Story Behind the Story: What Merfolk Must Know

What Merfolk Must Know

A lot of times when we write historical fiction, it’s tempting to restrict ourselves to narratives of political, intellectual, religious, and artistic “heavyweights” – people about which much has been written and who play a significant role in the large-scale historical narratives we learn in school. Even when we write about a character we make up in, say colonial America, it’s fun to have that character accidentally run into Benjamin Franklin or George Washington as they go about their daily lives.

But writing other narratives is necessary, especially when they’re narratives about oppressed peoples and the uglier parts of our history that we’d rather not think about. It took me a long time to figure out how I could best write about the Zong massacre in a way that introduced a fantastical element without underplaying or discounting the horror of both this event and the transatlantic slave trade as a whole. The story only succeeds (if it succeeds – I’m sure some people may beg to differ!) because of the utter naiveté of the narrator. Like the original little mermaid, she comes face-to-face with the cruelties of the land and doesn’t escape unscathed… as none of us should.

For anyone who’s interested in learning more about the transatlantic slave trade than their high school or college history books taught them, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database has information on almost 36,000 slaving voyages and the over 10,000,000 African men, women, and children whose lives the trade consumed.

Story Behind the Story: iChaperone

About midnight, the party came to a crashing halt when one of the dive team seniors arrived with a case of beer. Izzy had a split-second to wince before dozens of iChaperones lit up in angry technicolor.

iChaperone is another Codex Writers Weekend Warrior story. I had less than 72 hours to write a 750-word story based on a series of five prompts, mix and match the prompts however I wanted.

One of the prompts was a standard type of prompt that often appears in the Weekend Warrior contest, which was to use any three words out of a grab bag of miscellaneous words. I was mulling over the grab bag – chaperone, turret, magnificent, hopeless, ample, shuttle, eel, acrobat, bleach, conniving, soothe, schism, amadinda, solar, tithe, Chicago, sale, spangles, middling, stonework – and also tempted to combine it with another prompt that had captured my imagination but wasn’t immediately leading to a story: “What’s behind the cloud?”

As I tried to make some of those bits and pieces fit together into something that would lead to a story, I was reminded of a long-ago incident where I’d come home from college and was talking to my parents. They’d just given my younger brother his first cell phone and my mom joked that they’d gotten him an electronic leash and he’d thanked them for it. The ideas crashed together and suddenly I knew that my story was about drone technology evolving to enable literal helicopter parenting.

A story like that could have gone the dystopian route. But when I started to write Izzy’s story, instead of it being about the horrors of the surveillance state, a different kind of story emerged. It’s an utterly idealistic story, where technology is deployed not to punish and control but to truly protect.

We don’t live in that world. But I’d like to.

iChaperone and hundreds of other amazing flash fiction stories can be read for free on the Daily Science Fiction website.

Story Behind the Story: A Legal Affair

To all Kings, Princes, and Lords,

Whereas I have no children, save only one daughter, I find it expedient to lock said daughter in a tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Whosoever rescues the princess shall marry her and become my heir.

King John VII of Phantacia

* * * * *

To Sir Sedgway, Lord Chief Justice of Phantacia,

I pray you enquire into the cause of my imprisonment, if it be legal or no.

Your devoted servant,

Princess Melissande

image of a tree on a hill with a castle tower in the background

The question everyone always seems to ask authors is: where do you get your ideas? Well, the Princess Melissande sprang from my head fully-formed and Athena-like, in an incident that went something like this…

I was sitting in Panera, reading a book on legal history. Everything was fine and dandy until I reached the section on the use of habeas corpus in custody disputes and domestic violence cases.

Like a lightbulb going off in my head, it occurred to me that your average princess (having been raised in Court and therefore possessing at least a modicum of political sensibility), upon being locked in a tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon (you know, the cliche), would attempt to secure her release by writ of habeas corpus (assuming she didn’t agree to be locked up in the first place.)

Great idea! And I’ve always wanted to write a princess-in-a-tower story. So I jotted it down on my mental to-do list and tried to go back to the book.

“Wait, aren’t you going to write it down for real?” Princess Melissande demanded.

“Um, I don’t have any paper on me, except my receipt,” I replied to the figment of my imagination, hoping no one thought I was crazy for talking to thin air.

“What kind of writer doesn’t have any paper on her?” The princess turned to her lawyer. “Is there some legal precedent for this?”

The lawyer frowned. “Maybe if she goes home right away and writes it down?”

“But-” I protested.

Princess Melissande nodded. “Very well. Shoo.”



In the face of her royal displeasure (and the fact that she wouldn’t shut up so I could go back to my book), there was nothing to do but race on home (she’s a horrible backseat, in case anyone cares). I spent the next several hours feverishly writing out her story, until I reached The End.

“Is that it?” Princess Melissande asked, staring at my computer screen doubtfully.

“It’s not done until she puts it into standard manuscript form,” her lawyer declared.

“Fine, fine,” I said, before they could start in on me again. I hastily reformatted it, calculated the word count, and put that in the upper right hand corner of my first page.

1200 words.

“Hmm. You know, there’d probably be a better market for this if I could get it down to flash fiction size,” I said.

“A better market? What do you have to do for that?” Princess Melissande asked, excitedly.

“Oh, just cut out two hundred words-“

Her screech of outrage stopped me cold. “Two hundred words!”

“Well, if it increases the chance of publication…,” her lawyer began, then cut himself off abruptly as she turned her ire on him and began using words no princess ought to know.

Very quietly, I slipped away while they were both distracted and went back to my book.

This story can be found in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXVI, available through all the Usual Bookstore Suspects

Story Behind the Story: Hinterlight Abbey

Hinterlight Abbey

Every year, the Codex Writer’s Group has a flash fiction competition called Weekend Warrior. For five weekends in a row, we receive prompts every Friday night at 9pm Eastern and have to turn around a 750-word story by Sunday night at 2am. The competition has been going on for long enough that we’ve developed a series of traditional prompts, the most beloved of which is something called the “Title Rummage Sale.”

In the title rummage, run by the amazing Vylar Kaftan, participants click a link to be taken to a random set of five titles that were either created by Vylar or donated by other writers. You can click to refresh the page, but if you do that, there’s no guarantee you will ever see one of those first five titles again. Whenever you find a title that speaks to you, you claim it and the title is yours.

I don’t recall who donated “The Clearest Window in Hinterlight Abbey” but the instant I saw it, I knew that title was meant to be mine. I’ve always been fascinated by the regular clergy (monks and nuns who follow a “rule”, one of the most famous of which is the Rule of St. Benedict) and the word “hinterlight” just begged for a science fictional definition.

The rest is space nuns.

Story Behind the Story: Mudlarks

The river Thames collects the rubbish and sewage of London’s residents. Mudlarks are poor children who survive by scavenging for that rubbish in the mud at the river’s edge. They work in crews, each with its own territory, each with its own leader.

In honor of my website redesign (and because the affordances of WordPress make me feel guilty for not blogging, YES I know that’s silly but whatever) I’ve decided to institute a series of posts on the “Story Behind the Story” of some of my favorite published fiction. While there are lots of great stories I could tell, I figured this series could only start with Mudlarks, my first publication.

A lot of writers workshops have a particular story exercise: the 24 hour story. Participants have approximately 24 hours (a bit more if they don’t mind sleep deprivation) to write a short story from start to finish. I had only just recently moved from London back to the States, and one of the many things I missed was the river Thames. And I knew about the historical mudlarks, mostly children and the elderly, who eeked out survival by scavenging on the banks of the river. Okay, great, but where’s the speculative element to go with it? Edmund Schubert – then editor of IGMS – happened to be in that workshop with me and while we were working on brainstorming he said, quite casually, “You know, her magical powers ought to be related to the river somehow.”

That was the missing piece that made the entire story – indeed the entire world – fall into place. I spent 24(ish) frantic hours writing. At about 2am I almost killed off the main character just so I could go to bed (do not do that, that is a bad reason to kill off your main character) but I persevered and finally around 5am managed to finish the first draft of my story at a “mere” 8,000 words.

When it came time to critique my story, my fellow workshop participants had very valuable advice to give me (especially about not rushing the ending because I wanted to go to bed). I knew substantial revisions would be necessary before I could even think about submitting this story to markets and I was mentally prepping myself to do so even as the critique session ended… with Scott Card telling me that, even in this form, any editor would be a fool to not snatch it up if it crossed their desk.

Readers, Edmund was not a fool. I spent several frantic weeks revising and several more months wondering if it was all a dream, only to be absolutely thrilled to finally see my story published with an amazing illustration to boot (the illustrator even blogged about the artwork). While the full story is behind a subscription paywall, you can check out the beginning (and other great stories in the magazine’s free issue) at

Hello world!

My former ISP and I have had a parting of ways… snazzy new site design coming very soon! In the meantime, have a photo of a very hard-working cat.

Tortoiseshell over white shorthair cat sitting on a copy of Writing the Breakout Novel