Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 2

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Sinornithosaurus

Note: This is the second of a three-part series on the origins of my novelette “Cryptids,” which appears in the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. For the previous installment, please see here.

Stories can come into being in any number of ways. Sometimes an entire plot, or a long sequence, will be revealed to the author in a flash, like a gift from the gods. Sometimes it builds organically and surprisingly from an initial premise. Sometimes, alas, it’s the result of a mechanically imposed formula. And sometimes you need to build it one block at a time, assembling it as logically as you can from the pieces you already have. (Obviously, this range of approaches can take many intermediate forms, and in practice, different stages of a writing project will require different ways of proceeding.) With “Cryptids,” the turning point, as often seems to be the case, was a combination of a methodical process of construction and a sudden flash of insight. While I was doing research on insect-based pharmaceuticals, I became interested in the melyrid beetle, the body of which contains a potent neurotoxin absorbed from an unknown plant. The beetles, in turn, are consumed by other animals that can use the toxin for their own ends: it appears in the skin of poison-dart frogs and, fascinatingly, in the skin and feathers of the hooded pitohui, one of the only known species of poisonous birds. I’d read about the pitohui years ago, and after encountering it again, I thought it might be nice to put it at the center of this story.

What’s really interesting about batrachotoxin is how it gets passed up the food chain: it starts as a defense chemical in an unidentified plant, passes into the bodies of beetles, and is finally incorporated into frogs and birds. Not only is this scientifically intriguing, but it naturally suggests the skeleton of a plot. I’d already decided to write about a pharmaceutical company looking for insects with potential drug applications, which is an approach that lends itself to a kind of detective story. When the poison in a plant passes into an insect, the latter can serve as a walking advertisement for the underlying substance: poisonous insects and other animals are often aposematic, with bright colors warning predators to keep away, and it’s easier to follow such clues to the underlying source than to screen every plant in the rain forest. The pitohui allowed me to take this idea one step further. If my characters were in search of a particular drug, they could follow the bird to the insect, then the insect to the plant, which in itself is a story with three acts. The fact that we really don’t know the source of batrachotoxin—and that it’s the sort of poison, like digitalis, that might have potential medical applications—saved me the trouble of making up something from scratch. And it also told me that the story would probably take place in Papua New Guinea, where both pitohuis and beetles are abundant.

The author's notes for "Cryptids"

So far, this was a logical, if not particularly inspired, chain of reasoning. As usual, though, this kind of systematic work is useful to the extent that it prepares the ground for more serendipitous ideas, and when the next insight came, it was exciting enough that I gave it its own line in my notebook: And what eats the birds? If the poison passed from the plant to the beetles to the pitohuis, it wasn’t hard to imagine one more step in the chain, an apex predator that had evolved to feed on the birds and possibly the beetles as well. If I hadn’t spent some time thinking about the existing food chain, I don’t think this idea would have occurred to me, but once it did, I knew I had my story, and I even had a pretty good hunch about what form that apex predator would take. I’d wanted to write a story about cryptozoology for some time, and I’d even toyed with the idea of doing something with a lake monster. Here, however, I needed something more sinister. And when I dug a little deeper, I was fortunate to find that Papua New Guinea already had a cryptid of its own: the ropen, a reptilian flying creature alleged to be a kind of living pterosaur. Pterosaurs aren’t especially frightening, unless you happen to be a fish, but luckily for me, I soon found that the traditional description of the ropen—small in size, with a crest, a head like a crocodile, and claws at the end of its wings—lent itself to an alternative explanation.

Which is how I ended up with the dromaeosaurs. In particular, I quickly zeroed in on sinornithosaurus, which at least one study argues may have been venomous, as well as capable of flight. The cryptids in my story aren’t exact counterparts to sinornithosaurs—they’re a little larger, for one thing—but I took pains to make my description of their appearance and behavior as plausible as I could, knowing that I’d certainly be called out for any inaccuracies. The result had all of the qualities I look for in a story idea: when I was done, it seemed inevitable, even though it was the product of a lucky series of associations, and it also happened to be something that I couldn’t wait to write. This is thanks largely to the fact that I’d found my way there by accident, constructing the material link by link until it ended up somewhere interesting. If I’d started with the dromaeosaurs, I don’t think I could have found my way back to the pitohuis, and although the resulting story might have been good, it would have lacked most of the elements that I’d picked up for their own interest along the way. Of course, I still didn’t have much in the way of a plot, which meant I had to work back from the end point I’d conceived to figure out how I got there. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking a bit more about how the elements I already had—including my choice of a title—influenced the plot and characters, and why I’m still not sure if the story has the right ending.

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2014 at 9:53 am

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