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The Writer and the Spade:

A Picture Is Worth

4,168 Words

Part 1

Once upon a time, I was asked how I create plots in my fiction. Later this month I'll be doing a miniseries here on Curious Tale Saturdays to answer that question at long last.

Before I do, however, I'm going to post a case study of sorts, something I'll be able to refer back to once I start talking about plot development. In February of 2012 I created the character Spade, a street urchin in Soda Fountain. I was so enraptured by that process that I soon I wrote an entry about it in my journal, which remains one of my fonder journal entries today.

That journal entry also happens to do a reasonably good job of documenting an instance of my creative process well enough that I can look at it several years later and recall many of the details—which is pertinent here.

That journal entry was posted for friends only. I never made it available to the wider world. But now that's going to change! Today and next Saturday I'll be reposting it here, as a two-parter (due to length).

I'm reposting it essentially verbatim (though I've made a small tweak here and there), so bear in mind that it's a few years old by now and the details are subject to change. Also consider that it has its own, internal themes and isn't built around the theme of plot development, which is its context here today.

The entry's title is "The Writer and the spade: A Picture Is Worth 4,168 Words," because the original journal entry is 4,168 words!

Meet Spade

[Originally published February 29, 2012]

This entry comes on the heels of my ATH work. I find it satisfying to put whatever I want in my books. Recently in Magic: The Gathering the good Wizards made a card called Reckless Waif, whose sun-side artwork, so beautifully executed by Michael Hayes, looks thus:

© Michael Hayes for Wizards of the Coast

Let's stop here for a short tangent. If I could have chosen free from any context, I think I would rather have the skill for drawing that I have for words. If I could dispense with enough of the context, I would rather do ATH as an extensive series of graphic novels. I am inherently a visual thinker. You couldn't tell it by looking at the small amount of artwork I do, but that's only because I don't have the practice that I do as a writer. If I should outlive my procrastination I fully intend to learn to draw and to do some graphical novels in the future. ATH comes first, though, and ATH, because of the context of my life, is a written book—and, ultimately, one that I think will be better as a written book than as a graphical one, because—paradoxically—words are clearer than visuals.

This is because words are much, much smaller in internal information than (their typical corresponding) visuals. You only need appreciate that by counting the number of bits it takes to store a sentence, versus a reasonable illustration of that sentence. Visuals have a context of their own. They make numerous assumptions and are full of incidental information. Thus, there is more to interpret. Thus, people are likelier to have more divergent interpretations than they are of the written word. Thus, words are clearer. With words, you have more control because you give the reader less material to work with.

[Comment, 2015: That's a contentious and counterintuitive claim. Rather than spending time to defend it here, let me say something more agreeable in its place: If I showed a bunch of people the above picture and asked them to come up with a story, I think there'd be quite a lot of variety between those stories.]

I first saw the above picture probably a few months ago after Innistrad premiered (in autumn 2011); I don't exactly recall. But, like with Captain Estar (and Chrono Trigger!), it was the second exposure, some time after the first, that really bored into my psyche. Initially all I noticed was that I liked the character. She wasn't underdressed and oversexed like many a female subject on Magic card art. And I also noticed that her flavor was cool: She didn't care about being alone outside at night, because she was already a werewolf.

Yesterday I saw the art again because it was featured in somebody's weekly column at the Magic website. It occurred to me that although I liked the art I hadn't actually studied the picture. So I did.


I hadn't been seeing most of that picture. In her left hand she is holding an apple; in her right a knife to slice it. These sorts of details I had missed the first time around, but it was the abstract stuff that really got me excited. The angle and position she is at inside the picture makes it impossible that anyone else appearing in the picture, if somebody were to suddenly walk in-frame, could appear at her same height and orientation. She is quite literally on a different plane of existence. The white mist suggests spirits and horror. The darkened windows on the house behind her suggest the lives of people who are, as the flavor text ("Yes, I'm alone. No, I'm not worried.") implies, too "prudent" and too afraid to go outside at night. Rarely for me, I found myself wondering what was around the corner of that house.

It's just a damn good piece of drawing. It's a bit fuller of subject matter than ideal, but not overfull. Pictures like this tell stories, when they catch my fancy. I mean, they do it instantly. After studying this picture I instantly was brimming with story ideas. One of the secrets of good storytelling is that your descriptions have to tell stories, rather than the "story" telling the descriptions. That's true as much in writing as in drawing. This is a picture whose descriptions tell you almost nothing about what is actually going on, but suggest all kinds of possibilities for what might be going on. This is a picture whose purpose is made clear by the card mechanics, title, and flavor, but which says nothing more about the life of the person depicted in it or of the world she lives in. The picture is filled with information, almost none of which pertains to the matter at hand. I love that.

I love it so much I stole it. After studying the picture I could see why it was so appealing to me. It pushes a lot of my buttons! The card title itself describes a "waif," and the art paints to a Dickensian sort of street urchin. She reminds me of Éponine (from Les Misérables), one of my favorite such characters, and of all the lush imagery of the 19th century in Europe—the source material for my beloved steampunk genre. The flavor text asserts that this waif is not afraid to be outside at night, for she is already inured to its dangers. That's a strong theme in my writing: Don't fear the night. Love the night, by mastering the power necessary that you have nothing to fear from the night. That doesn't even mean total safety; it just means awareness and some measure of strength to react and to adapt. The night should be a peaceful time, and, ultimately, the art in this picture depicts that. The waif is on alert—looking away from her apple—but only in these rare moments of relative tranquility would she even have the opportunity to eat at all.

The house really does suggest to me that there are more people nearby, and it got me thinking about who they might be. I like that; I like scenes that suggest continuations of themselves outside the frame. I like the color schemes. I like the sharpness of the person compared to the blurriness of everything else. I like that the artist got the flesh on her legs right: That distinctive bunching up of muscle and fat on the thigh when in a squatting or crouching position is something that escapes many artists. And I like that her beautiful red vest seems to fade out into a tattered oblivion. The presence of a food is a reminder that this is a living person, and the diversion of her attention away from it is her chief connection with the milieu in which she has been placed.

So, like I said, I stole it. Like, as brazenly as I ever steal anything. I created a new character in Soda Fountain, dressed exactly like the one in this picture. I mean, I didn't even change the color palette. Dot for dot, I described in words the person depicted on that card.

That's how my creative talent works. As I say sometimes, I am not as much of an originalist as I used to think. My best creativity is when I have a starter seed. All I needed was the contents of this card. In literal terms, I am not actually stealing anything. None of the copyrighted material on that card will show up in my book. What I actually stole—indeed, let me say that I merely borrowed the spirit of it for a little while—is this notion of a strong and small person alone in the night of an unforgiving world. Yes, I stole the general appearance of her attire and some of the particulars of her situation, too, but, come on. You can't copyright that.

(Well, you can. Sometimes. You shouldn't, but sometimes you can. Yet the power of words over pictures comes to the rescue: If I describe the waif's appearance in written text only, your imagination will construct a different image. And that's good enough to escape the copyright specters.)

So, new character. Soda Fountain, on the night of the Galan invasion, is besieged by the sandstorm that conceals the Galan fleet. How might this look to someone in the city who doesn't know anything about what's going on? This new character of mine, this waif, is busy looking for her next meal, then forced to find shelter from the sandstorm. She finds a windbreak just before everything becomes totally dark:

The blowing sand swallowed all light. Nothing could have shone more than a few paces from where it stood. For the people of Soda Fountain this was an oppressive gloom. Never mind the moons and the stars. Soda Fountain was a nightlit city! All of its main promenades were lined with green copper lampposts that soared high above the head and spilled rich orange light upon the pathways of mates. These were gifts from the patrons to the people, wrought by Garagilas Workshop out of fine Bourous ore. Each and every post assumed the form of the swan in flight, the majestic icon of the King. Every swan's pose was unique, but always its wingtips both held a reservoir of spiced oil that perfumed the streets, and a wick leading up to a large glass globe where the flame dwelt.

Every plaza was an island of light, torches and bonfires and lanterns. Most of the main roads and markets were lit like the promenades. Lesser streets were darker, the darkness cut by a heartwarming hodgepodge of luminary opulence and peasant's thrift.

Every spire and important edifice was lit abundantly at the street—it was bad luck to cast a shadow into a building while entering it—and topped out in a tiara of light, sometimes orange, or gray, or blue, or even red. The tallest of towers had immense blue spotlights that shone up into the sky beyond eyesight, and were lit only on the most spectacular occasions, as the Festival of Octaprima surely was. Even most homes had lamps on their porches and decks, and indoors too.

Beyond the scourge of the desert heat that pervaded much of the year, these dark hours gave relief and vitality to the parched metropolis. The Sodish people spoke of beautiful cityscapes by night, a glittering jewel in the dead sea. One need only climb three or four stories to see it. Visitors could scarcely believe it, and many were moved to tears or great joy at the sight.

But not this night. The sand devoured it all. If the great beacons were still alight, none but their keepers knew! Most of the people huddled inside their homes. Many were genuinely more afraid of the isolation caused by the darkness than of the deadly sand itself, even though it could burn the skin and clog the lungs. Sandstorms were a fact of life in Soda Fountain, but few appreciated them.

Yet the sandstorms had their defenders. A few ardent oddballs enjoyed the excitement and violence of the billowing sand. Others enjoyed the strangeness of it. And then there were those who relished the obscurity. For some of them it meant the opportunity to be alone; for others, the opportunity to go unseen.

One of these was a pitiably thin waif who called herself Spade. She crouched now behind a defensive sail, holding an underripe ofwa in her left hand and a knife in her right. She did not own either.

It took me as long to come up with the name Spade as to write every word preceding it. Names are the hardest thing for me to do! But, this is her name. Or, at least, it's what she calls herself. Her real name is Spatula, Spatula Terlantar. Your wrinkled brow of bemusement may be somewhat assuaged when you learn that words like spatula, spade, and epaulette are all cognates, deriving from the word spade itself. I liked the imagery of this "reckless waif" who has the name of a small, blunt sword—very much in character.

For her last name I wanted something that meant "waif." After searching I found the Malay word terlantar, which means "displaced"; in the sense of a "displaced refugee." Inside the world of Relance, Terlantar has the same prefix of agency that Terlais does. I am still in need of fleshing out the cast of characters for whom Silence is the primary main character of relation, and I thought that it would be appropriate that a street urchin would admire the legends of the sandship pirate captain. Thus, Spade's roots are from the Middemesne—just as Silence herself, who, someday, will explain that to the young, blunt sword.

It seemed likely to me that Spade was sold by her parents. She may or may not have lived, but probably did, in Soda Fountain for essentially her whole life. She has no home, no routine, no structure to her life other than the continuing quest for survival. Éponine gets killed of course (spoiler alert), and the waif in the Magic card has already undergone the trauma of being made into a werewolf. I wanted to give Spade a better chance, an opportunity to do something with her life. I don't actually know yet how her character will turn out, but I am giving her the opportunity to find out.

I will tell you a small spoiler, though. (You wouldn't still be reading if you detest spoilers!) From the beginning I had conceived of Spade as someone who will eventually merge into a preexisting character from later in the story. My first attempts to create Spade's name went on the assumption that this is actually the character once named Kirsa LeRow, the thief of Pabol. But "Kirsa's" role is already pretty well-fleshed out in the early stages of Draft 10 and it doesn't seem likely that Spade is her. Another possibility was Vierge, who doesn't appear in the early story, but I wrote that off because I didn't like the idea of front-loading the story so heavily with new major characters.

So, for now, she is completely new. She may yet meld into a different character, if that opportunity arises in good form, but otherwise I have a new character to add to the cast.

But all of this, everything you have read thus far, is merely the preamble to my starting thesis that I find it satisfying to put whatever I want in my books. Thankfully for the sensibilities of your valuable time, this entry is well more than half done, since my preambles tend to include most of the setup work necessary to support the thesis, which in turn can be short and sweet.

Tune in Next Week!

That's the first half of my 2012 journal entry. Next week I'll finish it off by introducing the proverbial "somebody in the house behind [the waif]."

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!