Thursday, 24 September 2009

Anatomy of a Story: The Amber Room

It occurred to me some people might find it interesting to learn how I came up with the ideas for my stories, how I approached those ideas, and what I was trying to achieve with the stories which resulted.

First up is 'The Amber Room', which was published in Pantechnicon #9 in March 2009. If I were to write a blurb for the story, it would go something like this:

Tina lives in a museum, but this museum contains all the lost art treasures of the world. They were found by her boyfriend Chris, who has an amazing ability: he can visit alternate universes. That's where he "found" the lost art treasures.

Here's a PDF of the 'The Amber Room'; so you can read it before reading the rest of this post.

The idea for the story came to me sometime in March 2007. As far as I recall, it was inspired by the real-life Amber Room itself, mention of which I'd stumbled across somewhere on the Web. I wanted to use it in a story, but, of course, it was lost. So why not write a story about it being found? And since I write science fiction, why not have it found in an alternate universe? In fact, why not have an entire museum filled with "lost" works of art which had been found in alternate universes?

But that's not actually a story. It needs a plot, characters... a beginning, middle and end...

I remember banging out a first draft in pretty much a single sitting. In that original version, the story focused on Chris, the universe-hopping "art thief", and was structured as a series of vignettes from his life in no particular chronological order. But it had the same sting in the tail: the identity of Chris' girlfriend, that she was him from an alternate universe in which his "parents" had had a daughter.

I emailed the draft to a group of friends to see what they thought to it. We've been emailing each other stories and novel excerpts for several years now; I value their comments. They liked the central premise, but not the way I'd chosen to tell the story. I rewrote it, making Tina the central character and giving the narrative a linear structure. I sent this second draft to my friends. They liked it a great deal better. However, they still weren't keen on the ending - initially, the story explained that Tina and Chris were alternate versions of each other. I changed that, made it, well, subtle - i.e., having Tina look at a pair of photographs which reveal the truth... And that too nicely linked in with the Amber Room and the whole concept of "lost" art, turning it into a metaphor of the central relationship. Sometimes, you get to a point in a story where all the choices you made earlier, without really knowing why you made them, suddenly slot together and it all works.

After that, it was simply a matter of refining and polishing the prose. At one point, it occurred to me that since the Amber Room featured four mosaics depicting the five senses, then I should do the same in the story. So every section is written such that it references each of the five senses, beginning with Tina hearing something, then seeing, then touching, and so on.

For example, from the first section: we have "The slam of the door echoed in memory, but she heard now only the metronome click of her heels on the marble steps" (sound). Later in the same section is, "The windows to her right painted great rectangles of sunlight on the floor" (sight). Then "Whenever in the Room, she felt a desire to run her fingers over the mosaics' tessellae..." (touch), and "The Room soothed her, calmed her. It smelled of history" (er, smell). And finally, "... the wine tasted unnaturally full-bodied and rich to her" (taste). It's not always a smooth progression - and looking back at the story now, I can see a couple of places where I slipped up and used a sight reference in a line that should have been sound reference, and so on.

Choosing to use the senses in this way also proved useful as it provided a framework for the descriptive writing. Because I could only use imagery specific to the sense referenced at that point in the narrative, I had to think harder about my sentences and word-choices. Take the line "She glanced back up the cochlea-curve of the staircase". Originally, I'd used "nautilus-curve", which was the image I wanted; but "cochlea" is hearing-related, and of a similar shape, so I used that instead. And I think it works better too.

Then there was the research. Every single piece of art mentioned in the story is real, and very much lost. When you're writing, research should hurt. You need to get everything right. Sf is not like it used to be - you can't just blithely invent stuff, or wave an authorial hand in front of the reader. Like you, readers have got access to the Internet, and they can fact-check as well as you can. Science fiction doesn't mean you can make it up as you go along. On the contrary, it's harder to write because you can't rely on readers' assumptions or common knowledge.

And, I should point out, it was while researching more about the Amber Room that I learnt of the four mosaics it contained. Which I then fed back into the story as a framework for the prose in each section. So none of it was wasted.

As for the roll call of alternate history sf mentioned on page four... The novels and stories mentioned are all ones I've read, and some of them I admire a great deal. Sticking 'The Amber Room' in among them was just my attempt at a little postmodern humour. And the "two films - different futures dependent upon whether or not a train was caught" on page seven... Most people have realised that one is Sliding Doors; the other is Blind Chance by Krzysztof Kieslowski.

'The Amber Room' was a deliberate attempt to write a "literary" sf story. I wasn't interested in exploring the central premise. I was interested in the premise's effect on two people and their relationship. How their relationship came about, how it was progressing. And I wanted the story to be about politics too, about the complicity and greed of politicians. Yes, I could have written a story in which Chris uses his experiences of all those alternate universes to create the perfect political system, or to help humanity reach the stars, or something equally sfnal... But that would be a different story and, to tell the truth, I'm not that interested in writing sf which privileges the central idea. I see the premise, the sfnal aspect of the story, as an enabling device - it enables a story that could not take place without it, that could not be transposed into another genre. If you can swap out the furniture and change the labels, and the story remains unchanged, then it's not science fiction.

'The Amber Room' is by no means perfect - there are rough spots in it. But I achieved what I set out to do with it, and I stand by it. I was disappointed it received so many rejections - five, according to my records - before Pantechnicon took it. I thought it was better than that; I still do. I'd like to think others do as well. And I'd like to think others have found this dissection of it informative and useful.

I hope to do the same soon for the other story of mine I've posted here: 'Thicker Than Water'.

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