Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 2

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The author's notes for "Stonebrood"

Note: This is the second of three posts in which I discuss how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online. Be warned that a few spoilers follow.

In his chatty, engaging autobiography, the legendary author Harry Harrison makes a useful point about the way plot influences character in science fiction, rather than the other way around:

One thing that detective stories share with science fiction is that you have to know the ending before you can write the book. In a detective novel you start at the end and work backward. In science fiction you do the same thing at different points in the story—you do it more often. So in West of Eden I needed the hero to speak the Yilane language, so I had to work backward from there and plot how this came about. Mainstream fiction is oriented around the character—the story comes out of the characters. Science fiction is plot oriented: you get a plot and then you create a character to fit the plot. In science fiction the plot is based on an idea, it is about a novelty and an exploration of that novelty. Someone once said that science fiction was the only form of fiction where the plot was the hero.

At its worst, this approach can lead to the kind of flimsy characterizations that you still sometimes see in Analog, in which a character exists solely to talk about or embody a particular technical concept. But if the underlying premise is twisty or challenging enough, it can also result in characters you might never have imagined if you’d followed a more conventional path.

Marius, the lead character in “Stonebrood,” has a fairly involved backstory. He’s the grandchild of Lithuanian immigrants who settled in New Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; he was estranged from his abusive father and close to his grandmother, who kept bees, and his uncle, who was killed by a neighborhood gangster; he grew up to run a numbers racket and was arrested for it; he went to prison, joined a convict crew to fight wildfires, and embarked upon a career in fire prevention after his release; and this doesn’t even get at some of the secret aspects of his past that are revealed as the story progresses. It’s a quirky assemblage of attributes, but they’re internally consistent and, it’s safe to say, not much like the backgrounds of most heroes of science fiction. Yet every single one of these character traits emerges from a plot point that had to pay off later on. In a number of cases, the connections are obvious: if I wanted to write a story about a convict crew fighting a coal seam fire, it made sense for the protagonist to fit a certain profile. This also had implications for his criminal history, which, by the law of conservation of detail, would most likely end up playing a role in the plot itself. (As Brad Bird likes to say: “We use every part of the buffalo.”) But the most interesting character material of all tends to emerge less from specific story beats than from the thematic associations that the narrative evokes.

The author's notes for "Stonebrood"

Take, for example, his Lithuanian heritage, which was the product of an exceptionally convoluted chain of reasoning. As I brooded over the premise of a firefighting crew using tiny drones to map a coal seam fire, it occurred to me that a plot might emerge from the discovery of microorganisms that could survive in those inhospitable conditions. A bit of digging led me to the idea of thermophilic amoebas, of the sort that thrive in the thermal discharges from electrical plants. It also occurred to me that I could justify a series of inexplicable events if members of the firefighting crew turned out to be suffering from amoebic meningitis, which can cause disorientation and hallucinations. This disease, I thought, could be spread by contact with drones or “hives”—the inductive charging stations that powered the robotic bees—that had been contaminated. This was a bit of a leap, but I figured I could make it work by drawing an analogy to beekeeping, and particularly to the possibility that a beekeeper could catch a disease from his own bees. As it happens, there’s one disease that fits the bill, and it’s called stonebrood. So not only did I have a useful analogy for what was taking place within the story, I also had a title. (I decided to call it “Stonebrood” both because it sounds evocative and because by putting a clue to the mystery in the title itself, I could make the solution seem as if it had been in front of the reader’s eyes all along. It’s a cheap trick, but it works.)

So what does this have to do with Lithuanians? Once I knew that beekeeping would play an allegorical role in the story, I began to look into beekeeping itself and into the lore of bees in general. As I soon learned, the symbolic history of bees in Lithuania is particularly rich. A dead bee is described using the same word that would be used for a dead man, and it would be buried in a similar fashion; if you kept bees, you could tell them all your family’s secrets; and two families could be joined by a special kinship, called biciulyste, if the bees from one hive settled onto someone else’s land. That’s a rich vein of images and concepts, and I gave Marius a Lithuanian background mostly so I had the option of drawing upon it. (The fact that the largest Lithuanian community in the United States happens to be in Pennsylvania, not far from the mining country where I’d already decided that the bulk of the action would take place, was just one of those coincidences by which the universe tells you that you’re on the right track.) The Lithuanian material isn’t derived axiomatically from the demands of the plot; instead, it was an intuitive guess at what set of details might lead most naturally to others. And from that decision, at long last, arose the plot itself, which turned out to have surprising affinities with some of my own suspense novels. Tomorrow, I’ll close my discussion of this story with more detail on how the plot—which includes a grisly murder or two—fell into place, and end with my thoughts on how it all turned out.

Written by nevalalee

August 25, 2015 at 9:25 am

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