1) Which of your story characters would you most like to meet?
That’s a good, tricky question! It depends in part on my mood at a given time.
Let me start with a rule: I’m going to stick to characters in my published works. It’s not fair to your readers for me to go on at length about some fascinating character they can’t meet (at least not yet).
The easy answer would be Captain Nick Aames from my most successful story, “Murder on the Aldrin Express”. He has proven very popular with readers; so if there’s one name I would expect anyone to recognize, it would be Nick Aames. (And I hope sometime this year to make that name even more memorable.) But I don’t like easy answers. For all that Nick is popular, he’s an irascible, difficult man who finds even the smallest mistake and hammers on it. He’s a perfectionist, because the survival of his crew and his passengers can depend on the smallest detail. And me? Well, I’m not a perfectionist. I’m more of a sloppy improvisationist. I suspect that Captain Aames would have me scrubbing the decks with my toothbrush all the way to Mars. And back.
The other easy answer, then, would be Nick’s friend and first officer, Chief Anson Carver. Where Nick drives the crew to work harder, Carver supports them and guides them to find a way to measure up to Nick’s standards. But the problem with this answer is I already have met Anson Carver, sort of. I based a lot of his personality and his quiet wisdom on my friend Curtis Gray, owner of CarverLab, a small software consulting firm. Carver’s history and family life are very different; but meeting him wouldn’t feel like meeting someone at all, just a nice visit with Curtis.
Similarly, many of the characters in my Old Town Tales – stories of ordinary working class folks who meet in the Old Town, the best bar on Luna – are made up of bits and pieces of members of the Ann Arbor Dueling Society, so I feel like I’ve already met them. They’re not the same people, of course, we always build composites from our experiences. For example, even though Nick Aames is a perfectionist and I’m not, he gets his love for Brazilian music from me. But you might recognize some of the Old Town crew.
Two of the Old Town Tales were published in Digital Science Fiction before it shut down: “The Night We Flushed the Old Town” and “Father-Daughter Outing”. There’s one character found in both stories: Eliza Wall. In “Flushed”, she’s the no-nonsense owner and manager of the Old Town; but “Outing” takes place much earlier, when she was only twelve years old and eager to explore the Moon. That version of Eliza is based a little bit on Curtis’s daughter and a little bit on my niece Virginia, two young ladies starting to take on the world. Somewhere between that idealistic young explorer and that world-weary bar manager/den mother, she was a soldier and a musician; but I don’t know those stories in between yet. I know she saw a lot of hard times as Luna grew from mining colonies to an independent nation, but I don’t know the details yet. So I think I would like to meet her and ask her to tell me her life story. That way I could write it down without having to figure it all out by myself! I think that there’s a great Eliza book out there, if I can ever flesh out the details.
As a bonus answer, I would add Bess Anthony from “The Mother Anthony”, my self-published novella. That story was my first Finalist in Writers of the Future; and though it didn’t win, Jerry Pournelle (one of the judges that quarter) loved the story. Bess is a teacher on an interstellar liner that gets stranded far from rescue. She fights to teach her kids how to survive and rebuild on a primitive world, and she sacrifices her dreams for the sake of their future. She’s an inspirational teacher, and I always enjoy meeting inspirational teachers!
2) What question do you wish people would ask you about your writing?
“Which of your story characters would you most like to meet?” Nah, that’s cheating. All right, I’ll give a more serious answer.
“Where do you get your ideas from?” Nah, that’s an old SF joke. I’m supposed to answer that there’s a Post Office box in Schenectady, you send them a buck fifty and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and they send you six ideas. The sad part is, every time that joke is told, someone in the audience will ask for the P.O. box number. Would-be writers are so eager for ideas, they don’t realize it’s a joke. For experienced writers, ideas are the easy part. The hard part is taking an idea or a set of ideas and finding a story that uses them.
An idea is easy, it really is. I know that’s heartbreaking to hear when you’re staring at a blank page and can’t think of an idea; but I think that means you’re trying too hard. Ideas happen all the time: random things you see or think, random associations you make throughout the day. One morning as I drove to work, I passed a Boarshead Beer truck. Out of the corner of my eye, I misread the logo as “Battle Boars”; and without even thinking, I changed that to “Hardened Battle Boars”. I didn’t know what the story might be; but as soon as I could, I added that to the Idea Pile: a medieval fantasy world where the warriors ride armored boars. (Seriously, a large boar can be 500 pounds or more, and they can be vicious!) Will I do anything with that story? Who knows? But it’s in the Idea Pile, waiting for the right impulse to strike me. I really believe that the key is noticing the ideas, and writing them down for later. They might be good, they might be bad, they might be awful: doesn’t matter, just write them down. You’ll filter out the good ones later.
But let’s change that question just a bit: “Where do you get the right ideas for a particular story?” Ah, now that is a meaningful question. David Farland, award-winning author and writing mentor, talks about “story promises”: things that readers are going to expect in your story based on how your story starts and unfolds. If your story starts with a young wizard off to wizard school and watched over by dark forces, readers who like that sort of story will expect him to eventually confront and defeat the dark forces in a battle of wits and magic. If instead he gets a degree in computer programming and goes off to write wholly non-magical software for Google, and if the dark forces are never heard from again, your readers will feel cheated. (Yes, there’s room for anything-can-happen stories, especially in comedy. And there’s room for stories that defy expectations. But both take a certain degree of skill, or else readers won’t think you’re clever, just inconsistent.)
So the ideas you select early constrain the ideas you can use to flesh out the story later. That is when finding ideas gets harder. Let me give a particular example: “Murder on the Aldrin Express”. (Yes, I’m going to talk about that story again. I’m deep in the middle of my Nick Aames novel, so it’s on my mind right now.) The story started when I heard Buzz Aldrin speak on his cycler plan to go to Mars with minimal energy expenditures, relying almost entirely on orbital mechanics. I made a quick note: “A story set on a Mars cycler.” There was an idea In the Idea Pile, just waiting for me to come back to it.
It took about three months, but I started writing that story. I remembered Col. Aldrin describing the cycler as an “express train”: not because it goes fast, but because it follows a non-stop route from point to point, just like an express. And then my brain made a random connection, not that different from “hardened battle boars”, and I knew the name of my ship: the Aldrin Express (though it’s really just the Aldrin). And immediately I had my title, because that was the next association that came to mind, inspired by the classic Agatha Christie mystery. And right then I knew I was writing a mystery. But I also had a goal: I wanted to write a story that Analog would buy. That meant it had to be hard science fiction as well. That meant I needed a mystery where the key clue was rooted in the science of Martian exploration: Martian soil, Martian atmosphere, Martian weather, Martian radiation, Martian something, I just had to figure out what. To do that, I needed to know who died, and how. Within twenty minutes I had settled on a death during a climbing expedition; and I knew who had died, who was complicit, and the vital clue. Now since I’m not a scientist (Robert J. Sawyer points out that science fiction writers need an interest in science like sports writers need an interest in sports, but they don’t have to actually be scientists – though it doesn’t hurt), I contacted my chemist brother-in-law and asked him whether my idea would work. He gave me feedback; and in particular, he suggested synthetic spider silk (dubbed S3 in the story) and some of its properties. I did some research on Wikipedia, and suddenly I saw the missing piece in the crime. It was perfect. It all fit.
In the meantime, I had two related questions: who would be my detective, and what sort of person would volunteer to command a glorified subway train for a multiyear mission without even getting to stop at Mars? They were related because I had already decided that the captain would be my detective. So I needed to understand this Nick Aames person (no, I have no idea where the name came from). I saw two good possibilities: either he wasn’t qualified to lead an exploration mission (and I hated that idea); or he was a misanthrope who preferred commanding the Aldrin because it meant he could avoid 99.999999% of humanity, and had control over the ones who were left.
I liked the second option a lot, but it led to another problem: why would readers want to read about an unlikable person like Nick Aames? I polled my Facebook friends for reasons why they enjoyed two similar characters, Sherlock Holmes and Gregory House M.D. A lot of friends chimed in, and fellow Ann Arbor Duelist Robert “B.J.” Chavez summed it up best: we like characters who can speak the bald truth and get away with it; and we like Holmes and House because Watson and Wilson like them, and we like Watson and Wilson. We want to see what these sympathetic characters see in their difficult friends. So Nick needed a Watson; and thus Anson Carver was born.
And so on, and so on, and so on. Virtually all of the ideas in the story came tumbling out of my brain over the course of a week (though it took nearly two months of spare time to write it). They all had constraints: the ideas that I already knew constrained the ideas that I could add. What was my question again? Oh, yeah: “Where do you get the right ideas for a particular story?” I prize consistency in my stories, so some ideas are just wrong. If the Aldrin cycles to and from Mars every couple of years, Nick Aames can’t be a happy-go-lucky explorer, because the command would drive him nuts. If Nick Aames is a demanding misanthrope, then he can’t be the narrator, because the reader needs a sympathetic viewpoint character. If the story is a murder mystery aimed at Analog, then the clue can’t be something that could happen on Earth, it has to be a science clue that can only happen on Mars.
But every wrong answer contains the seeds of a right answer. Sometimes you can define a solution by carving away all the not-solution. By knowing what didn’t work, I could identify questions to ask, either by reading and research or by consulting experts. So I get the right ideas for a story through science (metaphorically): I settle on some initial ideas, and then I test new ideas against them, and keep the ones that are consistent and lead to a better story. (That’s the short answer. I’m working on a longer one, but that’s going to take some time…)
3) How many groundhogs have you killed in your efforts to end this winter?
That’s a tricky one, because it ties to another question: how long does Groundhog Day last? The movie studio insisted that it was only two weeks, which is absolutely impossible. Heck, Phil spent six months just learning to throw cards! And I doubt he learned to be that good at piano-playing without months of practice, maybe years.
On the other extreme, there are fans who insist that Groundhog Day lasted ten thousand years or more. They have elaborate reasons and calculations, and maybe they’re right.
But Danny Rubin (the scriptwriter) and Harold Ramis (the director) disagreed. They felt it was more like about ten years. A person can grow and change a lot in ten years. Some people might change faster; but Phil is a hardened cynic, and too smart to fall for easy answers. He is what Barry B. Longyear (one of my writing heroes) calls a hard case. So Phil needs ten years to become a different person.
Now looking at the film, I estimate Phil spent about 20% of his time in a self-destructive, suicidal phase; and maybe half that time he also tried to kill Puxatawney Phil as well. So my back-of-the-envelope calculation is it takes about a year of groundhogs – 365 – to realize that killing groundhogs isn’t the answer, and you need to change as a person.
I’ve only killed 200 so far, and I don’t see any sign of Andie Macdowell around here, so I have a long way to go…
For more of Martin's entertaining and thought provoking voice, please seek these out:
Published stories by Martin L. Shoemaker:
· “The Night We Flushed the Old Town”, Digital Science Fiction Vol. 2.
· “Father-Daughter Outing”, Digital Science Fiction Vol. 4.
· “Not Close Enough”, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, May 2013.
· “Murder on the Aldrin Express”, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, September 2013. (Also coming this year in Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 31 and Year’s Best Short SF Novels 4.)
· “Il Gran Cavallo”, Galaxy’s Edge Vol. 5.
· “Pallbearers”, Galaxy’s Edge Vol. 7.