Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 1

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The author's notes for "Cryptids"

Note: For the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “Cryptids,” which appears on the cover of the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The issue should still be available on newsstands, and you can also pick up an online copy here. Needless to say, considerable spoilers follow.

A reader encountering “Cryptids” for the first time, or even just glancing at the cover art, might assume that I set out to write a story about venomous flying dinosaurs—which, granted, is a pretty cool concept, and just the kind of thing you’d expect to grab a writer’s attention. In fact, the dromaeosaurs didn’t enter my mind at all until I’d spent a lot of time speculating about the material that takes up the first half of the plot. It would be an exaggeration to say that the cryptids took both me and my characters by surprise, but the story behind this particular novelette is a useful illustration of how quickly an idea can move in unexpected directions. I’ve noted elsewhere how the urge to write a story often precedes the story itself, on both the largest and the smallest scales. Long before I knew what my first novel would be about, I knew that I wanted to be a writer of some kind: tackling a project of that size is so daunting that it requires a critical mass of existing ambition before most of us can even contemplate it. The same holds true for individual projects. Speaking from my own experience, a writer will sometimes start working on a story because he misses the act of writing itself; because he has some free time available; or because it’s been a while since he last got something published. And once that urge is there, it’s only a matter of finding a promising bit of material to which all those energies can be harnessed.

Looking back at my notes for “Cryptids,” which date back to last May, I see that I was even less certain than usual of what story I would end up writing. In my writer’s journal, there are brief synopses of three possible plots, all of them radically different. “Plot” is actually too generous a term: they’re barely even premises, more like avenues for further exploration. For the sake of the historical record, I’ll give them here, exactly how I jotted them down:

  1. Bug hunt—Pharma company searches for insects in Indonesia—looking to screen plants for possible drug applications
  2. Volcanos—Search for mammoth remains in Alaska coincides with a volcanic eruption
  3. Blindness—Man has vision restored but can’t process images properly—leads to unexpected complications—patterns of migratory birds provide insight

At a glance, none of these story prompts seems much more promising than any other, and it’s only by chance that I ended up going with the first, which changed a great deal in its own right before I was done. I may end up going back to one of the others someday, and if I don’t have any qualms about sharing them here, it’s only because I know that the story you or any other writer would write based on a hint like this would have nothing in common with what I might do with it. (I don’t even think I’d end up with the same story twice if I attacked these ideas under different circumstances.)

The author's notes for "Cryptids"

In the end, I ended up diving deeper into the idea that I called “Bug Hunt,” and in fact, that’s the name under which it originally appeared in my notes. I was inspired by an article I’d read about a real pharmaceutical company, Entomed, which is systematically screening insects from ecosystems across the world in search of potential drug applications. Although this sort of thing gets fuzzy over time, I’m pretty sure I was drawn to this idea because it naturally suggested a clothesline on which I could hang a story: a search for a MacGuffin in the form of a valuable insect, preferably in an interesting and dangerous part of the world, is the kind of versatile structure that I could use to tell any number of stories. It didn’t hurt that years ago, in college, I’d written a long story about ethnobotany in the Amazon rain forest, and I still remembered a lot of the underlying material. Still, this didn’t tell me much about what kind of story this was, who the characters were, or what would happen to them. The problem was to narrow down the range of possibilities, and in most of my own work, the crucial element is setting. A story like “Kawataro” or “The Whale God” could have been set nearly anywhere, and when I worked backward from the pieces I already had to end up in Japan or Vietnam, it locked the rest of the narrative into place.

With “Cryptids,” the premise I had in mind set certain constraints on the setting I could use. Logically, it would need to be a location of high biodiversity, which is where the attention of a drug development company would naturally be drawn, and this generally means an underdeveloped country or region with lots of undescribed species, which from a narrative perspective seemed likely to generate some interesting plot points. Beyond that, however, it could be any number of places. Amazonia was an obvious choice, and I already had a lot of research at my fingertips from my earlier story on the subject, but I didn’t really feel like going that route again. My initial impulse, as my notes indicate, was to set the story in Indonesia, both because it met all of the pragmatic requirements and because I hadn’t often seen it used as a setting in science fiction. I spent some time working up a story with Indonesia in mind, focusing on subjects, like traditional black magic, that I intuitively thought I could use. I uncovered some promising material, and I wouldn’t rule out a fictional visit to Indonesia at some point in the future. At some point, though, I began to feel that I was covering ground that I’d explored elsewhere, particularly in “Kawataro,” and as I continued to dig, I made a discovery that caused me to shift my attention abruptly to Papua New Guinea. How I ended up there, and how I found a particular cryptid waiting for me, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Written by nevalalee

March 24, 2014 at 9:48 am

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