Hooray! One of my favorite blog meme-things, the "Five Questions" interview game, has finally made its way around Blogistan again. It's taken a little while, and the timing is a bit goofy for me personally since next month is when I traditionally do "Ask Me Anything!", but there it is. My five questions come from Steph, and here they are:
1. How do ideas for your books come to you?
They don't come to me. I have to go steal them. Next question!
But seriously, I generally have no idea where my ideas come from. Mostly I suppose that stuff I observe in life, including stories I take in via books or short fiction, movies, teevee shows, or whatever, just goes into a giant hopper in my head, gets stirred around a bit, and every once in a while, out pops an idea. Very few ideas spring into my head fully-formed, in the sense that writing the tale from that idea feels like "taking dictation from the Muse", as it were. (In fact, the only such idea I can remember having is the one for my story "What Happened to the Huntsman?", which is still one of my favorite stories and one whose failure to sell to anyone rankles a bit.) Mostly my ideas are half-ripe and I have to tease them out through the writing. Sometimes it's fairly easy, and as I start writing the story the idea generally falls into place, but other times, the story I attempt ends up going nowhere, and I have to shelve the notion. I have a few of these on my hard drive at the moment, in various stages of uncompletion, and who knows if I'll ever get back to them.
The idea behind my ongoing tale "The Balance in the Blood" was one idea that took me a couple of aborted drafts to get going, but the central idea there – that the Nazis in the camps were trying to create vampires – was one that stuck with me until I finally managed to write the story that came from it.
Other ideas come to me as simple notions to be explored: What if some rural bar in the middle of the Depression started serving magic beer that made everyone happy? What if a man finds a letter addressed to him, from a complete stranger, tucked inside a library book? What if King Arthur returned? But some ideas come to me in a bit more complete form than that, and some of these ideas I haven't even written yet, such as the fantasy I have in mind involving the young son of a lighthouse keeper, or the space opera about the two sisters, both Princesses on their home worlds, whose ship is blasted off course until they end up on an uncharted world that seems to have been expecting them, or the screenplay I've just started about the man who finds himself haunted by the ghost of the criminal who killed his wife.
Very, very rarely do I see things in real life that give me story ideas. "In Longhand" is one such story; this springs from a regular customer who used to come into the restaurant where I worked. He was an older gentleman with a pleasant German accent, and one day, one of my servers remarked, "I'll bet that guy is one of those Nazis that the US adopted because he knew how to make an atom bomb." Well, that story came out pretty quickly. The first tale I ever submitted for publication (rejected, obviously), "Graveyard Waltz", was suggested by a song by the Hooters. I've been thinking for a few months now that there's a heck of a movie to be made from the love story of Robert and Clara Schumann. And so it goes.
So, where do my ideas come from? Everywhere. And nowhere. (Hmmm...on review, my flip answer "I steal my ideas" maybe isn't so flip at all.)
2. How do you develop your characters? Do you use a card file system (or etc.), keep them in your head, or do you use some other method?
This may sound odd, but I do none of this. I never think of my characters in terms of their personalities or their backstories; I don't spend hours writing character sketches before I ever start writing the stories. When I start writing, I don't know my characters any better than the reader does when they start reading the tale. I get to know my characters while I write their stories, and as I go, I just keep it straight in my head as I make it up. I know the bare minimum about the characters when I set out to write, enough that when I introduce the character, I can say, "OK, there's this person, and this is what happens to that person."
This can lead to trouble, and when I find myself taking a story in a wrong direction and thus end up having to backtrack, it could be said that my characters are telling me, "That's not what we would do. You need to fix that." But it can also lead to wonderful surprises. In my first draft of The Promised King, when I introduced Sir Baigent, he was literally an afterthought; I only gave him a name because I knew that the guy he works for, Lord Matholyn, would be an important character in the story himself, so Sir Baigent seemed a potentially notable supporting player in the tale. Before my eyes Sir Baigent instead became more important than Lord Matholyn; in fact, if I ever get the entire thing finished and online, it turns out that his importance to the story is second to no one's.
So for me, in terms of character, writing is almost totally an act of discovery.
3. Like my friend Deni, you've lost a child (and I hope this isn't too personal. If it is, please pardon me and feel free not to answer). What was the one thing that got you through the worst of such a terrible loss?
Wow, talk about a shift of gears. What got me through? The usual stuff, obviously: an outpouring of support from family and friends, both online and off. But the "worst" turns out to not actually be those first days after the loss; nor is the "worst" the funeral, even. During that period a certain numbness settles, and I found myself often entertaining thoughts that were surprising in their oddity, given the situation – for instance, my momentary disappointment when I realized, two days later, that Little Quinn had died the morning his older sister had been supposed to go on a field trip she'd been looking forward to. Or the other little details that I noticed, such as the medical examiner telling us that when his office was done with their work (meaning, when the autopsy was finished), we could make our arrangements with "the person we use for this sort of thing", making it sound like we have a "usual guy", in the same way we go to the same place to get the oil changed in our cars. Weird.
What also helped, I suppose, in an odd sort of way, is the fact of Little Quinn's life (and the manner of Fiona's passing, as well). With Quinn, well – it's hard to admit this, but with him, there really was the sense, almost from the night he was born, that his wasn't going to be a normal life. The doctors kept us appraised, of course, all through the time he was in that NICU, but finally there came a point – about two weeks after his birth, if I remember it all rightly – that the docs confirmed the worst fears, that Quinn was brain-damaged and that his life would involve disability of a possibly, perhaps probably, serious nature. I can't speak for The Wife on this point, but pretty much from that moment I knew that the strong likelihood was that I would end up outliving him. I didn't expect that to happen in fifteen months, and I certainly didn't expect it when it came out of the blue one bright November morning after a long period during which he had started to show actual signs of improvement. I figured there would be a period of decline followed by an unsurprising passing.
With Fiona, of course, there was tremendous disappointment, but it was similar in that as soon as we knew she was coming out, barely twenty-two weeks into pregnancy, her game was up, too.
We lost those two, but in the ways they were lost, we were somewhat already able to come to grips with the loss of all the hopes and dreams that children represent before their actual deaths came to pass. I knew, less than a month into Little Quinn's life, that I would almost certainly never teach him to ride a bike, or watch Star Wars with him, or any of that other stuff. His every day was pretty much a fight for the next day. You don't want to get into the trap of comparing personal tragedies, because they're called personal tragedies for a reason, but Little Quinn's and Fiona's deaths weren't at all like, say, the man I work with whose daughter was killed in a car crash on her way home from trying on wedding dresses.
In the movie Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood has a line: "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man. You take away everything he's got, and everything he's ever gonna have." When Little Quinn died, it helped me to know that he didn't have much and wasn't ever going to have much.
I'm not sure if this answers the question, and anyway, I have to concede the possibility that I haven't "got through" it at all.
4. What's the story behind the blue denim overalls?
Wow, another change of gears! I'm not sure which "story" Steph is looking for here. In terms of the blog, I happened to be wearing overalls in the first self-photo I ever posted of myself here, and PZ Myers informed me that I looked like an axe murderer. This I found funny, so I just kind of adopted it as an online trademark, deciding that I'd be in overalls in (nearly) every photo of myself I'd use online. For now I've kind of backed off that a bit – the current headshot I'm using is a case in point – but I may go back. The overalls do turn out to be a useful device for weeding out the readership here: anyone who isn't likely to be fun to have around is repelled by them in the first place. I do get the occasional – maybe once every six months – negative comment about the overalls, but these I pretty much ignore. There was one, once, that said something like "My God, those aren't even close to fashionable anymore!" And I'm thinking, where on this blog can one find anything to indicate that I'm even the slightest bit interested in fashionable? (To say nothing of the colossal silliness of "fashion" as a concept, anyway: I'm fascinated by the groupthink inherent in the fact that overalls were incredibly popular in women's wardrobes during the 1990s – much to my happiness during that decade, I must admit – but now they're seen almost uniformly as a societal fashion faux pas. I see people express shock as the prospect that they might "come back", which makes me laugh; everything comes back, sooner or later. If you can find a college yearbook from the 1970s or early 80s, have a look though the pages, and you'll see the occasional pair of overalls in there.)
But if Steph's wondering about me and overalls beyond Blogistan, well, fire up the Memory Machine! I wore them as a kid, as did every kid, I suppose, but for some weird reason I was horribly embarrassed by them and was convinced that everyone was staring at me or something. (I was four. It made sense then.) I liked them, but only in the context of home. Weird. I owned at least one pair my entire life, but I didn't start wearing them publicly until college, which is when you get to dress any way you want with a general minimal amount of "OMG, what the hell are you wearing!" When I first wore them, though, most people thought I was trying to look like an authentic Iowan; that's what I get for going to college in Iowa. Wouldn't have happened if I'd gone to school in Schenectady...but anyway. Those old Dickies overalls got me through a couple of Iowa winters.
I was wearing overalls a lot prior to the surge in "grunge" as fashion in the early 1990s, when rugged work clothing became very popular. I just kept wearing them afterwards, is all. When they became more popular in the 90s, I bought more. I did go overboard a bit in that department, ending up with a fairly idiotically large collection of the things; over the last year I've occasionally been selling some of them on eBay, and in terms of buying new ones, I'm only interested in vintage ones, and those tend to be on the pricey side, so there I have to be vigilant in looking for good deals.
The Wife, incidentally, was not an overalls person until she and I got together, so that's all my fault. I bought her her first pair when we'd been dating a little more than a year (no, it wasn't an anniversary present), and after some initial skepticism she decided that she liked them, and she's been my frequent companion in overalls ever since. It's like our own little "secret code" sort of thing together. The Daughter seems to have no interest at all in them, which is fine by me. She's got to do her own thing, you know?
Now, in terms of the blog, while I have adopted the overalls as part of my "persona" here, I don't actually wear them day-in and day-out in real life. I mean, I do wear them a lot in real life, but not exhaustively. In fact, just the other day I was sitting in Borders working away on the laptop when someone actually recognized me from the blog and said hello. I was wearing khakis.
By the way, Steph asks about blue denim overalls specifically. It's not always blue, though. There are the "hickory striped" overalls, made famous by railroad workers throughout the world; brown ones called "duck" for some reason; and I own a few black pairs as well. I wouldn't mind getting a pair or two of off-white "painters" overalls, but I haven't done that yet. Priorities, you know. But yeah: overalls rule. They're comfortable, they can either be useful or whimsical, they're economical because they last forever, and on women, I find them flattering. What else do I need?
5. Before blogging, what, if any, was your main mode of personal expression?
Before blogging? What went on back then? Hmmmm....
Well, back then my main online outlet was on Usenet, on a couple of low-traffic newsgroups (rec.music.movies being one). Other than that, I didn't much have an outlet of this nature. I'd thought occasionally of setting up my own website where I'd post essays on various topics, but clearly I never got around to doing that until I discovered blogging (which is the same thing). Mostly, though, I had no outlet for this kind of thing. I did my writing in isolation, and that was about it. Wow, what a lonely world that was...but I largely kept my thoughts in my head. Now I can get them out, which is very nice.
And there we have it! If any of you would like a set of questions, all you have to do is leave a comment saying "Interview me!" or something similar in the comments on this post. (But make sure you leave a URL or some other way of identifying what blog you're from, so I don't do what I did last year and mistake one respondent with another blogger of the same name, and thus give questions that were horribly awry.)