that there was no real point in keeping that detail if it broke the reader out of the story, so I toned down the temperature difference a bit. Crowshead still has an unusually cool climate for Massachusetts, but it’s no longer freezing while the rest of the state is still sweltering.

Crowshead wasn’t Crowshead, of course. I’ve talked about that before – it was originally Tara, which was taken as an allusion to Gone With The Wind rather than the reference to Irish history and mythology it was meant to be. In fact, the town wasn’t even in the same place in that first draft: I originally placed it in central Massachusetts, and Greymont College was actually Greyvale instead. When I was pondering new names for the town, I hit on Cape Clear, came up with some really fantastic visuals for the Winter Queen’s palace (which you’ll see for the first time in Chapter Two), and moved the whole thing to the coast. My writing group didn’t like Cape Clear, either, so I did some research into the history of my home state, looked at the names of some other coastal towns, and finally came up with Crowshead. The name Greyvale wasn’t really working for me at that point, so I changed it to Greymount, which ultimately became Greymont.

Last but far from least, the dream was much shorter, and there wasn’t a single detail in it to indicate Maddie’s possible presence. Someone still grabbed Bree at the end of her dance with the handsome boy from the dream, but I didn’t really describe that someone at all, and my writing group actually wasn’t sure it was meant to be a separate person at all! So I tried to make that clearer in later drafts. Hopefully I’ve succeeded.

So the second complete draft introduced Kira’s new personality, Maddie’s hand, the coastal town of Cape Clear, and Greymount College. One thing it didn’t introduce: Bree’s magic. The fourth draft is the first version of Chapter One in which she actually uses any magic at all. Bree doesn’t rely too heavily on her magic – certainly she doesn’t use it as freely as Kira does – but yes, she has power, she is willing and able to use it, and she uses more of it in Chapter Two. Originally, however, she didn’t use it at all until that chapter. And yet she still noticed fine details like Maddie’s hand and the bracelet around her wrist from a good twenty or thirty or forty feet away. This was something else my group called me on. I had originally thought that the daoine sidhe simply had better-than-human sight, but my fellow writers pointed out that it was very difficult to consistently and convincingly write a character with superhuman powers of perception, particularly if those powers were constantly active, and I ultimately decided that Bree would have to make a conscious effort to see so clearly across such a great distance.

The third complete draft really didn’t differ much from the second at all. At the time, I was actually submitting the first chapter of Fall (along with some other pieces) as a writing sample for a job that didn’t end up panning out, so the third draft was mostly cleanup. I changed Cape Clear to Crowshead, and I believe I made one or two other adjustments, but most of the major changes, such as they are, came with the fourth draft.

And that brings us to the present. Major changes in this draft: Greymount officially became Greymont, I added some more details to the dream, and I tweaked Bree’s conversation with Maddie as well as the scene between Bree, Maddie and Kira. I also, notably, changed Dougal’s name. It had been Doyle, but my friend Katie pointed out that Doyle was the name of a prominent character from the Merry Gentry series, and while I’ve read the first book and my Doyle isn’t really at all like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Doyle, I still didn’t want to invite comparison. Both Doyle and Dougal are derived from the old-form version of his name, which is Dubhghall, and in fact Dougal has turned up more often as the modern form in my (admittedly sketchy) research so far, so after a bit of hemming and hawing, I finally made the switch.

As I said previously, this may not be the final form of the chapter. I may still make some tweaks, cut down on some of Bree’s ramblings, and generally clean things up a bit. But I’m confident in the general shape of it, and more than ready to move on. Truth be told, if I hadn’t decided to post the first chapter on the blog, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with another draft at all – at least not until I had the whole novel sitting in front of me, ready to be knitted into a coherent whole. I have much bigger dragons to slay: namely the second chapter (where I’m introducing a character who walked into the story three chapters late and demanded a place in the narrative) and the third (which has seen two completely different drafts so far and still isn’t quite right) and, well, every chapter afterward. Still, it did help a bit to look back at where I’ve been and come up with a new working copy. If nothing else, it got my head back in the game.

Onward.

If you like what you’ve just read, or if you’d like to see more of Fall, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I receive before April 30, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall or a short piece set in the same universe. I’ve already received a little over one hundred dollars, meaning we’re less than $150 away from the first benchmark. The same deal applies for every $500 I receive after the end of the month: a chapter from the book, or a short story exploring Bree’s world in more depth. If you can’t personally donate, you can still help by spreading the word about the blog and the novel. The more readers and potential donors I reach, the better. Either way, though, thanks for reading.

Fall, Chapter One

Today I’m offering up the first chapter of my work in progress, Fall, as it currently stands. The details are likely to change, and I’ll probably adjust or outright delete some of it as the manuscript approaches its final form, but at this point in time, I’m pretty sure I’m close to the final version. In this chapter, you get to meet Bree, Maddie and Kira, and you learn a little bit about Bree’s world. Chapter Two expands on those details and brings us all the way into the heart of the Winter Court itself. But that’s a story for another day.

If you’d like to see more, I’d urge you to donate to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I collect before April 30th, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall – up to half the novel, in theory – or a short piece set in the same world. After April 30th, I’ll do the same each time I collect another $500 total. If you can’t donate yourself, but you want to help, or you just like the chapter and want to see more, then please tell your friends. The more potential supporters I can bring in, the better.

I hope you all enjoy this first look at Fall.

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Writing Wednesday: On Names

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
T.S. Eliot, The Naming Of Cats


Okay, so maybe that quote isn’t totally apropos here, but as I was pondering this week’s Writing Wednesdays piece, I couldn’t help thinking of it. Because, of course, the naming of characters – and cities, and institutions, and Heaven knows what else – can also be a difficult matter. You need to remember, first and foremost, that fiction is not reality. That much is probably obvious, but in truth, fiction bears very little resemblance to reality. One of the first things you learn in Creative Writing 101 is that the statement ‘But that’s how it happened in real life!’ does not ever excuse any problem with your story. That rule mainly applies to plot development and characterization, but it runs a little deeper. In real life, you might know a dozen guys named John, or half a dozen women named Sarah – in college, I knew so many Sarahs that we had to start color-coding them. In a story, well…you better find reasons for them to use nicknames, stat, or your readers are going to get VERY confused VERY quickly. Even similar names can cause issues, as I’m sure George R.R. Martin has learned to his chagrin over the course of writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

And while you’re making sure all your characters have very unique, distinct names, you also need to bear in mind that certain names convey certain images. There was a time, for example, when Ashley, Meredith, and Leslie were all predominantly male names, and you still see them applied to men in the modern era – but unless you’re writing a period piece, you’d best have a very good reason for naming male characters any of the above, and you’d best be prepared to address the matter in the story. Twyla and Tilda are considered strange, at least to modern American readers (despite prominent women graced with both names); Patricia and Donna are old-fashioned; Tiffany and Amber put one in mind of Valley girls. And so it goes.

Names carry their own meanings, as any baby name book or website can tell you. I prefer to refer to the (sadly out of print) Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook when naming characters; my process has been complicated by the fact that many of my characters actually have two or three distinct names, and one set needs to logically derive from the other. My protagonist, Bree, isn’t just Brianna Naughton; she’s also Brianna ni Deirdre o Neachtain. Her sister, Kira, is Ciara in the old form; her mentor, Professor Trevor Gahan, is Lord Treabhair mac Daimhin o Gaoithin. So I’ve had to do a lot of digging, trying to find old Irish names that have mutated over time into more modern forms, and I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded. And I’ve tried to balance that attempt at some kind of authenticity against my efforts to convey meaning through the names – Brianna, for example, as the female form of Brian, means noble, strong, virtuous; in short, the qualities of a champion, which is exactly what Bree must become. I chose the name Trevor for Bree’s mentor because he’s an academic, and the name puts me in mind of an intellectual…but the Irish name from which it can be derived (the name is also derived from the Welsh, and has a different meaning in that case) means industrious or prudent, and Professor Gahan, as we learn over the course of the book, tends to be a very cautious sort, holding his cards close to the chest and acting only when strictly necessary.

Last but not least, names can be allusions, and not always the ones you intend. Here’s an example of a successful allusion from Fall: Bree’s mother is named Deirdre, after Deirdre of the Sorrows, a tragic figure from a rather prominent Irish legend. I don’t know if everyone who’s read the story so far has picked up on that, but it’s there for those readers who are likely to appreciate it, and it hasn’t bothered anyone who didn’t get the reference so far.

Now for a less successful allusion: I had originally named the town in which Fall takes place Tara, after the hill in Ireland associated with the High Kings and prominent figures of Irish mythology. And this is where beta readers came in again, because almost no one got it – in fact, they thought it was a reference to Gone With The Wind, and could not understand why I was linking my story to that one! Much as I hated drowning that particular darling, it was clear that the name just wasn’t working. I tried again with Cape Clear (playing with another bit of Irish geography), but when my writing group raised objections to that as well, I had to give up the ghost and go through the history of Massachusetts instead. Ultimately I came up with Crowshead, which sounds like a New England town and sort of slyly references some minor aspects of my tale. So Crowshead it is, as of my current drafts, and Crowshead it’s likely to remain.

All in all, you can’t afford to leave anything to chance. You can’t just pick names at random out of a baby book, or go straight for the easiest, most common choices. You need to carefully consider which names work for each character, each place, each and every thing in your story that needs a name of its own. And you need to run those names past other people, because you will mess something up. The right names can make your world more complete, more vibrant, more vital. The wrong ones can pull your reader out of the story. Choose wisely.

If you like what you’ve been reading, please consider donating to the blog’s Summer Pledge Drive – I’m dealing with some medical bills, a dying laptop, and a bunch of personal and family expenses right now and I could really use the help. If you would like to help, but can’t donate, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive. The more readers I pick up, the more people who hear about all of this, the more likely I am to raise the funds I need. Thank you.

Media Mondays: Once Upon A Time

As you may have noticed, I got a little sidetracked yesterday, and then I was distracted most of the day today, so this week’s Media Mondays post is extremely late. It’s also a bit of a cheat: Once Upon A Time‘s first season is already over halfway done, and most of the reviews are already in. But I’ve been spending most of this time trying to decide whether or not I like it, and why I feel that way, and those thoughts have only recently gelled.

So, short version: yes, I like Once Upon A Time. But not without reservations.

Let’s briefly recap the premise of the show: long ago and far away, the Evil Queen of Snow White fame unleashed a vicious curse upon the fairy tale world, creating new lives for all of the characters we know and love, good and bad alike, and casting them into our world, and more specifically the town of Storybrooke, Maine. The curse would not only change their lives and destinies, but warp their personal stories to prevent anyone but the Queen herself from finding their happy endings. Faced with this terrible curse, the people of the fairy tale world found one small glimmer of hope: the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, who would one day break the spell and set their world to rights. Using a magic wardrobe which could send one, and only one, person on to our world, whole and unscathed, Prince Charming and Snow White sent their infant daughter ahead, hoping against hope that she would find and save them. Years later, that daughter, now grown and going by the name Emma Swan, is confronted with her own son, who she gave up for adoption years ago. This young boy, Henry, has learned all about the fairy tale world and the curse that destroyed it, and he persuades Emma to come with him to Storybrooke, Maine. After some memorable encounters with various people in town – including the Evil Queen, who is now Storybrooke’s Mayor and Henry’s adopted mother – Emma decides to stay and try to bond with her son, despite the Mayor’s opposition and her own distinct skepticism regarding Henry’s beliefs. The story in each episode flashes between our world and the fairy tale realm, gradually revealing more about the show’s characters and their world before and after the curse.

Emma Swan, Hero of Storybrooke

Let’s start with what I like about the show. First and foremost: I love Emma Swan.

This woman is a complete and utter badass. She’s the only one on the show who seems at all willing to stand up directly to the Mayor/Evil Queen. This is not to say that she is without fear, or without emotion: her friendship with Mary Margaret (a.k.a. Snow White) is genuine, and her love and concern for her biological son, Henry, is obvious. Though she was initially reluctant to become involved in Henry’s life, their relationship has grown organically over time, and the thought of losing Henry now is clearly among her worst fears. But she does not let her fear rule her, or sway her from doing what’s right. Whenever Henry has been placed in danger, Emma has conquered her fear, marched right in and saved the day.

And she has never, not once, needed some man to come running to her rescue. Emma Swan is not a damsel in distress. She’s a knight in stylish leather armor. A Big Damn Hero. Not that she’d ever call herself that – from her perspective, she defends the helpless, upholds the law and chases down criminals simply because it’s the right thing to do. Though circumstances have sometimes prompted her to compromise her principles, she always questions herself, always accepts the consequences of her actions, always shows genuine remorse in the face of her mistakes. She isn’t perfect. She’s certainly made more than her share of mistakes. But she accepts those mistakes, learns from them, and moves on. If you ask me, that’s true strength – true character. For all her faults, Emma Swan is an amazing role model, and possibly one of the strongest, most genuine characters on television today.

I. Want. That. Hat.

I also have to give serious props to Regina, the Evil Queen of the fairy tale world and the Mayor of Storybrooke. She’s wonderfully manipulative and deliciously malevolent. Her costumes (particularly in the fairy tale world) are ridiculously awesome, and her plots are intelligent, ruthless, and horribly effective. As Henry’s mother and the town’s Mayor, she makes an excellent foil to Emma; in the fairy tale world, she is omnipresent, weaving in and out of one tale after the next, spreading her dark influence.

Despite her villainy, she is not without a certain human element. Her deep love for her aged father is obvious in the pilot, and while it’s not entirely clear what she has planned for her adopted son Henry (named, notably, after her late father), she does seem to feel some genuine affection for him, and sometimes seems genuinely frustrated and baffled by his open hostility toward her. Her animosity toward Emma Swan seems to have as much to do with Emma’s role as a rival for Henry’s love as any actual threat Emma poses.

Leaving the main characters aside, I love the way the show toys with and reinvents the Disney canon. Their close association with ABC allows them to play freely with Disney’s interpretations of classic fairy tales; thus, their retelling of Beauty and the Beast features Belle and Gaston, Jiminy Cricket is a recurring character, and Maleficent is one of the Evil Queen’s buddies. And yet none of these characters are quite like their counterparts in the animated canon. Even in areas ruled by ostensibly ‘good’ kings and queens, the fairy tale world is not an idyllic paradise. People are routinely pressed into wartime service, or forced into loveless marriages, or faced with all kinds of destitution and suffering. Prejudice, violence and oppression are not the sole province of the villains. Power corrupts in the fairy tale world, just as it corrupts in real life, and while the reign of Snow White and Prince Charming seems peaceful and relatively equitable, they are an island in a sea of chaos. As our understanding of the fairy tale world grows, we are forced to question, again and again, if it’s actually any better than the reality of Storybrooke.

Then, too, there’s this: for good or ill, the women of the fairy tale world seize their own destinies. Cinderella doesn’t simply accept the help of a fairy godmother who miraculously appears out of nowhere – when her tale goes wrong, she makes a deal with the devil to win her happy ending, and has to face the consequences of those actions down the road. Snow White doesn’t simply flee into the wilderness and stumble upon a band of merry dwarves; she spends years surviving in the wild as a thief before she even meets the dwarves, let alone Prince Charming. Belle chooses to go with the ‘Beast’ of her piece to save her father’s realm from annihilation, and rejects the possessive, controlling overtures of her betrothed, Gaston. Red Riding Hood has appeared in a few tales now, offering a few glimpses of her role as a kind of courier or scout and a friend of Snow White’s; her real-world counterpart, Ruby, is similarly omnipresent, tying a number of the characters together. We’ve been promised a Ruby/Red story in an upcoming episode, and I can’t wait to see exactly what her tale might be.

So what’s not to like about the show? Well, the storylines are still somewhat contrived, and some of the writing can be awkward. The show has steadily improved, to be sure, and I’m more than willing to give it a chance to find its footing – lots of series have awkward first seasons. With such luminaries as Jane Espenson on the writing staff, I have high hopes for Once Upon A Time‘s continued evolution. Even so, some stories are still distinctly lackluster. This past Sunday’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast was particularly disappointing; though I enjoyed some aspects of the tale, I was left wondering exactly what Belle saw in her love interest and exactly what kind of message the show was trying to send. The Beast flirted with Belle, to be sure, and was not always horribly unkind to her, but he also threw her into his dungeon upon a whim, and generally treated her too poorly to be worthy of her affection.

And as much as I love the way the female characters of the fairy tale world are portrayed, I find their counterparts in Storybrooke similarly aggravating. Snow White is a badass. Her real-world counterpart, Mary Margaret, is horribly passive, rarely showing Snow White’s backbone in any respect, and hewing closer to the animated Disney princess than her own true self – for heaven’s sake, the pilot even had her releasing a bluebird out a window! I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with kind, gentle female characters, but I’d like to see Mary Margaret stand up for herself more and show a little more inner fire. Ashley, the counterpart to Cinderella, was very much a damsel in distress when we met her, and her legitimate problems with her boyfriend are all forgotten when he surprises her with a proposal. Belle’s real-world counterpart isn’t even really present in her showcase episode. And Ruby’s omnipresence in the town – at the diner, at the bed & breakfast, as Ashley and Mary Margaret’s friend – is virtually her only defining characteristic, aside from her distinctly racy attire and her contentious relationship with her grandmother (whom we haven’t even seen outside the pilot). While I accept that the Evil Queen’s curse distorted their histories and their destinies, I’m not sure I love the way it’s seemingly changed their personalities and left Emma and Regina as the strongest, most active, most interesting female characters on the show.

Still, all in all, I’m still watching, and I expect I’ll finish out the season. While I had slightly higher hopes for Grimm (which has completely failed to hold my interest, to be honest), and I still wish ABC had gone ahead with the proposed adaptation of Fables, Once Upon A Time has turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, and I’m eager to see where it goes. The show has a great premise, fantastic characters, and a hell of a lot of potential, and I truly hope it lives up to its promise.

Writing Wednesdays: Modern Mythology

Looking back, I’m amazed to see how my first novel, Fall, has changed and grown. As I’ve said before, I started with a rudimentary premise: I wanted to write a queer supernatural romance, a fairy tale in which people at least a little like me were not only represented but celebrated. I joke about “Twilight for lesbians,” but in truth, that’s not far off my original intent. Though I also wanted to incorporate some ideas from an Irish folktale that had fired my imagination, my original focus was almost entirely on the star-crossed lovers at the center of my tale. Though that folktale is still key to my tale, and the central characters remain, under new and different names – Bree was, I think, originally Siobhan; her sister Kira was originally Aisling; their mother, Queen Deirdre, went through half a dozen names; I’ve quite forgotten what I originally called Maddie – these elements are now the seeds from which a great big plot has grown. My story now is about a fading people clinging to the past, and what happens when that past strikes them full in the face and forces them to change their ways. It’s a murder mystery, to an extent, and a story of conspiracy and deceit, and should I be given the opportunity to write the intended sequels, the beginning of a grand quest. It is still a tale of love, of course: the love between Bree and Maddie, the bonds of friendship they form with others, the sometimes misguided love of family. But if it all comes off as I hope it will, Fall will have a taste of the epic. In the best tradition of urban fantasy, it will offer up a modern mythology.

To create that mythology, of course, I’ve delved deeply into the past. I’ve wrestled with Celtic mythology and European folklore and worldwide fairy lore. I’ve made countless lists, filled a notebook or two with mad scratchings, stayed up late in a fever trying to figure out what must be included and what should be dismissed. I have cut and sculpted and pounded pieces into place, slowly building a coherent myth, a coherent world. You can drive yourself mad with research, and I might have come close once or twice. And you can drive yourself mad trying to make sense of the senseless.

I am reminded vividly of something I heard in an Irish folklore class, many years ago. We were discussing chants and charms against the Good Folk, and my professor cited one particular chant that really caught my fancy. I forget how it goes exactly, and have been unable to find it since, but it went something like this: “Today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. You folk who live in the hill over there, stay in the hill and leave me be.” There is a recurring theme in folklore that fairies somehow disrupt the natural order – sometimes deliberately, sometimes just by existing. Time flows strangely around them. Things fall apart. And so it makes sense that such chaotic creatures could be neutralized through cold, relentless logic, by the ritual recitation of the order of things. Today is Monday. Tomorrow is Tuesday. The day after Wednesday.

When I was first thinking of writing of fairies, and in the urban fantasy genre to boot, I had the amusing notion that one of my characters might recite the stops on the Red Line to hold their enemies at bay: Davis, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall, Charles, Park Street and so on. Alas, that is not the story I’m writing, and I don’t know now if my characters will even be going into Boston, though the book is set in Massachusetts. An idea for another tale, perhaps. (Truth be told, anyone who’s had to live with the vagaries of the T, as I have, know that it’s hardly a paragon of order to begin with.)

I’ve wandered away from my point, which is this: you think fairies are chaotic? Try researching fairy lore. You’ll find a dozen names for the same thing. You’ll find creatures that just don’t make any damn sense. You’ll find ridiculous degrees of specificity in one area and horrifying vagueness in another. Modern fairy stories are so very versatile because you can twist the folklore into just about any shape you like. It’s as delightful as it is frustrating.

Case in point: the cold iron conundrum. You would not believe the time I have spent on this one problem. In the world of Fall, iron neutralizes fairy magic, and fairies find it generally unpleasant. Without going into details, this simple fact is the key to a number of vital plot developments. Now here’s the problem: iron is everywhere. It’s in our food. Our water. The air we breathe. Most of the metals we use. It makes up a third of our planet.

Those of you who know something of fairy lore may be wondering why I don’t limit myself specifically to cold iron. Though some stories and role-playing games (I’m looking at you, Changeling: The Dreaming) have claimed that cold iron refers to some specific method of manufacture, such as beating iron into shape over a mild heat source, the truth is that cold iron is nothing more than a poetic turn of phrase. It’s like saying “hot lead” when you’re talking about bullets, or “cold steel” when you’re talking about a sword. This was simply understood in the original tales, and it feels cheap to try and narrow the definition now. Your next question might be this: why not pure iron? Because there’s no such thing. Iron ore pretty much always includes impurities that can’t simply be removed. Even steel is basically iron with a bit of carbon added in, and there is iron out there tainted with enough carbon that it might well qualify as steel already. So if ANY iron is ANY good at all against fairies, then impure iron must necessarily count. All iron is cold iron; all iron is pure enough to affect the fairies.

Every author who writes about fairies must find their own way to deal with this problem. In Holly Black‘s Modern Faerie Tales, iron irritates and even hurts fairies – even the iron in, say, an average car – but their magics can offer them some protection. In Seanan McGuire‘s October Daye novels, iron is never really defined to any specific degree. In Charlaine Harris‘s Sookie Stackhouse books, fairies actually wear some kind of protective skin covering to shield them from the iron in the world around them. And some authors simply drop the iron thing altogether, but for various reasons, that was not an option for me.

I probably spent far more time on this than I should have. For a while, I thought perhaps that only iron directly touched by humans would pose a problem – hand-forged weapons, or items made of iron or iron alloys that saw frequent use by mortals. That worked in some ways and posed even more plot problems in others. In a period of utter desperation, I considered replacements for iron – silver, various woods, various herbs – but none of them quite offered what I wanted. In the end, I fell back on the central theme of my story: change or die. And that answered a hell of a lot of questions.

How would creatures totally vulnerable to iron survive in a world filled with it? They wouldn’t. Not without adapting. I soon decided that some fairies were invulnerable to iron – though they had other vulnerabilities to make up for it – and, further, they possessed certain magics that could make iron and iron alloys safe for the others to use. Further, they had been able to lay enchantments upon various factories, ensuring that mass produced items made of iron or iron alloys would also be safe. At the same time, the other fairies had built up a certain resistance to the iron in the world around them, in their food, in their water, and so forth. I had already decided that their powers had diminished somewhat over the centuries, and it made sense that the iron all around them might be the cause. Their resistance could be overcome, of course, but it would take more than trace amounts of iron to do it. I’m not sure it’s a perfect solution, but for now, it works for the story I’m trying to tell.

That core concept, change or die, also helped me cut through the confusing mass of fairies found throughout European folklore and determine which specific fairies would have a place in my story. I realized that each distinct type of fairy would have adapted to the world in different ways. There were fairies who hid themselves beneath the waves or in the depths of the forests. There were fairies who learned to resist and even manipulate iron, though at a steep price. There were fairies who looked like humans and fairies who could look like almost anything at all. If I could find a niche for them, they were in. And if there were other similar creatures out there with completely different names, well, it was bound to happen. (I also ended up limiting myself primarily to the lore of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and the various surrounding islands. That narrowed things down considerably.)

So I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and hopefully it’ll lead to a richer, more compelling world. That said, there’s a cautionary tale here. Research is great. You want your story to feel authentic. If you’re setting your tale in a real place, or using real people or things, you certainly don’t want to get any major details wrong. And if you’re drawing on existing mythology, you definitely want to tell a story that could fit vaguely in with your sources. But don’t get carried away. There comes a time when you have to put down the books, stop writing notes, and take the reins once more. The fact of the matter is that you can get away with taking creative licenses. This is your story we’re talking about. Your world. Don’t be afraid to put the books down and make a stand.

The truth is that I’m a bibliophile by nature, and more than a little obsessive at times, and research was shaping up into a pretty major pitfall. I needed to take some time to figure out the finer details of my world, but honestly? I could have spent a lot of that time writing Fall. So, while all those old, dusty books are still waiting for me on my shelf, or by my bed, or at my local library, and I’ll doubtless consult them again, I’ve set them aside for now. I have my notes, I have my story, and I have my world. I’ve spent quite enough time with the folklore and mythology of ages past. It’s time to get back to writing my own.

Media Mondays: The Fades

Much like Lost Girl, The Fades is a recent import to American television, though it’s of much more recent vintage (originally airing on BBC Three in the fall of 2011) and far, far shorter. Like many BBC series, it’s limited to half a dozen episodes, and four of these have aired on BBC America so far, as part of the channel’s “Supernatural Saturday” lineup, which has typically included such series as the original Being Human, Bedlam, and of course Doctor Who. At this time, a second series has not been officially commissioned, though its chances are good.

The Fades fits neatly into the “Chosen One” sub-genre, joining such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Demons. The premise is straightforward, though as the series goes on, it becomes increasingly bizarre and complex in its execution: the dead are not leaving the Earth. Where once they ‘ascended’ naturally, they are increasingly trapped on the mortal plane, reduced to ghost-like beings called Fades. Worse still, some of the Fades have learned to regain physical form, mainly by consuming human blood and flesh. These rogue Fades are opposed by the Angelics – humans with the ability to perceive the Fades (where most humans cannot, unless they’re in fully corporeal form) as well as other useful gifts. As the series begins, a 17-year-old boy named Paul discovers that he himself is one of these Angelics – and not only that, but one of the most powerful Angelics in living memory, with powers far beyond any of the others. He soon meets said others, who urge him to abandon his family and friends and devote himself full-time to the fight, but he chooses to try and balance his life as an Angelic and a typical teenage boy, despite the inherent complications.

The series has its strengths and weaknesses. Though I’ve enjoyed it so far, I can’t call it an especially feminist show in any way. It fails the Bechdel Test completely, because female characters rarely interact with one another, never seem to have a conversation that doesn’t at least touch on the men in their lives, and are honestly under-utilized, despite some notable and talented women in the regular cast (including Natalie Dormer, late of The Tudors and now playing Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones; and Lily Loveless, most famous for playing one half of Naomily on Skins). My favorite character, Jay (played by Sophie Wu), is a fun, spunky, confident brunette who favors close-cropped hair and striped blazers…and she’s barely defined outside of her roles as Paul’s love interest (and the literal object of his sexual fantasies) and one of his sister Anna’s best friends. We don’t even see most of her conversations with Anna, who is played by the aforementioned Lily Loveless and portrayed as little more than Paul’s snotty, outgoing, popular twin sister. Natalie Dormer’s character is literally killed off in the first episode, and while this doesn’t keep her from playing a part in the events that follow (since the series is about the undead, after all), it doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. She ends up spending most of her time hanging around her ex-husband, who is aware of her presence but unable to perceive her in any meaningful way.

That said, it’s not unwatchable or irredeemable. While I would prefer to see more of the female characters and their interactions with one another, and the regular cast feels quite a lot like a boys’ club, it is a very strongly written show with a truly creepy, sometimes downright frightening atmosphere. The opening credits are perfect for setting the mood, the special effects are weird, fantastic and sometimes quite scary (though also quite gory on occasion, just to warn you), and the actors playing the various Fades move and behave in suitably strange and unsettling ways. Paul’s powers are treated with a blend of wonder and terror touched with a dash of humor, and the show takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Anything can happen and anyone can die.

The show’s true strength, however, lies in the relationship between Paul and his best friend Mac. Both of them are unrepentant geeks and social outcasts, which does sort of feed into a male geek power fantasy, but also works surprisingly well with the tone of the series and gives the target demographic an easy point of entry to the world of The Fades. More importantly, however, their relationship is the sort of unapologetically close male friendship rarely seen on modern television. Their bond is powerful and unbreakable, and they genuinely worry for and care about one another, despite the occasional spat. Mac’s role as Paul’s confidant also puts him in the perfect position to provide each episode’s opening recap, explaining recent events to the audience through his webcam and (amusingly) signing off each time with “Nanu nanu“. While these recaps are generally humorous in tone, they also offer insight into Mac’s state of mind, and in the wake of particularly troubling events, they can become quite moving.

It’s rare to see young men on television not only acknowledge other men as their best friends, but also as people they literally need to have in their lives. So often, that kind of close friendship is strictly and exclusively the territory of female characters. Men are generally encouraged to bottle up their emotions and make light of their relationships, when in fact friendship is vitally important to people of all genders. It’s refreshing to see a friendship between two men portrayed as a warm, close-knit and necessary relationship. In that respect, The Fades breaks out of the usual mold, and becomes something quite special.

The show has a long way to go, and if it does return for a second series, I hope more emphasis will be placed on the female characters. Anna’s status as Paul’s twin sister has already come into play and been invested with mystical significance, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if she turned out to be an Angelic herself; even if she doesn’t, new Angelics could always be introduced. While the focus of the series is on Paul, it does edge into ensemble show territory at times, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to follow a second protagonist. For all its flaws, though, The Fades is highly entertaining and a great addition to BBC America’s Supernatural Saturdays. I’ll certainly be watching the last two episodes, and if the show does return for a second series, I’ll happily give it a chance.