Thursday, September 17, 2009
The Things Writers Do
Last night I was googling bizarre lethal animals, stinging plants, and weird parasites. Why was this, you ask? (Yes, yes, I know you didn't. Shut up. You're interrupting my rhetorical flight of something or other.)
The short short version - I needed all sorts of interestingly nasty ways to kill people. If there's a forbidden zone chock full of lethal everything, then it's a plot necessity that Ye Writer's characters will need to go either into or through it. If there are other characters with them, it's equally necessary that the other characters die. Unpleasantly, of course. The technical term for this is a writer-cookie, also known - to me at least - as a redshirt-with-extreme-malice (I do take special requests, as my friends know).
It's a very specialized form of writer-voodoo. I snapshot the person I'm going to kill with a little thumbnail portrait, maybe only a line or two, and sometimes a name that's derived from the original's name. Then I kill them in interesting and gruesome ways. Sometimes repeatedly. My manager has been killed twice now, and oddly enough he becomes easier to deal with each time I kill him (No, he has never read anything I've written. No, you can't tell him. It takes all the fun out of it.)
In any case, my forbidden zone was there anyway, there were some fourteen people going to die there anyway, four of them minor characters who readers are hopefully going to care about a little bit, the others servants along for the trip more or less (Yes, it does make more sense than that. No you can't read it yet. I'm still writing it.). It's with the others that I get to have fun and do the redshirt-with-malice thing to people who've managed to irritate me.
Why do I insert people I know who have pissed me off? (No, "piss" is not a rude word where I grew up. It's 'earthy'). It's therapeutic. I get to have fun researching bizarre and horrible ways to die and I get to let off steam by putting someone I'm angry with in the role of Ensign Cannonfodder and writing their horrible death.
The bizarre parasites, biting trees, and other nasties got to be featured because this particular book is set in a far future where the bio-engineered war tools have gone on to reproduce and evolve, assisted by said war putting a very hefty dent in the unmodified human population worldwide. Sites where the biolabs were, or where nuclear weapons were used, are still, centuries later, uninhabitable. And the rest of the world is more or less feudal, but the rulers are the descendants of the saner modified humans. Not surprisingly, they got names that reflected what kind of mythical critter they resembled most, so there are dwarves (short, muscular, able to smell metals and rare earths - optimised for finding and mining deep underground deposits), elves (pretty, charismatic, telepathic, and capable of controlling other people's minds as well as reading them - all very handy for spying), vampires (who absolutely do not sparkle and are more or less one of the less ethical faction's version of elves) and... well. You get the idea.
What this piece looks like - and will probably be marketed as when I get that far - is "epic fantasy with vampires". The war that created them isn't even legend, it's completely lost. The bio-enhancements are regarded as "magic" or "gifts from deity" depending on culture. And of course the forbidden zones are terrible places where evil magic happened so long ago their legends merely hint at it.
The fun part for me is finding workable reasons why someone would have engineered something like this and how a culture where pure humans are very much an inferior race somewhere between animals and "real" people might evolve. I'm going to end up exploring several variations on that evolution as I write the books - which means I've been digging into history, sociology and evolutionary theory as well, although it lacks the 'cool' factor of bizarre lethal plants and animals.
In all probability the only part of the research that will be visible in the finished book will be the forbidden zone stuff. I made a deliberate choice to avoid the standards like giant spiders, and go for the kinds of nasties that aren't all that common. Things like the tree whose leaves are covered with microscopic silicon needles that release a neurotoxin painful enough to kill (Rowena, Chris, you've probably heard about the Gympie Stinging Tree) and whose shed needles stay actively toxic for at least 100 years. Or the bird whose feathers and beak are coated with the same basic poison the poison dart frogs secrete (A New Guinea native bird).
As I've learned - repeatedly - from the virtual "PTerry was here" signs all over odd branches of history, you don't need to make this stuff up. It's already out there. Two of my big writer-cookies are finding the stuff, and making it happen to someone who's got on my nerve (I only have one, and it's rather sensitive).
What are your writer-cookies? And what are the things you do when you write just because you like it?