The Muse Wars

I’ve had a number of requests to make the muse wars from the Santuario book launch tour available as a single, easily bookmarked post. So, here ya go:

The Spark
I bet most of us have at one point or another in our lives dreamed about a better world, a perfect world without murder or war or … I’d run out of space long before completing that list. The specific dream that inspired Santuario was related to an incident of gay bashing that made me long (not for the first time) for a world where people can just be who they are without fear. It doesn’t take much to set the gears in my writer brain spinning and the muse scrambling. “What if?” questions are a surefire way to do it. What if there was a world without homophobia? What parameters would I need to change to end up with a society (still human) like that? What existing or historical cultures (if any) accept homosexuality as just another way of life, and how do they differ from those that don’t? What underlying causes–

At this point the muse kicked me forcefully in the shins. “Are you seriously contemplating to write about a perfect world?” she asked.
I was all fired up and ready to go. Of course I did.
“Moron,” she said.
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“It’s going to tank,” she said, and proceeded to tick the whys off her delectable fingers: “No drama, no tension, no development. Why would anyone want to read that?”
“Because it’s beautiful.”
“It’ll bore people to tears after the first paragraph. I’m not interested.”
“Fine, I’ll do it without you then.”
She smirked. She knows full well I can’t get anything worthwhile done without her.
I caved. “Any ideas?”
“Kaboom,” she said.
“Huh?” I said. I can be very eloquent that way.
“You can have your perfect culture. If I can throw in a scary and cruel one.”
“And kaboom!”
“But I want a world without kaboom.”
“You want a story. Kaboom!”

I swear, that’s how it happened. That was the spark that ignited Santuario. We took it from there and ran with it. Of course it was by no means the last clash between the muse and me. She’s opinionated, and a drama queen. Me, I’m perfectly reasonable, of course.

So, the muse and I agreed (sort of) on a perfect society pitched against a cruel, scary one. Now we’d just have to figure out the setting. Right? Needless to say the muse was not that easily satisfied.
“Get real,” she said. “Perfect society. I thought you wanted it to be a human society.”
“Yeees?” I’m slow to catch on sometimes.
“Well, if it’s human, it’s not going to be perfect. It might be better and more egalitarian and maybe even fairer than what we have now (like that’s so hard), but it’s still going to have greed and envy and fear and all those other things humans carry around with them them wherever they go.”

She had a point. And I admit that only grudgingly. So an almost perfect society, then. But where? I confess to being intrigued by the idea of frontiers, a handful of people carrying only the bare necessities, being dumped in the middle of nowhere. There are so many different ways this can play out. I decided it was the perfect scenario for my benevolent society.

“What frontier?” the muse, always helpful, wanted to know.
“Some planet. They leave earth in a generation ship and settle on a world far, far away.”
“Which supports human life,” she scoffed.
“It got terraformed before they landed.”
“That’s some technology.”
“It’s the future. Work with me, here.”
“Hmmm, what about my scary society? Are they on the same ship?”
“Naawww, they come later. My good guys need a chance to develop peacefully first.”
“So, how come they end up on the same planet?”
“Some glitch? It’s not really important for our story.”
“Could be for another one.”
“Yeah, maybe, I’ll work on it. But can we concentrate on this one first?”

Here, she probably rolled her eyes at me. She does that a lot. But at least she agreed with me on background. Two cultures, rooted in a distant earth past that developed separately on the same planet, and–

“Separately?” chirped the muse. “How come?”
“The ones who were there first were afraid and told the new guys they had to settle somewhere else?”
“Wait, the new guys are the bad ones, right?”
“So your good guys kicked them out? Told you they weren’t perfect.”

Did I mention how much I hate it when she’s right? To make matters worse I was starting to get really interested in this idea of how “good” a culture can actually be. Without needs, wants, competition, things to fear, what drives us? Is there a tipping point? Or more than one? Into total control? Or total petrifaction? And if there is, how and where do we keep the balance?

“How giant an info dump were you planning on again?” asked the muse.
“Oh, shush. This is still background.”
“Yeah, but for at least three books, not one.”

I didn’t say anything. I’m absolutely positive that I didn’t. But she must have read something in my eyes, because she started smiling that beatific smile that tells me she’s happy. We just stared and grinned at each other for a bit, and then we started world building.

World building
We were trying to create a (almost) perfect society (mine) and a scary, cruel society (hers). I wanted my guys to start their settlement in a place where they’d have to huddle and rely heavily on each other. So the planet they were trying to settle had its main landmass in one big continent around the north pole, much of it too cold for permanent settlements, but with a more temperate zone along its coastlines (think Finland, Canada, that sort of thing). I was also reasoning that whoever prepared the planet and selected the people for the trip would know that and round up volunteers from the northern countries, like Scandinavia and Iceland, mutual language roots being considered a plus and over time coalescing into the Skanian I use in the book.

The muse started to tap her fingers. An incessant nail on wood noise, designed to break my concentration and drive me bonkers.
“What?” I snarled.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” She smiled sweetly at me. “Where do my people end up?”
“I don’t care, some rock in the equatorial zone that’s too hot for my Vikings.”
“A rock?” She has a pretty pout, but I mainly wanted to get on with my settlers.
“Fine, an island. Don’t push it.”
“How big?” she immediately shot back.
“Would have to be a decent size, allow for some agriculture and general development. Something the size of Britain.”
“I want palm trees. And beaches.”
“Whatever.” I still had Vikings to get back to. “It’s not going to be Paradise, though. Remember, these are the bad guys. Let’s see, by the time they leave Earth, things have taken a turn for the worse, the terraforming technology has been lost or sabotaged, so they need to be sent to an already prepped planet.”
She nodded. “And since everyone wants to get off Earth, it’s a jumbled mess of nations on the ship.”
“Predominant languages Chinese and English?”
She gave me her best don’t-be-stupid look. “Been done. Gimme your Firefly card back. We’ll take Russian and Spanish, with maybe English as a lingua franca.”
I forgave her. I was starting to get caught up in her fantasy. “They’re used to ‘everyone for themselves’ kind of thinking.”
“So when they land, the strongest hog the valuable resources (the ship) and set everyone else to work.”
“Over time establishing a ruling class.”
She smiled. A pretty scary smile, now that I come to think of it. “Who controls the rabble with access to firearms.”
“A personal army. Like the Savaks.”
“The Securitate.”
“The Tonton Macoute.”
“The Gestapo.”
“Okay, enough. I still have some Vikings to get settled here. Your guys are not coming for hundreds of years.”
She admired her nails. “They’ll be in the book. So anything before they arrive is background.”
“It’s world building. It shapes the people that’ll be in the book.”
“What people?”

Character building
Want to meet the guys? So did I. In that respect Santuario was an out of the ordinary book for me, because it started with an idea. More often than not my stories start with a character, a voice in my head that won’t shut up until they’ve told me everything I never wanted to know about them, and then some. This one was different. I had background (one near perfect, one scary society), I had setting (the planet they both settled on), but I didn’t hear any voices. Now, for most people this might be a good thing. For me it’s a disaster.

In a rare show of agreement the muse and I decided on one character from each of the two cultures (because she wanted kaboom), and that they would both be cops (because I like me a good mystery). After that? Crickets. I put the story idea aside and wrote a whole other book, completely different genre, then tried again. Nothing happened. The truth is, I can build worlds, I can build plots, but I can’t, for the life of me, ‘build’ characters. I tried different character sheets, and filled them all in with eye color, and favorite foods, and all that sugar. And when I poked what I’d made, it wasn’t moving. I’d made a puppet. Dead, Jim.

Characters form somewhere in my subconscious, so deep down that I can’t see anything. They need amorphous influences to form, mood, style, atmosphere. So I got busy thinking about plot and what the muse’s darn island looked like. It was somewhere hot, and she’d wanted palm trees and beaches. I wanted hills and dusty roads, and hovels in villages, and cities like ancient Granada. Just as we’d discovered skeletons in the closet of my perfect society, I now discovered beauty in her cruel one. When I started collecting songs for my playlist (I always write with music) I realized I was picking mostly Son Cubano. And I noticed someone dancing to it. Just a shadow at first, long legs, a wide brimmed hat, definitely male, definitely a man with rhythm in every bone of his body.

I had to clear my throat.
“Shhhhh,” said the muse. “Don’t scare him away.”

He briefly looked over at that, his face completely deadpan; then he looked away again. Over the next few days I noticed more details about him, but he wasn’t talking to me. I got emotions, very suppressed for the most part, except for a strong sense of longing, but no voice. Still, I knew who he was. I knew what made him tick. And I started writing. That was Alex.

Bengt was a lot harder. He talked all the time. I knew everything about his family, his boss, his house. I knew he was this huge, blond guy with a taste for good food and quality clothes. But all the while his talking kept me at arm’s length. I realized he had a secret, and that I wouldn’t know the real Bengt, until I figured out what it was. But *that* wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. That was ‘ancient history’ and ‘none of my business’. He needed a bit more … persuasion. And, let me tell you, Bengt is not an easy guy to wrestle into compliance. But the muse? She kicks ass, even Skanian ones. So we finally got there.

I’d written two full chapters of Alex before I typed one word of Bengt. But once that started, it just kept going. They don’t ever shut up. They’re in my head 24/7. Santuario? Is just the beginning.

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