Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Discover magazine

The Importance of Writing “Ernesto,” Part 1

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My short story “Ernesto,” which originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been reprinted by Lightspeed. To celebrate its reappearance, I’ll be publishing revised versions of a few posts in which I described the origins of this story, which you can read for free here, along with a nice interview. Please note that this post reveals details about the ending. 

Readers of the story “Ernesto” might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character, after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a dash of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what initially appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it might even seem like a work of Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device,” or Joe Haldeman’s far darker and more sophisticated “The Hemingway Hoax.” (Science fiction writers have always been drawn to Hemingway, who certainly had a lot to say about the figure of the competent man.) In fact, although I live in Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park, and my daughter has learned to recognize his face on the omnipresent signs that have been posted near the library, he’s a writer I’ve always found hard to like, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from mine. And the chain of events that led me to write about him is my favorite example from my own career of what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, or how a story is never really about what it seems.

“Ernesto” emerged, like many of my stories, from an idea sparked by a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer about the work of Dr. William Coley, the nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a treatment for cancer. Around the same time, another article in the same magazine had started me thinking about a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular notion didn’t go anywhere, I ended up settling on a related premise: a mystery about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The crucial step, it seemed, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build the story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story, which could be described in a single sentence: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of cancer, in what seems like a miracle, but is really due to the side effects of an erysipelas infection. (I knew that there were a few holes in the science here, but I was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, I became conscious of a problem. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery along the lines of The X-Files, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning, and I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly that a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. This meant that I was suddenly looking at a period piece that was set in Spain, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which led me, by a logical process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway entered the story—in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or a time period. The search for the right saint carried me to Spain, and the specifics of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War, which would allow me to confuse the issue long enough to delay the solution. At the time, it felt almost random, but when I look back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed was behind the composition of “The Raven.” Once the essential foundations have been set, the writer’s imagination can begin to play, and it seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about the Spanish Civil War, it pretty much had to include Hemingway. As Umberto Eco says in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes. If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Within a few days of starting my research, then, I found myself facing the prospect of writing a story about Hemingway investigating a paranormal mystery in wartime Spain. I really wanted to do it. But I wasn’t sure that I could.

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 3

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Art by Kurt Huggins for "Stonebrood"

Note: This is the last 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.

When I began doing research for “Stonebrood,” one of the first articles I read was a vivid piece in Discover by the journalist Kristin Ohlson. It’s primarily about the Ruth Mullins fire, a coal seam blaze that has been quietly burning for nearly a decade in Hazard, Kentucky, and it follows geologists Jennifer O’Keefe and James Hower as they investigate the area, a barren landscape with toxic white smoke billowing up from vents in the earth. It closes with a warning:

[Hower] notes that the Ruth Mullins fire is migrating slowly toward nearby Highway 80. If a coal seam fire burns through the road, asphalt could crack open and sink, swallowing people and cars and unleashing a hellish scenario that might finally make people pay attention to what is going on beneath their feet.

As a reader, I found the thought chilling, but as a writer, I could only say: “Thank you.” One of the most challenging aspects of writing hard science fiction is finding compelling ways of staging the ideas that drew you to a subject in the first place, and a highway collapse—which occurs on the first page of the novelette—seemed like as dramatic an opening scene as any I could imagine.

And in many ways, it’s that initial sequence—which plays much the same role as a cold open does on an episode of television—that makes the rest of the story possible. Reading over “Stonebrood” again, I think it’s a strong piece of work, but its action is almost entirely internalized, and it unfolds in a more subtle fashion than most of my other stories, leaving it up to the reader to connect most of the thematic dots. (In its tone and pacing, not to mention in the nuts and bolts of the action, it has a lot in common with “The Whale God,” another story about a protagonist dealing with unsettling hallucinations while trying to get a practical job done.) The opening buys me a lot of capital with the reader: it’s a self-contained, exciting set piece that clearly establishes the stakes of what Marius and his team are trying to prevent, and it provides a burst of adrenaline that carries us through the remainder of the first section, which is really nothing more than three men standing around a borehole. Most of my stories save their first big plot development or action scene for around a third of the way through, and it takes a great deal of effort to sustain the reader’s attention through the material required to get us to that pivotal moment. Placing the most compelling sequence right at the beginning lends some necessary momentum to a story that might otherwise seem a bit too introspective or subdued.

The October 2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

That said, there’s a risk involved in leading off with your most memorable scene, which is that the rest of the story will seem anticlimactic by comparison. Henning Nelms, the legendary magician, mystery novelist, and jack-of-all-trades, puts it best in a discussion of how to structure a magic act:

When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.

A story like “Stonebrood” is a kind of magic act in itself—it creates a mystery and then produces a solution with a flourish—and I knew that I had to be careful about paying off the expectations that the first scene raised. I did this, in part, by keeping the memory of the incident alive in the protagonist’s mind, and by making certain choices that tied otherwise unrelated story points back to the opening. In a flashback, we see how Marius, as a teenager, uses carbon monoxide to kill the gangster who had murdered his uncle. He could have simply shot the guy, but the image of that smoldering charcoal, which also ties into the smoker that his grandmother uses to calm her bees, reminds us of how the eight people died in the sinkhole. And it’s that kind of connection, as artificial as it might be, that allows the story to read like a unified sequence of ideas, rather than a succession of loosely related events.

Once I’d finished the research and come up with the general outlines of the plot, it soon became clear that writing “Stonebrood” was largely a matter of not screwing up the material I’d uncovered. I had a gripping opening; a memorable location, in the form of the blasted landscape above the coal seam fire and, in particular, the ruins of the abandoned ghost town nearby, a type of location that has been memorably used before by such works as Silent Hill and Dean Koontz’s Strange Highways; and a lot of evocative secondary material from the Lithuanian lore of bees. (The plot itself, in which Marius is haunted by memories of his grandmother and the sinister gangster Garastas, harks back to The Icon Thief and its sequels, and if I made use of it again here, it’s mostly because I had it readily available.) I’m happy with the result, and I’d rank it in the top half of all the novelettes I’ve published. It’s a type of story I’ve written before and will probably write again, and its interest, as usual, lies mostly in the details of the setting and the specifics of the twist. What I like most about it, though, is the tone, which seems to have been acquired, as if by contagion, from the moodiness of the setting: like the landscape in which it takes place, it’s brooding, mostly quiet, but with forces beneath the surface that always seem on the verge of erupting. I think it sustains that tone nicely, and it’s the opening cataclysm that allows the rest of it to work.

Written by nevalalee

August 26, 2015 at 9:01 am

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 1

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A RoboBee

Note: For the next three days, I’ll discussing 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.

At this point in my life, I’ve written a bunch of short stories, and you’d think that the process would have gotten a little easier by now. Invariably, though, whenever I sit down to write something from scratch, I’m paralyzed by the fear that I won’t be able to do it again, and I can barely remember—despite the detailed notes that I keep about my process—how I’ve done it before. And this insecurity isn’t entirely unfounded. When you’re a reasonably prolific writer, you end up caught in an arm’s race between two competing trends. On the one hand, you’re a stronger, more efficient craftsman than you were when you first started, and you’ve learned a few tricks along the way about plot and character, even if, as Jack Woodford notes, you can’t always articulate what it is that you’re doing. On the other hand, once you’ve written half a dozen stories for public consumption, you find yourself boxed in, not just by the possibilities of any one idea, but by all the other ideas that you’ve already used. If you don’t want to repeat yourself, you soon realize that each story you write closes off certain avenues for future exploration. As David Brin once wrote: “If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard [science fiction] writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking.” And while that’s true of the field as a whole, it’s also true of any one writer and his or her own backlog of ideas.

In my case, I’ve found that I tend to fall back repeatedly on a couple of stock formulas, notably the story in which what looks like a paranormal phenomenon turns out to have a valid, if highly unlikely, scientific explanation. (In a way, it follows the basic form of an episode of The X-Files while inverting its logic: my stories take place in an equally weird universe in which Dana Scully is always right.) In practice, this kind of story has a way of relying on the same handful of monkey tricks, in which, for instance, the events hinge on some obscure medical condition, the symptoms of which are misinterpreted until the end as something else. When the stories are read individually, there’s no reason why I can’t resort to that gimmick as often as it works, as long as the plot and setting are distinctive enough to make their similarities less obvious: these stories appear few and far between, and I don’t know how many readers remember them well enough to see a pattern there. But I’m also writing with one eye to that hypothetical day when all of these stories will be collected within book covers—if not by a conventional publisher, then at least in an electronic edition that I assemble myself for my own satisfaction. And when you read a string of such stories back to back, it soon becomes clear if a writer relies too often on the same kind of twist. Whether or not this is a valid concern is beside the point: if it motivates me to strike out in new directions, it’s probably a good thing.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

And if you’re really worried about writing the same kind of story too often, there are basically two things you can do. The first approach tackles the problem from the top down: you can pick a notably different story type or subcategory and see what happens when you try to work within those conventions. This was the tack that I followed with “Cryptids,” which was basically a straight monster story, and although the success of the outcome is debatable—many readers seem to have liked the result better than I did—you can’t say that it reads like the other stories I’ve written. The second approach, which is more interesting, is to start from the bottom up: you seek out raw material from a different source than the ones that have provided you with ideas in the past. Many of my premises have emerged from science journals or magazines, which lends itself to a particular kind of plot: the twist, when it comes, is surprising to the extent that it turns on a quirky fact that most readers wouldn’t be expected to know off the tops of their heads. When I decided, about a year ago, to write something new, I figured I’d start somewhere else. In this case, I picked up a stack of back issues of The Atlantic, which is hardly known for its science coverage, and browsed in it until something caught my eye. I was looking for articles that suggested a setting or general plot structure, preferably with a lot of background material that I could use, and I finally found it in the form of a long article by Brian Mockenhaupt on the tragic case of nineteen firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona.

It’s a compelling, beautifully researched piece, and I could tell at a glance that could form the basis of a good story. Even better, it reminded me of an article that I’d read and filed away a few months earlier with an eye to developing it later: a New York Times piece by Fernanda Santos about the convict crews that are increasingly being put to work fighting forest fires in places like Yarnell. At the time, I had the vague notion of writing up something like Con Air meets Backdraft, which is an idea I’m happy to pass to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading. Since this was going to be a story for Analog, though, I started to look for a scientific angle using the dumbest method imaginable—I did a few searches in the archives of my favorite science magazines to see if I could find anything interesting about firefighting. As luck would have it, I found two articles right away in Discover that sparked a chain of ideas of their own. The first was about coal seam fires, the invisible infernos that can rage underground for decades, most famously in the ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania; the other was about the use of tiny drones, resembling bees, that might be used by firefighters to send back information about the inside of a burning building. Within seconds, I saw the outline of a story about a convict crew fighting a coal seam fire and using drones to map it. It was a nifty image, but it lacked characters or a plot. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how a narrative began to suggest itself, and why I named the story after a disease that can be caught by beekeepers.

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

Stumbling into Hemingway, Part 1

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Readers of my short story “Ernesto,” which was published last month in the March 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, might reasonably assume that I have a strong interest in the career of Ernest Hemingway. The central character of “Ernesto,” after all, is a thinly veiled version of the young Hemingway, with a soupçon of Sherlock Holmes, investigating what appears to be a paranormal mystery in the Madrid of the Spanish Civil War. At first glance, it seems like nothing less than a Hemingway fanfic, like Bradbury’s “The Kilimanjaro Device.” The fact remains, however, that despite my having recently moved to Hemingway’s home town, he’s still a writer I’ve always found hard to enjoy, if only because his style and preoccupations are so radically removed from my own. And the story of how I ended up writing about Hemingway, and exhaustively researching a short period of his life over the two weeks it took to write “Ernesto,” may serve as a reminder of how a story is never really about what it seems. (Spoilers follow, of course.)

The idea for “Ernesto” arose, as with many of my other stories, from a magazine article. In this case, it was a piece in Discover, by the science writer Jeanne Lenzer, about the work of Dr. William Coley, a nineteenth-century surgeon who experimented with bacterial infections, especially erysipelas, as a way of treating cancer. Somewhat earlier, inspired by another article, I’d become interested in writing a story about the investigation of miracles by the Catholic Church. And while that particular premise didn’t go anywhere, it did lead me to the idea of writing a story about a series of apparently miraculous cures that are actually due to the sort of cancer immunotherapy that Coley had investigated. The key step, it seemed to me, was to find an appropriate figure of veneration, ideally a Catholic saint, around whom I could build my story. And it took only a few minutes of searching online to come up with a viable candidate: St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, who had died of erysipelas. No other historical figure, as far as I could see, fit all the criteria so well.

Here, then, I had the germ of a story: a number of visitants to the tomb of St. John of the Cross are cured of their cancer, on account of what seems initially like a miracle, but really is due to the effects of an erysipelas infection. (I was well aware that there were a few holes in the science here, but was confident I could work my way around them.) At this point, however, a problem arose. Since the story was supposed to be a mystery, after all, I couldn’t have the solution be obvious from the beginning.  And I was pretty sure that any modern doctor would be able to tell fairly quickly if a patient was suffering from erysipelas. To delay this revelation, and to mislead the reader, I had to keep my patients away from the hospital for as long as possible, which implied that I couldn’t set the story in the present day. Abruptly, I was looking at a story that wasn’t just set in Spain, but also a period piece, although not so far in the past that I couldn’t talk about Coley’s work. Which essentially led me, as if by a process of elimination, to the Spanish Civil War.

And that’s how Hemingway first entered the story: in the most roundabout way imaginable. When I first began devising the plot, not only did I not have Hemingway in mind, but I didn’t even have a setting or time period. My need for an appropriate saint is what led me to Spain, and the exigencies of the story I wanted to tell led me to the Spanish Civil War. At the time, the process certainly felt somewhat random, but looking back, it seems as mathematically necessary as the reasoning that Poe once claimed, perhaps facetiously, led to the composition of “The Raven”: a series of logical steps arising from a single premise. Once these foundations have been set, though, the writer’s imagination can begin to play. And it seemed to me that if you’re going to set a story during the Spanish Civil War, you need to have Hemingway. “Like soy sauce in Chinese dishes,” as Umberto Eco writes in Foucault’s Pendulum. “If it’s not there, it’s not Chinese.” Tomorrow, I’ll be talking a bit more about what happened after Hemingway made his first appearance.

For additional posts in this series, please see here and here.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2012 at 9:52 am

Finding analog moments in a digital world

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Authors have a reputation, sometimes richly deserved, of being stodgy and resistant to change, but nearly every writer I know is grateful for modern technology. Writing a novel is simply less of a pain, on a physical level, than ever before. Yet slowness, time, and silence are still crucial components of the creative process, and with the acceleration of all forms of communication, it’s sometimes necessary to deliberately slow things down. I’ve spoken before of my suspicion that it takes about a year of sitting in a chair to produce any novel, no matter how fast your computer lets you type, so you tend to make up the difference with many small revisions, which are less important in themselves than in the time they grant you to mull over the larger work. Similarly, it’s important for most artists to insert pockets of slowness into their daily routine. Today, I want to focus on how this applies to three crucial areas: how we move, how we write, and how we read.

One of the best ways to slow things down is to walk, rather than drive, whenever possible. In Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, Walter Murch notes that during the editing of Cold Mountain, he was grateful for the chance to walk to work every day, which gave him an extra half hour to think. For my own part, after managing to walk or take public transit everywhere for years, my recent move to the suburbs means that I’m now driving on a regular basis, and I can already feel the loss. Driving, especially in the city, just isn’t a good time for contemplation. Taking the train is better, and walking is best of all. I’ve stated elsewhere that I’ve rarely encountered a plot problem that couldn’t be solved by a walk to the grocery store—which isn’t the case when I drive there. And I can’t imagine a writer whose work habits wouldn’t be improved by a short daily walk. (But please leave the headphones at home.)

It’s also useful to honor the simple act of taking pen to paper. Once again, Murch points the way: as an editor, he’s made use of all kinds of technological innovations, but he still begins each project by spending two days preparing handwritten scene cards, cutting the card stock into “odd little shapes” and coding elements of the movie with different colors. It’s a cataloging tool, but there’s also something meditative about doing this work by hand. Similarly, while I sometimes use a text file to organize my initial thoughts about a project, ultimately, I almost always turn to physical cards. And while I don’t think I’ll ever handwrite an entire novel, I find ways of incorporating pen and paper into the process whenever possible—in notebooks, in mind maps, and in the hundreds of small scraps I use to jot down ideas. I could use software for all of this, and some writers do, but it just wouldn’t be the same.

Finally, perhaps the most useful habit of all is to persist in reading real books. It comes down to the issue, which I mentioned yesterday, of technology giving you what you want, but not necessarily what you need. A website or electronic book can take you directly to the right page or allow you to search the text instantly, but it’s often in the act of flipping through a physical book, or wandering through a library, that you find your next big idea. (There’s also something about running a photocopier, I find, that allows interesting thoughts to creep in.) A few weeks ago, on eBay, I bought a trove of back issues of Discover magazine, which I often use for story ideas, despite the fact that all of the articles are available online. Why? Because while the web is great for research, it isn’t the best place for dreaming. And as the pace of digital innovation grows ever more rapid, it’s important to slow things down when possible—because dreaming, in the end, is an analog activity.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2011 at 10:29 am

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