corvi (corivax) wrote,

Nutmeg, accidental miracles, and the stories not taken

insomniac_tales says:
I'd like to read about your writing process. I get to read a lot of the finished products, but I'd like to know what goes into creating them (the strange little details: do you research or do you use things you already know about?). When do you usually write? Pen and paper or keyboard (or both)? And any other little thing you can think of that relates to you and writing.

That might be the single most direct invitation to be pretentious I've ever read. :) Here is five thousand words describing, in excruciating detail, everything that went through my head while writing a thousand-word story.

I decided to try writing down a story and jotting down what goes through my head as I do so, because that kind of seemed like fun. I do all writing via keyboard; I don't enjoy handwriting.

Accidental Miracles
First of all, I have a huge mental files of "strange little details" - the accidental miracles, strange and lovely things that happen when you put together sets of simple rules.

The very first accidental miracle I ran into is the thin film effect, a neat little bit of physics weirdness. So If a light is shining onto an object, it has three choices - it can go into the object (if the object is transparent), it can bounce off, or it can be absorbed. Three possibilities, pretty straightforward.

So if you shine a light on say, a soap bubble, it gets to the edge of the bubble, and meets an object (the bubble). Some of it goes right into the bubble (because bubbles are transparent) and some of it bounces off. If we follow the light that goes into the bubble we see that it gets to the inside edge of the bubble, and encounters another object: the air inside the bubble. So, again some of it goes right on into the air, and some of it bounces off and heads back through the bubble towards the outside of the bubble again. And, one more time, it runs into a new object: the air outside the bubble. So some of it bounces back towards the center of the bubble again and some of it comes out of the bubble and joins up with the light that bounced off the first time and never went into the bubble at all.

Here's where it gets neat: you have two sets of light, both coming from the same place (the edge of the bubble), but one set went much farther to get there (it went all the way into the bubble and back, right?). So the two sets of light try to line up all their colors, but they don't line up perfectly, because one set has gone a much further distance. Except there's one color whose wavelength is exactly that extra distance, and that color (say it's blue) lines up perfectly, so that if you look at that part of the soap bubble it doesn't look clear at all. It looks blue. Somewhere else on the bubble, it'll be green, or red - soap bubbles don't have very exact thicknesses.

So you have these two rules - one about how light bounces and one about how light goes into things - and they're really simple and really important, but sometimes everything lines up just right, and in the space between those rules, the cracks of the universe, you get soap-bubble rainbows.

The thin-film effect isn't important. It doesn't do anything. If you were God building a universe, you wouldn't put the thin-film effect in on purpose - it would just be there, an unintended consequence of the rules you did put in. It isn't caused by reflection, or by refraction. But somewhere in the space between reflection and refraction lives that moment when you look down at the water and it's clear and colorless as glass, and you look up at the bubble and it has every color you never had a crayon for.

I shouldn't say the thin-film effect doesn't do anything. Gasoline rainbows in flooded streets, Peacocks with their sleepless tails. Opals. Soap bubbles. Accidental miracles, all of them.

And there are a million things like this, a million places where the game is more complex than the rules, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

A universe is a machine that converts rules into beauty.

Not just the universe we live in - the universes we are, too. A collection of a few billion neurons, each governed by painfully simple rules: if enough chemicals get dumped on your feet, shoot some chemicals out your head. That's it, that's the sum total of what we are made of, and somewhere in the spaces between those rules, you find language and gummy bats1 and capoeira and Lisp and really good sex and naming constellations and blowing raspberries and paleontology and music.

You asked about the "strange little details" in the story, but they're not really details, they're not something I add in for color. They're where the stories come from, my mental collection of accidental miracles, the place where I can see the light beneath the universe most clearly. I like to set stories in the places where the universe is just a bit weird around the edges.

A list:
Here is a list of some of the accidental miracles in my head at the moment. Since you asked where I learn about them, I've included that. :)

An accidental miracleWhy it's neatHow I found outPossible story
Rochelle's saltRochelle's salt is piezoelectric, which means when you put pressure on it, it creates an electric current. caladri and I made some in a hotel room in Portland on Valentine's day. Very romantic.Sound waves are pressure; I don't know what the story does, but I know it starts, "put this on your tongue and you will feel the music". See also this bit of fun.
NutmegDue to a quirk of chemistry, myristicin (like safrole, which is used to flavor root beer), is both tasty and hallucinogenic.You know those friends you had in high school who would try anything to get high? Morning glory seeds, banana peels, nutmeg? Yeah, those guys.I would like to do something with gingerbread, perhaps a hallucinatory gingerbread man/golem
PidginConfusingly, the "Pidgin" I mean in this sense is the name of the Hawaiian creole language, and not an actual pidgin at all. A pidgin is when you have two groups speaking different languages and they develop a trade language with broken bits and pieces of each. A creole is what the children of those first groups speak, a new language woven together out of the old ones. Creoles all have certain grammatical similarities to each other, weird structures not present in either parent language, structures that reflect only the way the human brain deals with language.I have a Hawaiian cell phone number; people are always misdialing me and talking in Pidgin, which I don't speak. Frustrating!The language of telepathy would have to be a creole...
FirefliesThe chemical used by fireflies to make light, luciferin, is an absurd 90% efficient, and powered by ATP (the same stuff animals use for energy), which means it glows, brightly, in the presence of blood.I used to work at a college for police officers; luciferin is used in forensics to find blood that people have tried to wipe up.Fireflies are excellent creepy story fodder: they don't eat7, their light is more efficient than anything we've invented yet, and if you killed one and bled on it, it would start glowing again. Not From Here.
ArgyriaThe disease that results when someone is poisoned with silver. The body deposits silver in the fat layers in the skin, where it turns blue when exposed to sunlight, the same way silver nitrate in black and white photographic film doesInternet research when neuro42 and I were working on building a darkroom Use an argyric human as a photograph: expose someone to a very, very bright, but uneven light (atomic bomb with building shadows? Angel? Alien abduction?) and leave a photo written into their skin of it.
Zero-g crouchThe weird position your body assumes naturally in zero-g, since muscles are set up to counterbalance a nonexistant gravity - lots of weird arching curvesgfish referred to it when we were in zero-g, and it was immediately obvious what he meant.I would like to write another club/dancing story using this one, perhaps using the different positions people fall into naturally in zero-g as a way to tell who's from what planet.
doug fir colonnadesThe temperate rainforest of the pacific northwest is dense enough that new trees can grow only where old trees have fallen and made room, so all the new trees grow in a line out of the decaying fallen ones, and over time the forest gets more patterned and organized.One of the very first conversations I had at workMake handwavey comparison of self-organizing forest to the marks and tape of a Turing machine (theoretical computer), especially using this article about rain being triggered by microbes, which means that the ecosystem, and therefore the arrangement of trees, can control the weather it receives.) Look at what the trees are calculating... or what goes awry when we start cutting them down to get at the oil off the Olympic Peninsula.
SundogsPerfectly shaped hexagonal ice crystals in the atmosphere refract sunlight to specific places in the sky, causing the appearance of another sun (or two).Watched two suns set3, complete with two shadows for everything, up in the Cascade mountains with caladri.So what effect would multiple moons have on a werewolf?

I could write a million of those; there is so much awesome in the world. The Kursk magnetic anomaly. Marbled murrelet. Renga. Quasars. Stendhal syndrome. Mirror neurons. Carrington flare. Eight is a good sample, though. Some of these are scientifically fuzzy. Like the creole thing: there are arguments on what causes the similarities, and there are even arguments on whether they exist, and I am not a linguist. However I do not feel much need to wear my Science Hat when writing fantasy stories.

A story!
teratogenesis is generally a very seat of the pants sort of thing - the point is to just sit down and write something and not let one's perfectionist tendencies get in the way. So basically, I'll pick something that sounds interesting, and make shit up until I find a story that sounds like fun to write. Looking at the list of topics I owe, "the visions of the smoke" sounds like a fun thing to do (I found your post for this topic inspiring), with nutmeg for hallucinations/visions. As a bonus, nutmeg is used as incense - smoke. People claim that nutmeg induces shared hallucinations - everyone taking it sees the same weird things. Attempt to confirm that on the internet. Can't find anything (unsurprisingly), which means it's probably just suggestibility: "Dude, do you see a face in the corner too?" "Dude, I totally do!" "Whoa! This is deep, man. We're, like, experiencing the collective unconscious or something."

Hm. Okay, I can still go with the shared-hallucination idea, but since it's partly the placebo effect, everyone needs to already have a strong idea what they're going to see, and they are going to need a shared culture.

Ah! I recognize this situation: this is the Hidden City. I've encountered the Hidden City twice recently:

  • In New Orleans, on about the fourth day of tearing down hurricane-damaged buildings, I walk out of the house, drywall in my hair, to take a break, and it's like I've stepped into the wrong city. I've been seeing the watermarks on houses, and the spraypainted counts of the dead and injured, but suddenly I can read them, and see the water, the dead and dying. And the realization: there are people who are conscious of this, who live in this city, all the time.
  • In Honolulu, there's a moment when I'm kneeling on the straw mat watching caladri be tattooed, by hand, with needles tied to a stick with wax cord, and some tourists come in and shoot some video and wander out. There's this overwhelming feeling that I'm in a different city than they are, a city that just coincidentally happens to occupy the same space. The language isn't even them same; people are talking to caladri and I in Pidgin (even though I can't understand it). It remind me of the British Isle legends of fairy hills coexisting with human settlements; each invisible to the other.

It's kind of weird that both these cities are associated with creoles. I wasn't planning to write about creole on this story, but it makes sense that it showed up anyway: for the Hidden City to exist, there has to be some sort of division in the inhabitants of the city, and one group needs a close-knit common culture. Learning a language changes the way you think; the creole-speakers are going to have thought patterns in common, low level communications things, a good substrate for the Hidden City. I'll borrow the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for this one: the language you speak affects the formulations of your thoughts and the thoughts you are able to have (and the communal hallucinations you perceive). 5

So I can write a story about a Hidden City, or something like one, a secret past and present made visible and tangible in the sting and warmth of nutmeg under your tongue. Raves with silent music in abandoned parking garages, watching nonexistant stars trail across the sky. Consensus reality: something is true as long as enough people accept it, remark on it, react to it.

But where? One of the cities that already has secrets? New Orleans would make sense; you can feel when you're there that the city is in two parts, only one of which yells, "show us your tits!" in the French quarter a lot. Besides, nutmeg goes in King cake, though in doses entirely too small. :) Shared culture they have. That would have to be a creepy story, though: no way of getting around Katrina (nor would you want to), and people on my friendslist have been ranting recently about exploiting Katrina in fiction. I'd feel pretty guilty. Honolulu? Eh. I'm not feeling it.

Here is where I get really lucky. Look up nutmeg in wikipedia, hoping for inspiration:

The Dutch managed to establish control over the Banda Islands [originally the only source of nutmeg] after an extended military campaign that culminated in the massacre or expulsion of most of the islands' inhabitants in 1621.

Fascinating. So... what about those natives, massacred and expelled? Suppose they had a nutmeg-consensus city, a Hidden City. What happens to it, as more and more of them are killed? Suppose Banda Bob is shot by a Dutch sailor and his body falls into the ocean. Everyone else will still see him in the city, going about his business. They expect him to be there, and so he is, acting the way everyone knows Bob would act, asking after family members, complaining about the price of mangoes, whatever Bob does. The Hidden City becomes the City of Ghosts.

Eventually, people hear that Bob is dead, but they still expect to see him around, and so they do, ageless, getting less and less distinct, a caricature of himself, as the people who know him best leave or die or forget. I realize: the consensus reality can store information; it's like a computer running distributed in the heads of a couple thousand different people. That's something I am going to need to write about.

Okay, so what about the very last survivor of the Banda islands' original inhabitants? He's haunted. He carries the entire ghost city, all the people who have left or died, hidden whispering under his ribcage. Oh man, that's a fun story to write.

Or, what about someone who leaves the Hidden City quietly? If nobody knows you're gone, they'll all still see you around, they'll see your ghost jogging in the park in the morning and carrying your armload of books home. What if you leave the Hidden City and then take some nutmeg and try to return? You'd have a doppelganger, a double, a ghost. People would always be referring to conversations you hadn't had with them, or expect you to know things they hadn't told you. It would be maddening.

This is the Irish legend of the Fetch. You see your own ghost, and you know you're going to die. Except: if you see your own ghost in the Hidden City, you know you're dead already. You know you can't come back.

Alright, that's the story I'm writing! Someone who's left and can't go home. They're trapped in the wrong city.

Rhythm and Roadblock
So here's how it'll go. Alternate history. In this universe, the British still trade the Bandas Islands to the Dutch in exchange for New Amsterdam/New York, but the British try to break the spice monopoly by planting nutmeg on Hawaii when they take over. The native Hawaiians run into these groves of trees in their ahupua'a, the traditional pie-shaped land divisions that control who can forage for food where. So they try this nutmeg thing, and they generally find it's like kava. A lot like kava: mild euphoria, awful taste (well, I don't like kava's taste), tongue numbing, and it fits into their culture about the same way.2 Nutmeg will follow a different sociological pattern than alcohol or cigarettes - they'll treat it just like kava. They sit in a circle, they pound it to powder, and they talk story.

Except for nutmeg's lasting-three-days bit. That's what turns occasional talking story into a consensus reality, an extra layer on top of everyday life. Okay. Other people show up on the islands, they build a common culture, they develop a Creole and the common ideas and assumptions that go with it, and tada! Hidden City.

So our heroine - used to be a part of this, left, is mopey about it. Why's she telling us? She wouldn't unless she has to. So she has to: she's a private detective and someone is trying to track down a member of the Hidden City, and wants her help, and it's someone she has to talk to. Government? Eh, they wouldn't want help from a PI. Has to be someone powerful, and with authority, but not conventional authority, who would have some reason to need to find someone. Ah! Yakuza, or at least someone with the mannerisms and tattoos who won't deny he's Yakuza. (I have to look up the word for a low level goon, by the way).

So I'm typing the story into Notepad. I usually want music, but not with prominent words, or they mess up my wordflow. So something with indistinct words, no words, or something I know so well I don't focus on it at all. ES Posthumus right now.

The goon is vaguely threatening. Yeesh, I'm awful at dialogue. Bleh. He has an address in the Hidden City (which I'm calling the Old City in the story), the sort of place where the building numbers and storefronts are invisible to people who haven't had nutmeg. He needs to go there. She tries to say she doesn't know where that street is, but she was too surprised when he showed her the address; he knows she's lying. Okay, now he's being more actively menacing. I still suck at dialogue.

Uh-oh. A foreigner is being threatening at this character. She wants to mouth off a bit. She'll do it in Pidgin. The character desperately wants to. The problem is, as earlier stated, I don't speak Pidgin. It doesn't make sense for her to keep speaking SAE, but I don't know how to write anything else.

I could either dig up someone with some Pidgin and get them to overhaul my dialogue (I don't have to go very far for that; the next room over should do), or abandon the threatening and rewrite.

Rewrite: okay, so he comes in, he has the address, she manages to hide her shock, he leaves to go consult some other PI with the air of someone who thinks the whole task is useless because, c'mon, he's asked like twenty people and nobody know where this address is so obviously his bosses are idiots but he doesn't want to tell them so yet. They she reminisces mopingly about why she can't go home and being trapped in the wrong city. Finis. Not a sweeping plotline, but I keep my standards low for teratogenesis, lest I write nothing at all.

Regrets and Editing
Okay, now that the story's done, I hate it. This is almost always the case for me. I'm convinced I did the absolute wrong thing. I should have been an awful exploitive person and written the New Orleans/king cake/krewe ritual one, or perhaps written the Banda Islands lone survivor one. There's actually a pretty decent chance I'll come back to one or the other of them. I often rework a story.
This is a rehash of this one, and a heckuva improvement. Both from an idea suggested by gfish4.

However, grouching to myself about how the Banda Island storyline would have been, like, soooooo much cooler gives me an idea I like for overhauling this one a bit. So I do that. I also cut what little dialog remains - I'm bad at it, and there's not much reason to leave it in the story. Down to two lines. Leave the dialogue to triskadekaphile, who is good at it.

I try not to edit, per se - that way lies angsting about how awful the story is for hours and hours and finally deciding not to post it - but I usually do a single pass to remove goofy synaesthesia and particularly bad purple prose. When writing quickly, I just describe the images in my head, which results in some odd things:

  1. Lots and lots of purple things. Gingerbread is what I think of for nutmeg, and gingerbread tastes purple, see, so the story is full of lots of cloudy dark purple things, thick with molasses or sour cherry. Many of them I remove. I decide to keep offhand mention of the 'phoenix' apartment building. The mythical phoenix creature, like the Phoenicians, was named for Tyrian purple, a dark purple dye made from shells and called 'phoinix' in Greek. The phoenix is a plausible addition to the story, due to the influence of Chinese culture on Hawaii, and it's reasonably thematically relevant, so I expand it and merge some of the other purple imagery, smoke and spices, into it.
  2. Lots of white things. This is a silly pun. Both sweetness and pain are white to me; so the white is here both as part of the gingerbread theme, and to echo loss/pain/addiction. I remove the words 'pale' or 'ghost' when applied to scents and sounds. I do keep some of the white things, like plumeria-smell and lightning, which come up whenever the narrator is feeling particularly miserable.
  3. In some places, the story has echoes of Pidgin, despite an utter lack of direct mention. Like other Creoles and unlike English, Pidgin is syllable-timed, not stress-timed, so it sounds lilty and musical. Somehow, I've absentmindedly written a few paragraphs with lots of spondees6 (pairs of equally stressed long syllables) in. Whoops, those sound really wierd. *fix*
  4. I also add two explicit mentions of the narrator's gender (female), 'cause I forgot to do that earlier.

I don't put odd things in the story on purpose; they come out because purple and white and Pidgin are how I was thinking about the story, and when I'm writing quickly, I just describe the images in my head, even the useless ones. The desert story linked above features a lot of cardamom, because that is the taste of the hollow ringing sand makes sliding over itself in desert wind.

And then I copy it out of Notepad and into livejournal and hit post! Usually some clever person will find a typo or grammatical error after posting; sometimes it's even me. I edit the posts three or four times after posting on average to fix misspellings, bad grammar, and broken html. Like this post. Where the heck is that extra </th> coming from?Slain! Writing a teratogenesis story is quick, but it takes a lot of a particular sort of concentration.

You can see the story here.

Woohoo! I wrote a gajillion pages of silly navelgazing! That was fun, insomniac_tales, thanks for the excuse. :)

[1] Except you can't find gummy bats, because somehow despite their OBVIOUS awesomeness NOBODY MAKES THEM. Grr. And yes, dear reader, I am sure you can find some gummy bats on google and post them in a comment, but they're always out of business, or actually gummy vampires with humanoid forms, which is not right at all. Those web pages exist only to torment me, not to supply me with gummy bats.

[2] One oughtn't to indulge in nutmeg and kava at once, though. They're both MAO inhibitors, which we don't use as antidepressants or antipsychotics anymore. Hypertensive crisis for the win!

[3] I'm not sure how this works. I thought with sundogs you always had to have two fake suns at once, at the specified angles. I don't know how we got one sun and one fake sun.

[4] The accidental miracle here isn't of our-universe. I know the Singing Sunrise universe and its peculiar physics and history well enough to use it, and I can also do silly things like uses "rules" from Christian scripture and folklore or pop culture things like vampires. I don't do the thing you, dear insomniac_tales do and use laws of Character instead of laws of nature. :)

[5]Sapir-Whorf is a hotly debated linguistic hypothesis. I don't normally buy into it much, as I perceive my own thoughts as images, which aren't a language at all, as far as I know. :) But I'm not even an armchair linguist.

[6] I definitely need a footnote just to say that spondee is an awesome word. SPONDEE.

[7] neuro42 asked for a cite on the don't-eat bit, and I was unable to dig it up, so take this one with a grain of salt. I was remembering an article I had read, perhaps on the Scientific American blog, about a scientist trying to figure out what a specific species of firefly ate, and coming to the conclusion that they only ate as larvae; once they emerged from their coccoons they lived for half a week or something, madly sexing each other and laying eggs, and then died, not eating during that time. The article mentioned that their digestive organs were underformed or absent, which I found neat and creepy, but as I can't FIND the article, please be skeptical on this one. I believe the species in question was in Malaysia, and also notable for sychronizing its lights.

Skip that long mess, and vote in this poll:
Poll #1184202 And now for something completely different!

Do you agree with the author of this article (you don't have to read the article, just the title: American Kids, Dumber than Dirt) that the people who are currently in primary education are stupider or less useful than the generation of which you are a member? (If you're not American, answer for your own country)

I don't have enough information.
I have some other answer which I will put in the comments if I know what's good for me.

If you want to see everyone else's answers, you will hafta scroll down a lot.


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