On Writing Prequels: discovery, recovery, and the art of knowing.

This summer, I was given a challenge: write a prequel story to my new novel in three parts, to be run on three different blogs, one week apart from one another. This challenge I blithely accepted, asking myself what could possibly be difficult about this?

Nothing, I thought.

Everything, I discovered.

So I started writing somewhere around eight stories, all of which were utterly, utterly terrible. After living with these characters for so long, after knowing the timbre of their voices and the exact shape of their eyes, and the touch of their hands as they slid into mine and held on tight – I felt like I couldn’t find them when I sat down at the page. I felt like I was standing in the middle of an enormous cavern – damp, cold, and completely dark. I called their names – Ned! Aine! Sister Witch! Ott! Bandit King! Madame Thuane! Even that ridiculous Brin! – and nothing called back. Only the echoing sound of my own voice, over and over and over.

And I wondered: How do fanfiction writers do it? Seriously how do they? Because that is what I was writing. I wrote fanfiction to my own durn story. And it was hard. Writing a novel is ever so much the process of discovery – we find each character fully fleshed and formed and we just write down what we see. We meet them; we get to know them; we love them like family. But writing a tie-in story was much more the process of recovery. I had to take what I knew of these characters, make assumptions, ask questions, and dig. It was like reconstructing the personality of a recently-deceased grandmother, based on some newly-discovered letters.

Actually, that’s exactly what it was like.

Anyway, eventually I figured out which story was going to work out of my pages and pages of fits and starts, and I found my way through. And I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually. And I got to meet new characters. Interesting characters. And I got to look at the world that I lived in from a completely new direction – like discovering cool neighborhoods in a city where you used to live that you had no idea were there at all. And I was able to learn things about my characters that I did not know before. And that is the best part of my job: digging, sorting, discovering, making connections, collecting artifacts, finding new ways of knowing. I love it, really.

The nice folks at Bookshelves of Doom, Jessabella Reads and My Friends are Fiction were generous enough to host the three sections of my story. I have compiled all three sections into one page and put it up on my website: here. I hope you enjoy it.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

Dearest Readers,

Have you noticed that I haven’t been posting much lately? I have noticed and I am sorry. I am, right now, engaged in the process of novel revision, which means that I have lined my pockets with lead and have covered myself with post-it notes and have dangled baubles from every conceivable extremity, and then set out to run a marathon.

Or, I have engaged in the total reconstruction of a many-gabled house, with only my hammer, my hand-saw, a bucket of nails, and my own strong back, and I have to thread a new support system all on my own self.

Or I am trying to balance a boulder on the tip of a toothpick.

Or I am digging for treasure using an infant’s spoon.

Or something.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some snippets of pieces that are currently on the desktop (because, of course, I am also writing short stories. I love extra work. And punishments.) And it occurs to me that I would very much like to see what you are working on. Because why should I be the only sharer here?

I’ll tell you what: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. In the comments section, copy out a paragraph or two of something you’re working on. Pretty please? I’d love to see it.

Here. I’ll start.

From “The Invisible Dog”

My name is Jackson Marks and I have an invisible dog.
 I know what you’re thinking.
But it isn’t like that, I swear.
I’ve had him now for six years. I don’t know how old he was when he showed up, but he hasn’t grown. The top of his head reaches my knee. He’s got wiry fur and skinny legs and a tail that whips me in the face when he jumps in my bed and turns around and around until he finds a comfortable spot. And good god. He reeks. I suppose he’d smell better if I washed him – and believe me, I’ve tried. But he’s invisible. And he doesn’t like baths. So.

And then, from “The Unlicensed Magician”:

The junk man’s only daughter slides along the back of the low, one-roomed building that houses the constable’s office. The alley lights are out again – energy crisis. It is always an energy crisis. She appreciates the dark. She presses her hands against the wall, curling her fingers into the bricks. The sun is down and the moon isn’t up yet. The night air is a puckering cold, but the wall is still warm, and so are her hands. She can hear the constable inside, explaining things to the Inquisitor.
“I don’t care what you think you’ve heard, sonny,” she hears the old man say, “there ain’t been a whiff of magic anywhere in the county, nigh on fifteen years. Not a drop. Now you can write that down on your report and send it on up to your superiors. You got bad information is all. And not the first time, neither.”
  A scribble of pen on paper.
 An old man’s harrumph.

And then, from “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch”:

The day she buried her husband – a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink orfoolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unknown in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space – Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our Lady of the Snows. The priest had been waiting for her at the open door.  The air was wet and sweet with autumn rot, and though it had rained earlier, the day was starting to brighten, and would surely be lovely in an hour or two. Mrs. Sorensen greeted the priest with a sad smile. She wore a smart black hat, sensible black shoes, and a black silk dress belted at the waist. Two white mice peeked out of her left breast pocket – each one tiny shock of fur, with pink, quivering noses and red, red tongues.

So what’s on your computer right now? Or your notebooks or scratch paper or napkins? Share, please! 🙂




There was a man who lived down the alley from me back when we lived on 20th avenue, who was an amateur taxidermist. I never learned his name, but once, he invited me into his workshop which took up three quarters of his garage. Now, before I explain that, let me give you some background.

First, on that particular day, I was – for all intents and purposes – a walking corpse. I had just completed my first year of teaching in an extremely rough, extremely demanding school, and the stress of worrying about those kids while fussing about my own little girl nearly broke me in half. I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping – it took me two weeks into summer just to re-learn how to laugh again. As I pushed the stroller through my alley, past the workshop of the taxidermist, I was returning from a two hour walk/park excursion, where I watched my one and a half year old play and play, and I reminded myself how to be normal again.

Now this guy who lived down the alley – the guy whose name I never knew, of if I did, I don’t remember – was old then, impossibly old. Rheumy eyes, receding gums, a spine wilting to the ground. As I pushed the stroller carrying my sleeping girl, the old man peeked his head out of the window of his garage.

“I suppose you’ve been wanting to see the latest,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“The project,” he said, “the project!” He sighed. “Well, come on in, then.” He opened the door. I went inside.

I would like to say that my strange fascination with taxidermy is a universal phenomenon, but I fear that it is not. Indeed, I have distinct memories of childhood trips to the Bell Museum with my elementary school class and listening to both boys and girls squeal and shudder at the glassy eyes of dead animals peering unblinkingly outwards, at the perpetually still bodies of predators poised in mid-pounce. I found them beautiful, heartbreaking and thrilling. They haunted my dreams.

Inside the garage, half done projects leaned against one another on overloaded shelves. Pelts dried on the walls, and the wall space not covered by pelts were meticulous drawings of animal skeletons, diagrams of musculature, analyses of malformations and odd growths. He had animals with lumps on their necks, tumors on their legs, third eyes, cleft jaws.

“Never much cared for fake taxidermy,” the man said. “Jackalopes and fiji mermaids and other horseshit. I always figured nature had a way for making things strange all on her own.” There were dogs with fifth legs, cats with nine-toed feet, a heron with a third wing sprouting from its breast. He had bins of glossy eyes of every shade of yellow, brown and blue.

“I see what you mean,” I said.

“But now,” he said, gesturing to the back table, “I can’t start a project without wanting to make it fly.”

Every animal on the back table – cats, fish, squirrels and two young raccoons, had a pair of crow’s wings, angled forward and uncurling as though only just leaping into flight.

He laughed, sucked on his cigarette and choked. “Pretty aren’t they?”

And they were. “Thank you,” I breathed, “for showing me this. It’s exactly how I’ve been feeling.”

Now I’ve been thinking about that day quite a bit lately as I am doing copious amounts of research into taxidermy, rogue taxidermy and the long-forgotten practice of keeping Cabinets of Wonders, for my new short story “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” and all the while I wonder – what is it that draws us to the preservation of the body when life is gone? And why do we think nothing of a deer head hanging over a mantle or a front door, when we wouldn’t dream of stuffing and mounting the heads of our loved ones after they had died. Is the nine-point stag simply a placeholder for everyone that we’ve lost? Or do we do it under the misguided belief that we have somehow cheated death?

Now here:


is a picture from the early days of the Smithsonian. Same with here:


James L. Clark Mounting Male Indian Lion


I’m rather taken aback on their choice of verb for that one. Could it be that there is an undercurrent of eroticism in taxidermy? Is that what was really drawing me to those impossibly still animals in those field trips of my youth? I shudder to think so.

Perhaps, it is a recognition that death is beautiful – that in the teeming multitudes and abundant life are variations that are mysterious, inscrutable and strange. Death is good because life is good. Beauty may delight the body, but deformity touches the soul. My old neighbor knew this. A good taxidermist, after all, has the knowledge of a naturalist combined with the compassion of a mortician. A good taxidermist, too, delights in oddities and whimsy.

Take this, for example:


and this:


Both of these are from a shop in Paris called Deyrolle – a place that I feel that I am destined to visit one day. Here’s their website. http://www.deyrolle.com/magazine/

As I fuss and ruminate on this story – which incidentally is less about taxidermy and more about preservation, how people hang onto an idea after it is long, long dead – I am brought back to that moment nine years ago with a little old man in his garage. How even a corpse – walking, sprawling or otherwise – can be given new life with enough patience, tenderness and ingenuity. And what’s more, how even a purist can bend towards whimsy if you give him long enough. And in the end, how all of us need – or perhaps even deserve – a set of wings.