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Unrequited Horizons

AN-DBay-KTIn the summer of 2011, I nearly gave up writing altogether. That seems a bit silly now, considering all the stories that have happened since, but at the time we were winding up both Defense Command and His Majesty’s New World, and all I had left to work with was a loose collection of ideas about some lady who wore a coat, and her best friend who grew up on the frontier of another planet.

I knew Alex Smith and Stephanie Shylock could lead a series –– a series I’d desperately want to write. The plot was even set up: they could both be the daughters of characters from His Majesty’s New World, thus letting me cheat and use all the momentum from that series to drive their story.

But they had to be different, too. When it comes to new series, I’m fundamentally against repeating a previous formula, even if it’s successful. Each story has its own time, place and style –– you need to be able to leave them behind. Revisiting the old ways is only appropriate on special occasions (Sins of Mars), or if it serves a future purpose (The Count).

Alex and Stephanie needed a different landscape –– one that Jimmy Devlin and Emily could still move through, but which felt like their own. And in the summer of 2011, I simply couldn’t figure out how to get there. The problem hinged on the prologue. For every series since Defense Command, that opener has proved decisive in getting everything else to work. What first impression does a character make? Who is that person?

Barron and McMaster had knocked down a house while chasing pirates, then gone for curly fries. Smith had rescued a couple of wayward boys on a trail, because it was the right thing to do. In both cases, the way we met our lead characters was somehow representative of everything they did later.

But what about Alex? In various false starts, I’d tried everything –– she’d stopped a riot, run an assault course, been drawn straight into some sort of battle –– and none of it was right. I didn’t want her first action, and therefore the heart of who she was, to be violent. She was Smith’s daughter, and he’d fought a war to make sure she could grow up in peace. I couldn’t betray either of them.

Without a worthy answer to this dilemma, I honestly wondered if I should just put Champions on a shelf, and hope that time would make me smart enough to return to it someday. Fortunately, I then went to Gros Morne.

I know I’ve gushed endlessly about the importance my home island holds for me (and other writers)… and if you’ve read any fiction I’ve ever written, I’ve not-so-subtly forced you to visit the place. But I come by my love of home honestly –– not just because I was born there, but because I’ve chosen to go back, and because I’ve learned that who I am is as much a function of that rock and that sea as it is of my own beating heart.

Newfoundland has given me so much… it was important that it gave Alex even more.

Green Gardens. It almost looks as though you could go for a swim…

In 2011, it was a place called Green Gardens that introduced me to a kind of sea that I’d never imagined, and a sort of feeling that is usually reserved for heartbreak. If you survive the hike from the trailhead down to the coast (as we barely did) you’ll find yourself in a garden of Eden — hence the apt name.

On a calm day, you’ll then see water so clear and calm that you’ll wonder whether you can just swim out into it, and let the Atlantic reveal her majesty to you. You can’t, because you’d almost surely die, but you’ll want to. So you’ll be left with an unrequited desire –– knowledge that you were so close as to be able to touch something, but that you’ll never really have the chance. Such feelings always stay with you, and need to be answered somehow.

And believe me: unrequited feelings are like jet fuel for word counts.

If I was smart, I’d have figured out the answer to my Champions problem while I stared out at that water. Instead, it took me nearly two months… but I did figure it out.

Alex had to be a character who I could envy, and who was defined by something I loved as much as she did. So naturally, she was the one who had the strength to swim out past the headland –– swim all around the island, and all through the sea, because of the genetic enhancements she’d inherited as a Champion.

As soon as I realized she could be that person, everything came together. The prologue became the story of her simply floating through one of the world’s most rugged oceans, being propositioned by a seagull, and then proving she was her father’s daughter by rescuing a couple of boys stranded in a boat. While the series would soon see her fight hard and face great darkness, she could begin in the place we both belonged –– the place I would always hope she could get back to.

Lady Alex Smith: Making serious first impressions…

After the Champions of 1943, she may never quite be able to return to that place, but have faith in her: she and Stephanie will never let each other down. Starting in December, we’ll get to see them both struggle with all they’ve learned, and all they’ve lost, as the novellas of 1944 begin to be released. More details about that later.

For now, the reason I’m mentioning all of this: for the first time in half a decade, I spent two weeks this summer not in Gros Morne, but in Canada’s most northwestern corner. With Jacqui and Peter I headed to the Yukon territory, and saw incredibly vast, epic, magical places. If you are Canadian, but you’ve never been as far west as you can drive in this country, I guarantee you have no idea how big Canada really is. I’ve now been as far east and as far west as you can go without a passport, and crossed all the country in between, and I still can’t comprehend it. I’m just left longing to see more… and yet I know that there’s too much for me to hope to see it all.

It’s another unrequited desire –– something else that must be answered –– so I’m left to wonder: who will harness this longing on my behalf? And for what story?

I’m not smart enough to know, and I don’t plan to sit around and let some character have all the fun. Jacqui has lately been selected to run a DriveTribe, and we have plenty of exploring to do in the years ahead. All of these experiences will help shape new stories… give Alex and Stephanie’s successors a unique new direction. Time will tell where it all leads, but no matter what, this summer has been a useful reminder for me, and perhaps other storytellers.

Sometimes you need to change the world you see, and sometimes you need to change the way you see the world. The stories you tell matter, but the stories you live matter even more. We’re lucky to live in times when there are so many to choose from, so go find some –– and enjoy.

Here’s one of mine from the Yukon: