Category Archives: Story behind the story

Story Behind the Story: Cover Stories

Writing the final story in Atoms for Peace posed the same problem as Who Watches the Watchmen. I was still planning to start Brain From Outer SpaceInstruments of Science with the events in so I didn’t want to advance the timeline any further. I was figuring how to do that, and then I thought of Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’s Marvels.

Marvels tells the story of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of Phil, a photojournalist. He witnesses the debut of the Human Torch in the Golden Age. Years later, he’s in New York, working for the Bugle, when the Silver Age is in full swing. He sees the Avengers battle the Masters of Evil, the Sentinels hunting mutants, the arrival of Galactus and Spider-Man’s failed attempt to save Gwen Stacey from death. But he’s seeing it as an outsider, a regular guy. He has no idea what’s going on in the heroes’ minds, what mutants are really like, or exactly how the Fantastic Four defeated Galactus.

Yeah, I said to myself, that would work. Show life as a Science Investigator from an outside viewpoint, rather than the people who sleep, breathe and eat the fight against rogue science. The protagonist of Cover Stories became Cassie Sato (sister to FBI agent Harry Sato), freelance journalist. Atlanta is doing some big celebration of Gwen Montgomery’s father so Cassie pitched the Atlanta Journal a profile on “Mile High” Montgomery’s daughter, the science investigator. We open with Cassie along with Steve and Gwen on an investigation that turns nasty. Then she gets to talk to Claire, Dani, visit the local nightclub the Tower of Mordor, get Gwen’s thoughts on why she does what she does and watch the other agents at work (“A couple of desks down, a fat guy nicknamed Slim flipped through a file about a lab in Ojai that had dissolved overnight. His partner, an Italian woman named DiNaldi, was trying to calm a hysterical leather-jacketed teenager claiming his “chick” had only broken up with him because she’d been mind-controlled.”)

Cassie turned out nowhere near as tough as Dani or Gwen. Which is cool; not everyone’s suited for the front lines of a war. She’s a competent writer, dogged in getting the story, more than a little claustrophobic. Talking to Gwen and Steve in Science Investigations underground base makes her more than a little nervous.

And there my saga ends until I try to replot Brain From Outer Space and get it right.

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Story Behind the Story: Who Watches the Watchmen?

So along with the 10 Atoms for Peace stories published on Big Pulp, I sold them two stories that never went up (they paid, I’m not complaining). Who Watches the Watchmen? and Cover Stories see daylight for the first time in Atoms for Peace.

The central character of Watchmen, Kate Meara, wasn’t even in my early drafts of Brain From Outer Space. Instead, I had the head of TSC security, Falconi, taking an interest in the suspicious nature of what was going on, and whether it implied Steve was corrupt or a ceecee (carbon copy, an alien duplicate of the real Steve). A couple of drafts later, it occurred to me that having the head of a national organization watching this one case — they had no way to know how important it was — didn’t make sense. I turned it over to his assistant, a heavyset (Camryn Mannheim is the physique I have in mind) Irish-American woman. Then I wondered why I even needed Falconi. Eventually I dropped him and made Meara the head of just the one base’s security, which made it more plausible she’d have time to focus on Steve.

When I started writing the Atoms for Peace stories, my unconscious asserted itself. Instead of the hefty, motherly-looking woman, I suddenly saw her as small, bony, younger, and plain (“horse-faced” is the adjective some people use). And in a wheelchair. Which was a good idea of my unconscious, I think; while I show several people with scars or prosthetics walking through the story, I didn’t have any in lead roles. Though I decided rather than a victim of some invasion or mecha, Meara had lost the use of her legs due to polio.

As the previous 10 stories took us up to the start of Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t want to go past the time of Instruments of Science. So I told Meara’s story from 1955 up to the “present.” At the start, she’s at low ebb. Boston-born daughter of union leader “Big Mike” Meara, she’s bright, capable, does a lot of office work for dad, plays chess with Senator John F. Kennedy when he visits (Big Mike delivers a lot of labor votes). However she’s married to a faithless cheat, separated but can’t get an annulment, as hubby is in tight with the diocese. JFK, who was instrumental in setting up the Technology and Science Commission, suggests a fresh start: work as the assistant to Donovan, security head of the TSC’s southwestern branch. Kate accepts; if only because it gets her out of Boston winters. And the new Veterans Access Act guarantees the base will have ramps and elevators — after all the craziness of the Invasion and the kaiju, the need for an ADA-style law became obvious.

In California she meets the stiff-necked Donovan who warns her security must be totally detached. No friends. Nothing to compromise your objectivity. She meets Johnny, a handsome young man Donovan hired to push her wheelchair around (she quickly explains she’d rather steer herself), and Nate Strawn, the chief of Science Investigations. And over the next four years, deals not only with conventional security risks but the growing threat of ceecees and alien mind-controllers. When the threats get personal, it turns out Kate has more friends than she realizes …

I think Kate turned out well as a character. She’s an enthusiastic, skilled chess player who interprets life in chess terms, hates smoking (too bad she’s living in a time when tobacco is everywhere), and while it’s only alluded to briefly, is part of a small disabled community. Unlike most of my cast, as she’s a good Catholic and still married, she’s chaste. I know “disabled people are sexless” is a stereotype, but it felt right (I do establish she’s able to “perform the act,” as they used to say). If not, my bad.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, copyright is mine.

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Story Behind the Story: Instruments of Science

In hindsight, the tenth story in Atoms for Peace is an odd duck.

This is the one I wrote as the first chapter of Brain From Outer Space, so I originally conceived it as introducing readers to this world. It’s a morning Science Investigations briefing at the southwest branch of the Technology and Science Commission; Nate Strawn hands out the assignments, mostly dealing with a new panic about “ceecees” (carbon copies, AKA pod people). Sure they’ve had panics before, but learning the ETs this time were actually marrying human women? Real scary!

This serves to set up the premise, plus introduce Steve (fully recovered from Roboticus breaking his arm), Gwen, Jo and Trueblood, plus a couple of other agents to round things out (I never want to write undifferentiated crowds of supporting characters). There are also some rogue science cases to deal with: strange lights outside a desert shack, an attempted theft of Edward Teller’s notes for a super-bomb (in this timeline, knowing the horrible effects of radioactive mutation, the H-bomb never got into development), a werewolf in a girl’s dormitory, some prostitutes apparently being used as guinea pigs. And several impossible deaths at a high powered commercial laboratory in Yuma. Steve and Gwen get assigned that one.

The odd part is that this is the 10th story in the book, so nobody really needs an introduction to any of this. I rewrote the story to eliminate any info-dumping readers would already know and approached it as showing a typical day for Science Investigators. As such, I think it worked.

Dani only appears off-camera, talking to Steve on his wrist-radio. In the original chapter one we got to see her day, but that made things a little too crowded for a 5,000-word story. I cut that, and cut a scene with the Science Police setting up the main plotline. I also dropped a reference to Steve finally finding a lead on his missing brother Tommy.

All of which means I’ll need a new opening chapter for Brain if I want it to be continuous with Atoms for Peace (and I do) as I’ve pruned out all the hooks that would lead the reader onward. Still, I think Instruments of Science works as a short, perhaps better than in the book, so I can’t complain.

Big Pulp accepted last two stories, which I’ll get to over the next couple of weeks, but never posted them, so Who Watches the Watchmen and Cover Stories will give you something you can’t get on the website.

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Story Behind the Story: Mayhem Ex Machina

I conceived the ninth story in Atoms for Peace to lay the groundwork for the Steve/Dani relationship in Brain From Outer Space. Specifically, as they’ve been together for several years, and they’re in love, why aren’t they married?

Of course there’s lots of reasons that could be the case, but I took the one that promised the most conflict: Steve’s proposed, Dani’s said no. She still wants to be with him, and she’s not saying she’ll never, ever say yes, but every time he asks, it’s no. Partly that’s because Steve wants them both off the front lines, so they can live to raise children, and Dani likes her work as a medic. Partly classism: she’s upper-class Boston and Steve’s blue collar. Dani’s not entirely sure she wants to get married at all, but she’s very sure she doesn’t want to break up with Steve. So they’re a couple, but with a big elephant in the room. My original plan for the novel would have her say the L word by the ending, but not the M word.

In Mayhem Ex Machina Steve proposes for the first time and Dani panics. She can’t say yes, but will he end things if she says no? The story shows (I hope) that they make a good couple (I think Blood and Steel already showed that) and that Steve respects what she does: when she has to make a triage decision to help someone else, he understands.

But of course this is a series about my heroes battling 1950s SF-movie-style menaces, so I needed a menace. I’d included a scene in Brain where Gwen deactivates a robot threatening a black LA neighborhood, and initially decided to work it into this story as the B plot. Only when I looked at the scene, it came across very White Savior-ish, so I decided no. Instead I brought back FBI agents Harry Satao and Mickey Moon from Hunting Hidden Faces and switched the setting to LA’s Little Tokyo. And rather than a robot built with a white supremacist agenda, I reinvisioned him as a well-meaning idiot. In his big scene, he tells Mickey and Harry that yes, he built a super-robot (modeled on the ET tech from the film Kronos) without any research permit because the government just wouldn’t let him have one. But his ideas were so awesome, he just couldn’t pass them up! He’s raised the robot as a kind of surrogate son, but unfortunately his little boy has run away and it’s getting into trouble. And here come Dani and Steve, wandering right into its path …

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Story Behind the Story: Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves

As I’ve mentioned before, my protagonists in Atoms for Peace are a lot less racist than they’d probably be in the real world. In some vague gesture of realism, one of the leads in Not In Our Stars, Not in Ourselves, is a good deal more bigoted.

L.G. “Elegy” Walker was born in East Jesus, Kentucky, grew up poor white, but by 1958, he’s a mid-level official at Cape Canaveral. The space program, a joint US/USSR effort, is about to launch humanity’s first lunar mission (reverse-engineering alien ships has jump-started space flight). Walker has remade himself into a calm, accomplished professional. He’s shrewd about who to kiss up to and who he can safely ignore, and intensely career focused. Like a lot of people who know what it’s like to have nothing, he’s a little intense about not losing what he has, hence security officer Valentina Eisenstein nicknamking him Elegy.

Despite the changes in him, the racism Walker grew up with is alive and well in him. He’s able to accept that a few blacks can be as good as a white man (there are black astronauts in the program), but they’re the exception. When ‘s framed for murder, the horror isn’t the murder but the supposed motive: he had a black lover, she got pregnant so he killed her to avoid scandal. The thought that people might think he’d crossed the color line, the thought that his parents or the other folks back home might believe it … his brain pretty much shuts down with horror.

Fortunately Eisenstein’s brain is working. A WW II Soviet sniper turned security officer, she identifies with Elegy in a way; they’ve both had to work and fight to get their present position. She knows he wouldn’t take a black lover, or one who was bottom-drawer of the working class (that’s what he’s running away from). But can she prove it? And given that he’s not really anyone important, what possible motive could anyone have for the frame?

I really like Eisenstein. She’s smart, capable, smokes a pipe (it keeps men off balance, which is useful for a security officer), and hates life in Florida with its head, humidity and lack of culture. I’d love to use her in Brain From Outer Space but I doubt I can work her in.

This was the first story in the series I wrote after moving to Durham, and the writer’s group helped a lot, straightening out some plot points. Thanks, y’all!

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada.

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Story Behind the Story: A Many-Splendored Thing

So Buckshot Magazine‘s third issue came out last week, including my flash fiction story A Many Splendored Thing. Which I realize now is wildly different from the way I originally imagined it.

Back in 2008, I read Guyland by Michael Kimmel, and got creeped out by one of the twentysomething men Kimmel quotes, venting about how That Bitch he’d been hitting on shouldn’t have the power to decide whether he got laid that evening. Of course, she doesn’t, she only has the power to decide if he sleeps with her, but apparently he felt that was unreasonable. So I started with a simmering, pissed-off potential rapist and imagined someone egging him on, encouraging him to cross the line.

By itself, that wasn’t enough, so I began adding more incidents, more people out for sex or love and getting really bad advice. Why were they getting it? Well, read the story. Like Dark Satanic Mills in Atlas Shagged, it became a satire on lifestyle magazines and their endless advice about finding the right person, wearing the right suit to attract the right person, being sufficiently manly or sensitive or … well, whatever.

In the process, it got a lot funnier, so I had to rewrite the initial incident. A rape incident didn’t fit with a light-hearted satire, so I kept “why should she decide?” line but just made the guy resentful about being turned down, not a potential rapist.

It’s flash fiction so if you want to click on the link, it won’t take you long to read.

#SFWApro. Don’t know cover artist, but all rights to image remain with current copyright holder.

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Story Behind the Story: The Mind That Wanted the World

Story seven in Atoms for Peace, The Mind That Wanted the World, is the one that required the most changes.

In Brain From Outer Space, the bad guy was Torgo, an alien mind-creature Steve and Gwen had confronted a couple of years before. As the point of the Applied Science series on Big Pulp was to create a backstory for the book, telling the story of their first encounter with Torgo — inspired, but not based on, the villain in Brain From Planet Arous — was a natural for one chapter.

Unlike most aliens, Torgo’s not an evil envoy from an evil world, he’s a crook from a good world, or at least as good as Earth. That’s an advantage against the good guys: he favors cunning, subtlety and blackmail over brute force and ray weapons. Like the alien brain in Arous, Torgo finds having a body capable of physical sensation stimulating. In the movie, the brain-possessed John Agar attempts to rape his fiancee; in my story, Torgo does. He also has a dungeon full of kidnapped sex slaves, both sexes, as from his alien perspective it doesn’t matter which gender his partners are (only one woman shows up as a prisoner in Mind, but Brain establishes his tastes are broader).

So the opening scene is one woman telling Steve that her boyfriend has raped her, although she can’t bring herself to use the word. Steve, perpetual hater of bullies, is ready to bust the guy; Gwen, however dismissed the rape in the original version. Gwen was usually smarter and saw things clearer than anyone else; I thought it might be interesting to make her dead wrong for a change, representing the era’s outdated attitudes towards rape.

Going over the story for Atoms for Peace I found that didn’t work for me. After a year of #metoo, having one of my protagonists toss off standard rape-apology lines about how the woman was over-reacting, and just felt guilty about going all the way … it left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. And I realized that I could make Gwen wrong even without that. In the book’s rewrite, she informs Steve that rape doesn’t prove Professor Caldwell is an alien; lots of respectable men turn into brutes when they get the chance. And if it’s not ET-related, they have no authority to take action (the woman has refused to call the police). Same result but a lot less repellent to read.

As revised, it remains one of my favorites in the twelve short stories. Atoms for Peace is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook (and someone just bought the ebook, woot!). #SFWApro, cover by Zakaria Nada. All rights to poster remain with current holder.

 

 

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Story Behind the Story: The Grass Is Always Greener

If I’d known I’d wake up early enough to blog about The Grass Is Always Greener this morning, I wouldn’t have posted about it earlier. As I said then, this story is out in STRANGE ECONOMICS: Economic Speculative Fiction, so here’s the story of how it came to be.

I wrote the original version of this story back in 2006, so I’m not entirely sure how I came up with the idea — protagonist Reed learning his future has been sold to someone else and struggling to reclaim it. Part of it was probably that I was a little blue about my own life: not a novelist, no story sales in a while, limited funds, no love life. It’s also possible I was influenced by the Angel episode The House Always Wins from a few years earlier, concerning a casino where gamblers unwittingly bet their future happiness/success/greatness (which inspired my story And Many a Knot Unraveled By the Road, published in Challenging Destiny the previous year).

In the earliest version, Reed’s a failed writer living in a trailer park. A dwarf mysteriously appears, knowing way too much about Reed’s life and many failures. The dwarf reveals that all those agreements we sign for software updates, credit cards, etc., contain some fine print, like allowing the company to sell your destiny to someone else. Reed had a great life ahead of him, but it’s no longer his. Now what will he do to get it back?

The initial version didn’t sell, so I began reworking it. Reed became an artist instead of a writer, which gave me a little more distance. And instead of an expository conversation in his trailer, I set it at the fast-food place where he works (it became McDonalds in the final draft) and threw in his girlfriend breaking up with him. That drove home his plight a lot more effectively. The dwarf became a normal human, but a really crass one. And I played up the subtext that this is about an entitled, privileged guy who feels entitled to take Reed’s future, and doesn’t give a fig what happens to Reed.

Trouble was, it still didn’t sell. So I brought it into the writing group. They liked it, but made some suggestions: in the current economy, was working fast food really a sign of failure? Good point, so I acknowledged it. I also tinkered with a couple of technical points to make it more plausible. Then I began submitting again, without much more success. Until I saw Strange Economics and thought hmmm, that seems like a logical market. Turns out I was right.

It’s a good story and a good anthology too (a review will follow some time in the next week).

#SFWApro. Cover by Jonathan Maurin.

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Story Behind the Story: Blood and Steel

Blood and Steel is the fifth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook), pitting Steve and Dani against an army of killer robots (somewhat more substantial than the illustration, and Dani’s not fighting in her nightgown). The robots were supposed to be part of a National Guard war game, testing their robot-fighting techniques. But something’s gone wrong and people are dying …

One of the challenges in writing these short stories is that when I conceived the characters in The Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t have to go into the details of their backstory. I knew Steve and Dani met during the Invasion (the Martian invasion, that is, but even years later, that’s the one that gets capitalized) and had a one-night stand. They met again when they were both working in California, Steve for the TSC, Dani for the National Guard. I didn’t have to go into detail on either encounter.

Now, though, I was writing the second meeting. I had to explain why they’d walked away from each other back in Boston even though they had a connection. And I had to make meeting each other again feel real; even though they’d had other lovers since, I had to convey that they meant something to each other, that the night they’d spent together had meant something. And that there was enough between them to keep them together after that. Fortunately, my best friend Cindy Holbrook is a former Regency romance author, so I trust her judgment that I got the emotional side right.

I also didn’t want to have Steve, or Steve and Dani, single-handedly save the day. Not that I object to characters who can; I’ve written several. But I like the idea that in this setting Steve isn’t the hero, that the other Science Investigators are perfectly capable of handling things. As a female National Guard medic, Dani’s more unusual, but she can’t do it alone either. For whatever reason, in this series that works for me. So I had to show them both getting a share of the action, contributing to the fight, but not  defeating the bad guy on their lonesome.

Rereading it as I proofed this volume, I felt very pleased with my work.

#SFWApro. Fantastic Adventures cover by Harold McCauley, courtesy of wikimedia. Cover is out of copyright. Atoms For Peace cover by Zakaria Nada, copyright is mine.

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Story Behind the Story: Fire From Space

Fire From Space is the fourth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). The goal for this one was to establish Dr. Dani Taylor, last seen in The Claws That Catch, in her new role as a National Guard medic in California, which is where we will someday find her at the start of The Brain From Outer Space.

This story is also one of the reasons I never finished the darn book.

Writing the stories led me to do a lot more fleshing out of my setting and supporting cast than I had in Brain to that point. What’s life like in Wind Song, the town neighboring the National Guard base? What does everyone do for recreation? What are Dani’s platoon-mates like? I show Dani going on dates with Trueblood and Barclay, two characters from the book (Barclay may just drop out when I get back to it, he never worked out the way I wanted). But I needed a woman for her to talk to for a couple of scenes; not that I was consciously trying to pass the Bechdel Test, it just felt right. And out of the various women in the book (Gwen, DiNaldi, Jo Davies) I settled on Dr. Claire White. It turned out that was a good choice.

Claire is a brilliant scientist who’s about as far from Dani as you can get. Dani, at heart, is still a well-bred Boston woman. Like a lot of people in that era, she feels the need to look chaste, regardless of what happens when the lights go out. Claire’s quite open about liking sex, and getting it (in the real 1950s, this would have been a career killer, but the work she does is too valuable). She’s casual and fun-loving; Dani’s sober and serious. They’re a perfect comic team.

Trouble is, my plot for Brain involved Claire putting the moves on Dani’s boyfriend Steve (introduced in The Spider Strikes) for ulterior motives. By that point, five years after this story, she and Dani are best friends; even if I keep Claire’s ulterior motives the same, there’s no way she’s hitting on her best friend’s boyfriend. Particularly when she knows Dani loves Steve. My subsequent drafts the past seven years never figured that one out.

Like The Spider Strikes I made a conscious choice not to deal with sexual harassment in the military. It might come up in the novel. But I’d sooner have Dani out there healing the platoon than fending off creeps and rapists.

This story also established several changes to the timeline, most notably Sputnik going up in 1956 thanks to Russia re-engineering a crashed spacecraft or two. Khruschev realizing that Human vs. Alien now outranks East vs. West as the struggle of our time offers to go partners on a space program with the U.S. By Not In Our Stars But in Ourselves, set in 1958, the Cold War is sort-of over and we’re about to make the first moon landing.

Pop culture changes too. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Soldiers and Captain Podkayne of Mars establish the “space realism” school of SF; they’re seen less as science fiction and more a realistic Tom Clancy-style look at what war in space will be like once we’re finally fighting out there. James Dean is in The Lonely Crowd, so obviously (at least I assume it will be obvious) he didn’t die in that car crash (it’s a fantastic film, by the way, and earns him his first Oscar).

Some things, though, are worse: the segregationist opponents of Civil Rights are blaming every black protest on alien agitators (did you know Emmett Till was some kind of alien? But the aliens working in the movement covered up the autopsy!). It’s ugly but it fits the rather noirish (I think) tone of the story.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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