Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 1

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Notebook page for "The Whale God"

Going back to reread your notes for a story that you’ve since written and published can be a disorienting experience. Once a story is in print, there’s a tendency, even by the author, to see it in a new light: it seems permanent, fixed, inevitable. Over time, you start to forget the long chain of discrete, sometimes arbitrary decisions that shaped the plot along the way, or the fact that it could easily have ended up going in a radically different direction. That’s why it’s worth jotting down a record of your initial thoughts on a potential story, even if you aren’t sure if the project will go anywhere. You’ll probably need to refer to it down the line to remind yourself of why you felt like writing about this idea in the first place, and later on, its record of wrong turns and momentary inspirations can be a rewarding one to revisit. (Incidentally, this is why I always start brainstorming every story on a physical sheet of paper, ideally in a notebook, and I follow Francis Ford Coppola’s advice by writing the date at the top of each page.)

In the case of my novelette “The Whale God,” which ultimately became the cover story for the September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the process of working out the bones of the plot took me into some unexpected places. The germ of the story came, as it often does, from an article in a science magazine—in this case, a piece in Discover on whale beachings and their possible connection to sonar. When I came across it, I was systematically looking for ideas, digging through the large pile of magazines that I’ve accumulated over the years for this specific purpose, and I knew at once that this was a subject that I’d enjoy exploring, which is often the crucial first step. At that point, I didn’t know when or where the story would be set, but I wasn’t bothered by this: as I’ve noted before, for a work of speculative fiction, it’s often best to let the setting arise from the problems that the story itself presents, which allows the result to seem logical and organic.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

My first thought was that it would be a contemporary story set in some interesting region of the world, preferably one that would allow me to incorporate elements of apparent fantasy or mythology that could then be given a scientific rationale. (To the extent that most of the stories I’ve published have a formula, it’s that they initially present fantastic events, then explain them in reasonably plausible scientific terms, which is basically what the The X-Files does in reverse.) Looking back at my notes, I see that I’d originally thought about setting the story in Greenland, which would certainly make for a fascinating location. Later, I was drawn to the potential of Vietnam, which has a thriving whale cult—and a legacy of tales of hungry ghosts—that I knew I could to put to use. In particular, I was intrigued by the possibility of connecting infrasound, with its link to whale beachings, to ghost sightings, which one line of thinking has attributed to low-frequency vibrations and their effect on the human brain and eye.

As soon as I’d gotten this far, however, I ran into a problem that only occurs after you’ve written a handful of stories. In 2011, Analog had published a novelette of mine called “Kawataro,” which had certain similarities to the plot I’d sketched out: it takes place in an East Asian country, centers on elements of local mythology, and ultimately provides a rational explanation for what initially seems like a supernatural event. I didn’t want to repeat myself too blatantly, so I began to consider and discard various options for what became “The Whale God” based on how closely they recalled my previous work, which is something that I suspect many writers need to do, even if they don’t often talk about it. In the end, I decided that the best way to differentiate the two stories would be to give “The Whale God” a period setting, as I’d done with my story “Ernesto.” Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what this involved, and about how I felt when I realized, rather to my surprise, that I was going to write a story set during the Vietnam War.

This is part one of a three-part post. For the next two installments, please see here and here.

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2013 at 8:54 am

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