Print Story The Road To The Road Home
By ana (Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 09:26:11 AM EST) WFC, WFC6, writing, post-mortem (all tags)
In which the author dissects the process of writing the story The Road Home

The alert observer will have noticed by now that I am the author of The Road Home, which managed to get 10 votes out of the 19 people who bothered to vote in the Sixth WFC.

When pondering the idea of writing about a road somehow, the first thing that came to mind was inspired by the picture I have as a backdrop on my laptop: here. I imagined the Milky Way looking not unlike a road, at night, in the winter. The actual road is dark because the snow’s worn off. Then there’s white along the edge, fading to black as it reaches the woods or whatever. So continue the road across the sky onto the ground.

Now imagine a flying object moving along the celestial road, and landing on the terrestrial one, either by design, or in a crash.

And then, as I mentioned in my self-mini-review, there’s the attractive theme of having to walk home after your equipment malfunctions. There’s a story shaping up here.

Last Halloween, somebody along our commute put up a most inventive decoration, which consisted of two halves of a broom, placed in such a way that it looked as if the broom had gone through a light pole, perhaps 20 feet off the ground. Then there was a classical Halloween witch, astride the aft end of the broom, face planted into the light pole, one arm and one leg pointed forward on either side of the pole. As if she’d just now crashed into the pole at high speed.

The actual writing began in this atmosphere at a Sunday Brunch prompted writing session. These are sponsored by Toasted Cheese, and held in IRC channel #writing on on Sunday afternoons (your timezone may vary) at 1pm Eastern US time.

At the end of that initial session, I had a very atmospheric piece, with dream sequence, watching something or somebody crash on the road at night. There was lots of science, how to go about figuring out not only the place but the date, from stuff you might remember from a dream.

You see, my scifi tends to be a bit too heavy on the sci. It’s always seemed to me that even a lay person should be able to come up with a satisfactory answer to the “how could you possibly know that?” questions. But such things distract from a story, and besides, the people in the story already know a lot of it, one presumes. Watching people think is like watching paint dry.

So, I started over. Much of the same stuff ended up in draft number two, again written at a Sunday Brunch session, but I wrote it without having actually looked at the first draft for a week or two, so the details were different. Spouse, in the morning, offering to help, but, what with being unable to do celestial mechanics (still with the figuring out when and where), can’t do much more than distract.

In a very nice way. Somebody once told me sternly that sex scenes in a story should either advance the action or change somebody. I wasn’t sure I agreed then, and I’m not sure I agree now. So I tossed this one in, just as a part of normal life, before a most unusual commute to a dangerous and rather unorthodox (even within the story world) line of work.

When the main character takes off, I sat down and drew a little diagram of a world line, with one spatial dimension on the x-axis and time on the y-axis, with the house drawn in, starting from 20 years prior, and going into the indefinite future. And I plotted a hyperbola, going backwards in time and just missing the building of the house as it speeds away. And imagined what might happen if the present day Lupe crashed through the window into the younger Lupe’s bedroom, to find her, ahem, doing whatever she did, back then.

OK, so one of the fundamental problems with imaginary time travel is the prospect of meeting your younger self. If the younger self is aware that it’s you, then there’s a data point that s/he may or may not wish to be aware of, about where s/he’ll end up 20 years in hir own future.

But the elder Lupe is in a bad way; stuck in a valley where it’s hard to survive, torn between two historical epochs (that should be re-examined in considerably more detail, actually), and relying on broadcasting into future time-traveller’s dreams to call for help.

The Anasazi (so-called in Navajo; it means “ancestors of our enemies, i.e. the Hopi) disappeared from the area around what’s now the Four Corners around 1280 or so, in the middle of a drought. There’s archeological evidence of considerable upheaval; burned towns, cities built on ledges high up on cliff walls; even burned kivas. One presumes the kivas were centers of religious activity, or clubhouses, or (not unlike churches of today) both. So burning them presumably marks some major change to society, its beliefs, and its institutions. One legend has it that The People (doesn’t every ethnic group call itself that?) came out of Mother Earth’s womb, at some geographically precise location (Chaco Canyon?) at some time in the past. And that they returned whence they came (which would explain the disappearance).

History is more prosaic, of course. They’re still there, building pueblos instead of cliff dwellings, but in more hospitable locations (like along the Rio Grande) where they can survive a decade or two of very little rainfall.

So we imagine the Earth-Mother’s womb as a place sacred to the Anasazi in their time. Taken over as a holy place by an (entirely fictional) Spanish mission, built over the Master Kiva in somewhat later times. And a history of recurring droughts, rendering both Kiva and Mission abandoned.

And poor Lupe the Elder living there, alone, trying to fix her gadget (broom? weed-whacker? contraption?), survive, and call for help, all at once. For a period of some years, I’m thinking.

Until the younger self gets the message finally and comes to the rescue, occasioning our story. The Elder Lupe tries to disguise herself as an old Mexican, so as to avoid identifying herself to the younger, but ultimately she fails. Masks off, an easy familiarity develops; what could be more natural than forming a friendship with yourself, after all?

With, oh dread, the occasional hint about their personal life in the time between the two missions; things the younger Lupe doesn’t want to know. Like that the elder one has nearly forgotten the spouse.

The gadgetry and technospeak was lots of fun. A great many things are named after their inventors, or after somebody who did some work in the general area. So since time travel is really just an imaginary rotation (which translates into hyperbolae instead of circles) in four-dimensional spacetime, Lorentz came to mind; Thompson is my own invention. The engine behind the weed-whacker is then a Lorentz-Thompson Rotator. And it hums. Send not, to ask for whom it hums; it hums for thee. That elusive hum the elder, stranded, Lupe has been trying to coax out of it for years now.

And of course a velocipede needs a windscreen, so we had the Shklovskii Field generator. A nice, Slavic mouthful of a name. And, I’m imagining, it makes only a small bubble of isotemporality in which the traveller (and her stuff) are safe. But it’s a different time inside the field than it is outside, so it seemed a natural thing to extend its use to mining (making some voids that would destabilize the foundations of the missile insertion gear in later centuries; a shadow of nuclear destruction is always a good atmospheric effect in scifi), and hunting. Both by simply displacing the stuff inside the field a few decades. And something the younger Lupe would find intriguing, since the Shklovs of her day were more finnicky and delicate and tiny than the industrial models of later decades.

But of course it was a failure of just this piece of equipment that broke the Lor-Tom Rotator, marooned Lupe in 1280 and 17whatever (both at once), shearing off her hair and part of her tool box.

Which returns us to the very domestic scene of the Spouse carefully cornrowing Lupe’s hair before she left on the mission, to keep it out of the field. It’s windy out there in spacetime.

As it happens, I managed to finish a full draft of this story about two weeks before the ultimate deadline. So I sent it to a friend for a beta reading (as the fanfic people put it). I also posted it for critique at Both critiques were very valuable; suggesting that all the pre-mission stuff was really too telly and not showy enough. And that the story really started where, ultimately, the version that I posted started.

There’s a hazard to hacking off the setup in a story. By that time I’d read it enough times that I no longer really saw what was on the page. I tried pretty hard to be sure that nothing that remained in the story depended in more than an incidental way on anything that was no longer there. Perhaps this fearful cutting is one mark of the difference between a hack who can (if I may say so myself) put out a decent first draft, and an actual writer who knows how to polish the raw story into something shiny and attractive.

In some ways it’s like writing a computer program. I tend to wait til that day when my mind is exceptionally clear, and I can hold all the details of the algorithm in my head at once, and then write the program all in one sitting. And then change things only reluctantly, because never again is the vision of exactly what I’m doing quite so clear as it was on that first morning of creation. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve decided that no, that bug fix I just installed is completely wrong and I had it right the first time, I’d be several dollars richer.

Anyway. That’s the story. I’m done, except to say that it’s kind of odd, doing something husi-related that I can’t talk about to anybody on husi. And that I can totally see writing a series of bad scifi books around this idea, if not this character.

< As one door opens... | BBC White season: 'Rivers of Blood' >
The Road To The Road Home | 9 comments (9 topical, 0 hidden)
Whoa. by blixco (4.00 / 1) #1 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 10:00:43 AM EST
I totally didn't think that one was you.

In fact, I missed a few.  I thought for sure that Kellnerin wrote "Telling This With a Sigh."  I'm pretty sure I don't know anyone's style.

Mine was self-revealing, I'm pretty sure.  It reads like a diary entry.
"You bring the weasel, I'll bring the whiskey." - kellnerin

This time... by ana (4.00 / 1) #2 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 10:03:49 AM EST
I got nearly all of them. I missed scrymarch (I always forget about him) and TPD.

One beta-suggestion was to diminish the small lesbian content (an ana-story giveaway) by changing the gender of either the main character (which I was stuck with) or the spouse (who's hardly there in the present version, so I did that).

Power up your flaming yo-yos already! --StackyMcRacky

[ Parent ]
I knew by blixco (4.00 / 1) #3 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 10:06:51 AM EST
that "Directions" was from a Bostonian, but I didn't  know who.

I think your story was really very good.  I love the language in it, the dictionary your story used.  I think, yeah, you could find quite the series of stories in that universe.  Very good stuff.
"You bring the weasel, I'll bring the whiskey." - kellnerin

[ Parent ]
Rather amusing... by ana (4.00 / 1) #4 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 10:13:54 AM EST
Directions, at least part of it, is written very much in the style of a real-life directions file I sent to Kellnerin a week or two prior to the story's appearance here. And, it turns out, the roads all lead to more or less where K used to live (I don't know if it's exactly right, but within half a mile certainly).

Power up your flaming yo-yos already! --StackyMcRacky

[ Parent ]
yeah well by Kellnerin (4.00 / 1) #6 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 04:26:28 PM EST
As I said, it's hard to make up directions from whole cloth. I did used to live in a town that had some funky sorts of intersections that would make for at least some minor interest in the series of directions. I actually didn't think I really got your style in my piece ... I think yours was more distinctive (though maybe that's because it's a style other than my own, familiar one), and would have made a better entry than mine, but I could hardly have submitted it.

As for yours, I think you did pretty well with your edits. I remember the very first stab at it as being a bit more confusing, actually, even though (or perhaps because) it was more detailed. And as usual, the story's strength is in the character (characters? How do you refer to two versions of the same self?) and how her/their idiosyncratic outlook on the view. "Ah, future self of mine. I see you need a new Lor-Tom engine. Good thing I've got my tools." Lovely understated humor.

"Late to the party" is the new "ahead of the curve" -- CRwM

[ Parent ]
I think maybe by ana (2.00 / 0) #7 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 04:42:27 PM EST
the right way to write a story like yours is to pick an actual place, and drive to it multiple times from different directions. The folks who live there might think you're weird, if course, but that's their problem. And then, if you like, you can imagine the Dairy Dome going out of business and being replaced by a Starbucks or whatever.

Oddly, research is something we rarely talk about, with respect to writing fiction. There's more to it than poking buttons on the intarwebs (though I can imagine playing with Google Earth might be fun).

Power up your flaming yo-yos already! --StackyMcRacky

[ Parent ]
that would absolutely by Kellnerin (4.00 / 1) #8 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 04:46:20 PM EST
have been the right way to do it. Or even just find an interesting landmark or neighborhood, and choose something in the area. Unfortunately, I didn't quite have time to do it that way. Research for fiction is an underrated art, except as a form of procrastination ...

"Late to the party" is the new "ahead of the curve" -- CRwM
[ Parent ]
Neat by theantix (4.00 / 1) #5 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 10:31:51 AM EST
I tend to wait til that day when my mind is exceptionally clear, and I can hold all the details of the algorithm in my head at once, and then write the program all in one sitting. And then change things only reluctantly, because never again is the vision of exactly what I’m doing quite so clear as it was on that first morning of creation. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve decided that no, that bug fix I just installed is completely wrong and I had it right the first time, I’d be several dollars richer.

Same exact process I use.  In cases of complex design which will take more than one sitting to implement, I do a high-level process diagram which serves as a reference so that when I approach it the next day I can get the entire picture in my head again. 

Which I can use again for bugfixes, if I don't get in that mindframe of understanding the whole picture and why each piece went where I end up changing something that was essential for another part of the greater mechanism. 

I can totally see how that would apply to story writing though I never considered it before now.
I'm sorry, but your facts disagree with my opinion.

Putting the fie in SF by Scrymarch (4.00 / 1) #9 Fri Sep 07, 2007 at 05:32:32 PM EST
You know, my thought on reading it was of Philip K Dick and his soft sf end of the spectrum. Which I was happy to read, but it's interesting that you consciously took a lot of the science out, rather than leaving it out because you're not really interested in the mechanics, which seems the usual SF track.

I wouldn't have minded a bit more physics in there actually, though it might not have been the right choice for the audience. And it's much harder to do with outright As You Know Bobisms which do rather break the flow.

Cool story, thanks.

The Political Science Department of the University of Woolloomooloo

The Road To The Road Home | 9 comments (9 topical, 0 hidden)